Does volunteer vegetation in shrinking cities create a false narrative of environmental justice? Results from Toledo, OH

Authors: Kirsten Schwarz*, Northern Kentucky University, Adam Berland, Ball State University, Dustin L. Herrmann, University of Cincinnati
Topics: Urban Geography
Keywords: housing vacancy, urban greening, Rust Belt
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/13/2018
Start / End Time: 3:20 PM / 5:00 PM
Room: Iberville, Marriott, River Tower Elevators, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Urban vegetation, often heralded as an environmental benefit, may converge with social and biogeophysical legacies to produce environmental injustices or false narratives that suggest more equitable relationships between urban vegetation and vulnerable populations. We examined the role of urban growth trajectories, specifically shrinking, in shaping the relationship between vegetation and environmental justice outcomes. Shrinking cities have experienced economic disinvestment and long-term declines in population which can alter social-ecological patterns. Housing vacancy, in particular, is intricately tied to changes in both economic and environmental systems and may drive increases in volunteer vegetation. The “greening up” of high vacancy areas can be misinterpreted as an environmental justice victory, when in reality unmanaged vegetation may be experienced as a disamenity – i.e. the outcome is green, but not just. Toledo is a shrinking city in northwest Ohio whose population peaked in 1970 at 383,818 before declining by more than 100,000 people. We examined satellite imagery from 1980, 2000, and 2014 to assess changes in vegetation (NDVI: normalized difference vegetation index) and its association with housing vacancy to determine whether the relationship between vegetation and housing vacancy changed. We observed a weakening relationship between vacancy and NDVI. There was a significant negative relationship in 1980; whereas, in 2014 there was no statistical relationship. As vacancy is highly correlated with vulnerable populations, this changing trajectory has implications for environmental justice outcomes. Specifically, mapping urban vegetation in isolation of the processes that produce the patterns can limit our understanding of legacies that result in injustices.

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