Gentrification or Health-promoting Resource? Long-term Residents' Perceptions and Use of the Atlanta BeltLine

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Matic, Zorana
Zimring, Craig
Dunham-Jones, Ellen
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Investments in green infrastructure such as multi-use urban greenways are made with the goal to improve the residents' health by creating space for physical activity, recreation, and social interactions, providing opportunities for active transportation, and increasing exposure to nature's healing effects. Despite the host of benefits, regreening initiatives in lower-income neighborhoods can also catalyze 'green' or 'environmental' gentrification. There is growing empirical evidence that gentrification affects the residents' health and well-being, both positively and adversely. The previous scholarship mostly focused on greenway users and has mainly adopted quantitative methods (such as observation and intercept surveys) to measure green infrastructure use, activity patterns, and users' satisfaction. However, the research on the incumbent residents living adjacent to a newly developed greenway is limited. It is still not fully understood whether incumbent residents have a positive perception of newly installed greenways, the extent to which they take advantage of these new resources, and whether the new greenways mostly attract new and habitually active residents. This research seeks to fill this gap by exploring the interrelationships between green infrastructure, green gentrification, and long-term residents' health and healthy behaviors in Atlanta, which that has recently invested into and developed a number of green infrastructure projects. This dissertation has two studies. Capitalizing on free and readily available U.S. census data, the first study proposes a replicable quantitative approach for developing a composite socioeconomic index as a tool for identifying and measuring gentrification. In the second study, this research closely looks at two historically African American neighborhoods in the early stages of gentrification and adjacent to the new BeltLine recreational trail. By interviewing long-term residents, this research seeks to develop a deeper understanding of green gentrification from their vantage point and to examine their responses to new greenway and opportunities for adopting health-promoting behaviors. The quantitative analysis indicated that nearly half of eligible census tracts in Atlanta are gentrifying, while two-thirds will soon be in various stages of gentrification. The census tracts within one-half mile of the BeltLine proposed path are gentrifying at a slightly faster pace. The Atlanta's gentrification patterns echo the previous findings on the proximity of the BeltLine and growing gentrification pressures in the trail-adjacent neighborhoods. Additionally, the results suggest the association between gentrification and residents' better self-rated health. The analysis found a consistent pattern of decreasing rates of residents who report low physical activity and poor self-rated health (both mental and physical) with increasing levels of gentrification. The interviews revealed much more nuanced responses to the trail construction and green gentrification. Most interviewees perceived and used the new trail as a health-promoting resource; while it enabled the habitual exercisers to maintain active lifestyles, it prompted some new trail users to be physically active. However, concerns regarding gentrification and feeling that new amenities cater to the 'gentrifiers' and not the existing community, in some cases acted as barriers to trail usage and regular physical activity. The findings suggest that perceptions of social environment entwine inextricably with perceptions of the physical environment and the extent to which groups or individuals take advantage of health-promoting resources. This study has important implications for future research and design of effective greening infrastructure to increase trail usage among long-term residents, particularly those who are not habitually active.
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