The Path to Equity: Do Greenways Help or Harm Low-Income Communities?

It’s not easy being green . . .  unless you are a greenway.

In that case, you’re probably a hot ticket for municipalities, especially those in North Carolina. As part of the East Coast Greenway, 372 miles of trails wind across the state.

Proposed route, only 30% complete, by the East Coast Greenway Alliance.

Get Going NC, a blog created by Cary-based author Joe Miller in cooperation with the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, compiled a list of trails in 2011. Many have been added since then, including in smaller cities such as Albemarle and Havelock.

Extensive greenways can also be found closer to home, logging 17.6 miles of trail in Chapel Hill, over 30 miles inDurham, 80 miles in Cary, and 100 miles in Raleigh.

Defining Greenways

Although many people associate greenways with undeveloped space, this misconception is easily debunked by Bolin Creek Trail. Brandon Tubby, UNC varsity distance runner and Angles contributor, describes the cement as “quite hostile” and “disappointing.”

In fact, greenways can be man-made or natural, urban or rural, paved or unpaved. The Town of Chapel Hill Greenways Master Plan (2013) interprets “greenways” as:

Networks of natural spaces which provide corridors connecting areas such as neighborhoods, parks, and schools. These passageways typically include trails for pedestrians and non-motorized vehicles.

While there is no technical definition for a greenway, the term connotates “the trails and connectivity that people always wanted,” said Dr. Danielle Spurlock, assistant professor in the Department of City & Regional Planning.1

The actual number and length of greenways in North Carolina varies depending on whom you ask.

“There is the flipside that it’s also used as a marketing feature, and it is a metric that easier to measure than other types of investment,” Dr. Spurlock said.

The impact of greenways in the Triangle. Prepared by Alta Planning + Design.

Other potential benefits of greenways include transportation access, disaster mitigation, community cohesion, and aesthetic and moral value.

Greenway success, however, is typically measured in economic returns. The merits of measuring the success of greenways through property values warrants continued exploration. Do past projects illustrate the importance of considering equity to ensure sustainable, long-term development?

The Atlanta BeltLine

Equitable development is just about being sure to be inclusive of diverse groups throughout the planning process, and afterwards ensuring that you have some concrete plans that are able to be implemented. A lot of times, planners just use fancy buzzwords saying they’re going to be doing all this great stuff, and then there’s no follow-through. – Ansley K. Jones2

Ansley K. Jones, an Atlanta native, critiqued the Atlanta BeltLine’s lack of affordable housing for her UNC Master’s Project. She responded to the Master’s thesis that started it all: Ryan Gravel’s 1999 plan for the Atlanta BeltLine.

In his thesis, Gravel proposed converting 22 miles of railroads into multifunctional trails. He submitted this idea to the city in 2001, and the project broke ground in 2006. It has been called “the most comprehensive revitalization effort ever undertaken in the City of Atlanta . . . connecting 45 neighborhoods.”

Trail network proposed in the Atlanta BeltLine 2030 Strategic Implementation Plan.

However flashy the project seemed, the BeltLine promised 5,600 units of affordable housing by 2030, but almost immediately began to fall behind on achieving this goal. BeltLine Inc. neglected to earmark 15 percent of public funds and by 2016 had raised only enough to fund fewer than 785 affordable housing units.

Both Gravel and board member Nathaniel Smith resigned from the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership in 2016, and Paul Morris resigned as CEO of BeltLine Inc. in 2017. Gravel becomes an easy target to blame–with his “equity” rhetoric, early acknowledgement of gentrification, and modern loft in the BeltLine-gentrified Inman Park neighborhood–but blaming him misses the point.

The BeltLine’s tax increment financing (known as a Tax Allocation Fund in Georgia) prioritized profits over people, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution with Georgia News Lab broke in 2017. While both Jones and the Journal-Constitution acknowledged factors outside of BeltLine Inc.’s control, such as the Recession and legal challenges, the partnership still neglected “millions of dollars of potential funds.” The Tax Allocation Fund relied on bonds from Tax Allocation Districts’ property taxes, “but because city statute stated that ‘bond proceeds,’ not tax dollars, would go to affordable housing, BeltLine Inc. was free to spend the TAD windfall elsewhere.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also reported that BeltLine Inc. failed to invest in land trust homes and temporarily catered to luxury housing by withdrawing from Invest Atlanta’s tax incentive program.

The fallout was bad for affordable housing but good for public awareness about the complexities of development along the BeltLine. “It’s really made Atlanta step up. They’ve had to become a lot more transparent about what’s going on,” Jones said.

Indeed, there is a renewed commitment to affordability along the BeltLine, but its reporting structure of units built inside (1,640) and outside (1,032) TAD boundaries echoes earlier controversies regarding inflating the numbers of affordable housing units.

Durham and Community Engagement

“Housing and Equity” from the Durham Belt Line Trail Master Plan

The Durham Belt Line is a 1.7 mile rail-to-trail project intended to connect to the East Coast Greenway (Durham Belt Line Trail Master Plan). Displacement concerns similar to those seen in Atlanta prompted Nathaniel Smith, the former board member of Atlanta BeltLine and founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity in Atlanta, to speak to the Durham community in August 2018.

While Durham crafted an Equitable Engagement Plan, it lacks a meaningful enforcement mechanism. According to Dr. Spurlock, who is also affiliated with the grassroots organization Communities in Partnership, the plan was pushed through prior to substantial community engagement.

This pattern parallels the unrolling of the Atlanta BeltLine.

“There were so many articles and all this anecdotal evidence that people in Atlanta were mad that the city wasn’t following through on their goals. So, public engagement really could have helped that,” Jones said.

She described some of Atlanta’s recent engagement measures. Public meetings in the BeltLine’s subareas have shown mixed success, but homeownership empowerment workshops have been more successful. These sessions educate citizens about how to access tools such as homestead exemptions, grants to rehabilitate homes, and down payment assistance for first-time home-buyers.

Jones hopes it is not too late for the engagement in Atlanta to have an effect. While Durham’s Direct Engagement period is over, the city still has the opportunity to foster meaningful community input before final design and permitting of the project.

Special thanks to Dr. Danielle Spurlock, UNC Department of City & Regional Planning; Ansley K. Jones, Georgia Environmental Finance Authority and UNC Department of City & Regional Planning, 2018; and Brandon Tubby, UNC Public Policy and Communications, 2020.

Additional resources:

[1] Spurlock, Danielle. Interview by Rachael Wolff. October 22, 2019.

[2] Jones, Ansley K. Interview by Rachael Wolff. October 23, 2019.

Featured Image: Before and after along the Atlanta BeltLine corridor. Photo credit: Adaptation Clearinghouse, a project of the Georgetown Climate Center.

RACHAEL WOLFF | Online Content Contributor

Rachael Wolff is a first-year master’s candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning. She is interested in learning how flood risk shapes land use, property values, and behavior. Prior to UNC, Rachael worked at a federal agency in Washington, D.C., where she also earned her bachelor’s degree at American University. Rachael enjoys climbing with friends, eating new food, and when possible, taking naps.