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Assessing the socio-economic impact of environmentally sustainable redevelopment plans on communities housed in social housing estates in EU and US cities

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Understanding the socio-economic impact of environmentally sustainable urban redevelopment plans

New research explores how disadvantaged neighbourhoods can balance the need to go green with guaranteeing residents the right to remain.

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In public and policy discourse, sustainable and climate-adaptive planning practices are generally framed as a win-win response to many urban evils, including climate threats and energy scarcity, air pollution and water quality, and also social ills such as segregation and social exclusion. But is this framing true? That’s what the EU-funded SUSTEUS project wanted to find out. “Research from the fields of political ecology and human and environmental geography has ignited a heated, interdisciplinary debate around the social dimension of urban sustainability planning,” says Alessandro Busà, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Leicester and SUSTEUS project coordinator. According to Busà, this debate highlights how such planning can create uneven socio-spatial impacts and lead to new speculative geographies of growth (gentrification) and socio-economic decline (shrinkage). “SUSTEUS’ focus is on greening and energy-efficiency redevelopment plans that have managed to increase access to green space and its benefits to the existing communities while avoiding displacement,” he explains.

Focusing on the policies that work

Busà’s work was inspired by the lack of research conducted on the impact of green value-added renovations in areas of concentrated disadvantage, such as large social housing estates. “Understanding the socio-economic implications of green development policies in these neighbourhoods is essential to designing and implementing novel policies that may counter any negative outcomes,” notes Busà. To fill in this knowledge gap, the SUSTEUS project conducted its research in three housing estates located in large metropolitan areas in Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States. The research looked at the impact of green redevelopment plans from the perspective of residents and how these neighbourhoods succeeded at balancing the need to go green with guaranteeing residents the right to remain. “In the face of a literature that has been overwhelmingly negative about the impacts of housing estate renewal schemes, I investigated innovative policies and practices implemented by local development actors that have prevented the displacement of longstanding social tenants, and explored the many strategies enacted by residents to ensure their right to stay in their communities,” adds Busà. Busà says that all three case studies represent an inspiring advancement in policy when compared to the urban renewal practices of past decades. “My research indicates a gradual shift in our collective understanding of the potential threats of so-called ‘renovictions’ and ‘green gentrification’,” he says. “There’s also a growing awareness by part of the development community and amongst residents about the need to consolidate efforts to curb their most disrupting consequences.”

A rewarding project

The project’s findings have been presented in various papers, book chapters and public events, including a high-profile international conference held at the University of Leicester. The project also enabled Busà to be introduced to different research environments across Europe and the United States, while broadening his methodological and theoretical approaches, some of which he hopes to use in a new European Research Council funded project. However, according to Busà, the most rewarding aspect of the SUSTEUS project was his interaction with neighbourhood residents. “I had the chance to meet wonderful people from all walks of life who are gifted with intelligence, kindness, common sense, and a strong sense of their own individual and collective dignity and self-worth,” he concludes.

Keywords

SUSTEUS, urban redevelopment, sustainable, social exclusion, urban sustainability planning, gentrification, green space, green development, urban renewal

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