Looking Forward: Community Engagement & Long-Term Planning

Alexander is working to develop a tree-based health intervention with local nonprofit Trees Durham

In my prior blog posts, I have outlined the intimate connection between the environment and human health, demonstrated the association of low tree canopy and historical racist policies in Durham, and described the process of cultivating a multi-sector community partnership to plant trees. The goal of this work can be distilled down to investing in Durham’s marginalized communities, working against climate change, and improving the health of our community.

The simplicity of this project in many ways makes it appear as a simple win-win. However, as I have come to realize through my research and work, every intervention requires (1) community member engagement and (2) short-term and long-term planning.

  • Community Member Engagement

The partnership with Trees Durham is the foundation of our community engagement efforts. The organization upholds a robust community-building philosophy by partnering with local projects with missions that extend beyond environmental justice, including Black Mama’s Bailout Campaign, which raises money to bail black mothers and caretakers out of Durham’s pretrial detention facility, and Project Build, which seeks to prevent gang violence by engaging vulnerable youth communities. Further, Trees Durham leadership has experience working with community members specifically in our target areas.

In Hayti, one of the target sites, community members have already shaped the vision for this project. Last fall, Trees Durham held a focus group at the Hayti Heritage Center for participants, who largely identified as Black or multiracial, on the benefits of trees and what matters most to their community. Residents identified extreme heat reduction, lowering crime, and lowering air pollution as benefits they valued most. Surveys administered by Trees Durham have also identified that residents around Durham (n=670) rank street trees as the highest priority for future tree planting followed by commercial sites, parking lots, and finally, around homes.

Figure 1 from Angeulovski et al. 2019

We will lean on the expertise of our community member stakeholders to determine final target sites and continue to develop a deeper understanding of the space in which their families live, work, and play. A simple strategy to start is to provide flyers to distribute to residences that explain the purpose of planting new saplings. Previously, the City of Durham has posted tree planting information on door hangers around neighborhoods and we hope to partner with youth in the community (specifically at the elementary schools in the target areas) to help design these flyers.

  • Short-term and Long-term planning

Looking to the future, our team has begun to investigate the long-term effects of our work, both positive and negative. With this in mind, I want to introduce the concept of green gentrification. This term refers to the process in which urban planning initiatives to create more green space attract wealthier residents and displace low-income residents. This potential creates a terrible scenario where the green infrastructure improvement targeting marginalized communities may cause these people to lose their neighborhoods entirely. This concept is summarized in Figure 1 from Anguelovski et al. 2019. Historical examples of this phenomenon include the creation of the U.S. National Park System as a means of stealing land from Indigenous tribes and the creation of Central Park in New York, which required the demolition of Seneca Village, one of the only neighborhoods where Black residents could own property in the first half of the 19th century (Figure 2—the link to the Vox YouTube video is worth checking out!).

Figure 2 from Vox.com “The lost neighborhood under New York’s Central Park” Link

Acknowledging the risk of green gentrification, Connolly and Anguelovski (2021) write, “We can start recognizing how the history of greening—a seemingly apolitical “urban project” sold as a win-win, universal benefit with ample health, economic, and environmental qualities—has deep links to the exclusionary and racist roots of urbanization that manifest at different points in time and space across and within cities.” Given these risks, environmental interventions need to incorporate affordable housing protections in addition to the urban green space and infrastructure. Specific anti-displacement tools could include rental subsidies, rent-control schemes, and community land trusts. Regarding our work in Durham, we will advocate for affordable housing and equitable green infrastructure together as they are closely related with one another.

Urban greening and green spaces are vital to mitigating the impact of climate change and promoting the health and wellbeing of residents. To achieve an equitable future, we need to question the pattern of green infrastructure and whiteness, purposefully abolish the racist systems that created the current inequities and invest specifically in affordable housing and green infrastructure of marginalized communities.

Works Cited

Anguelovski I, Connolly JJT, Pearsall H, et al. Why green “climate gentrification” threatens poor and vulnerable populations [Internet]. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A.116(52), 26139–26143 (2019). Available from: www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1920490117.

Connolly JJT, Anguelovski I, Campbell LK. Three Histories of Greening and Whiteness in American Cities. Front. Ecol. Evol. [Internet]. 9(March), 101 (2021). Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2021.621783/full.

Alexander Gunn is a third-year medical student at Duke University School of Medicine. Before enrolling in medical school, he completed his Master of Biomedical Science at Duke University and his Bachelor of Arts in Cultural Anthropology at Northwestern University. He previously worked at the Margolis Center on the Global Health Policy team, specializing in financing drug development for neglected diseases and scouting interventions for high cost, high need patients. He has also collaborated with and consulted for the World Health Organization, FHI 360, and multiple nongovernmental organizations. Alexander is keenly interested in alternative payment models, patient-reported outcomes, place-based health, and the intersection between global climate change and human health.

All posts by