East Boston, transformed in recent years by development large and small, is a prime example of what a pair of researchers who specialize in environmental justice call “green gentrification” — where new green spaces contribute to the exclusion of marginalized groups and the displacement of working class residents.
It’s a controversial argument that has received significant pushback from residents and advocates. They acknowledge the steady threat of housing displacement in East Boston amid a surge of money, property values, and developer activity, but take exception to the academic assertions of what is accelerating the rapid changes in the neighborhood.
The researchers, however, say in a book released last fall that the neighborhood shows “how greening paves the way for white privilege.” The book asserts that such a phenomenon can be seen not only in Eastie, but in the development of parts of Atlanta, Austin, and Washington, D.C.
In Atlanta, for instance, the trend of green gentrification the path of the “Beltline greenbelt” has made it difficult for low-income Black families, many of them multi-generational residents, to stay in their formerly neglected neighborhoods, researchers say.
“New green assets have enhanced the environmental and economic value of East Boston, but they have also created new sources of housing vulnerability and social exclusion for historically marginalized groups while benefiting whiter, more privileged newcomers,” Galia Shokry and Isabelle Anguelovski write in a chapter of “The Green City and Social Injustice” that focused on East Boston.
Shokry, a postdoctoral researcher with the Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability, called the dynamic “paradoxical” for a community that has shouldered environmental burdens for decades, including Logan Airport.
“The greening of East Boston, this was an attempt to right past wrongs,” she said during a recent phone interview, “and now it’s playing a role in displacing the people that were meant to benefit from it.”
Some in the neighborhood take issue with the assessment. After all, who doesn’t like green and open public space? Critics also say that the march of gentrification in Eastie would have continued regardless of the green and climate-resilient aspects included in the waterfront development.
For them, the concept of “green gentrification” is a misnomer. Parks and open spaces existed in East Boston long before sleek, modern living came to the neighborhood’s waterfront, and it’s not an option to create large developments on the water without taking into account threats like climate change and sea level rise in 2022, they say.
Kannan Thiruvengadam, the director of Eastie Farm and a Boston conservation commissioner, says “green spaces and waterfront development, those are not the same things. . . . The gentrification is because there is high economic development here. Green or not, the gentrification would have happened,” he argued.
East Boston, located only a few Blue Line stops from downtown, is a convenient location, Thiruvengadam pointed out.
Median rent in East Boston increased a third between 2014 and 2021, versus a quarter rent increase citywide during that same time frame, according to city figures.
And during the past decade, Eastie’s waterfront has seen more than 2,300 new housing units — including 580 affordable ones — built amid Boston’s unprecedented building boom, according to the Boston Planning & Development Agency.
Like Thiruvengadam, Neenah Estrella-Luna, an East Boston resident and a co-facilitator for a community group called Mutual Aid Eastie, said gentrification “most likely would have happened regardless of the greening that this neighborhood has fought for since the 1960s.”
“The developers are using the new green spaces as part of their marketing, that’s because developers do that,” said Estrella-Luna, an advocate and researcher who has a doctorate in law and social policy.
Nick Iselin, executive general manager for Lendlease, which developed the Clippership Wharf, a 478-unit, $300 million waterfront luxury development in East Boston that includes four acres of open space, isn’t buying the green gentrification theory, either. Whether Clippership Wharf got developed or not, market pressures and Boston’s building boom already existed, he said.
“East Boston was never going to be immune from the dynamic that has occurred in Boston housing over the past decade, it’s just been unprecedented,” he said.
That may be true, but parts of the academic criticism of the new open and green spaces woven through the modern waterfront developments resonated with some residents.
Deysi Gutierrez, an East Boston resident who also co-facilitates for Mutual Aid Eastie, said she finds that the new developments do not “respect the culture that is here” and that they are geared toward “people with money, newcomers.”
“Everything has changed, and I think it’s economically segregated with the green spaces,” said Gutierrez, 23, who has lived in the neighborhood since she was 7, after her family moved from El Salvador. “We’re unaware we can use these green spaces.”
“Change is good but the question is for who is it changing and what is happening?” she asked. “Developers are going to say we have green space. The question is for who? And why did you do that?”
Another assertion from the researchers, Shokry and Anguelovski, was met with more acceptance in East Boston: the idea that the new green and climate resilient developments may have posed increased flooding risks for other parts of the neighborhood that have older housing stock.
“Those luxury waterfront developments have allowed floodwater to pass around them and straight into the neighborhood behind,” Shokry said.
The resiliency of the entire neighborhood wasn’t considered in the planning process, she said.
“This waterfront development becomes just another layer of risk that is both a physical climate risk but also … the gentrification aspect and the displacement,” Shokry said. “This is a community that has been burdened for generations and continues to be.”
Gutierrez cited flooding in front of a new development in Maverick Square during a recent snowstorm. “I don’t know much about weather, but that’s the first time I saw Eastie flood like that from a snowstorm,” said Gutierrez.
However, some East Boston advocates and residents question connections between flooding and new waterfront development, saying they have not heard or seen evidence of such a phenomenon. Boston already experiences some of the worst high-tide flooding in the nation, they say, and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu recently announced her administration is focusing on better planning of waterfront development in Eastie.
The Boston Planning & Development Agency, which guides significant neighborhood projects, defended the Eastie waterfront transformation. The agency said in a statement that much of the new development “was responsive to the community feedback” from a 20-plus year-old master plan, which identified “mixed-use development as a way to revitalize the long neglected waterfront parcels.”
The agency argues that the developments actually serve as flood barriers for more inland parts of East Boston. The waterfront development unlocked prime open space, contributing to the creation of a portion of the local harborwalk, the BPDA said.
The BPDA has also highlighted affordable units that have been built thanks to the waterfront development and the millions more developers contributed in funding to support affordable housing.
But, even Iselin, the developer, acknowledged that if Clippership Wharf were being developed today it would be part of a larger, regional discussion regarding climate resiliency.
“In some respects they were done project-by-project, and would the East Boston waterfront have benefited from a district-wide plan? 100 percent. There’s no question.”