Fear of the Unknown: Examining Neighborhood Stigma’s Effect on Urban Greenway Use and Surrounding Communities

By Brandon Harris (University of Arizona)

A study conducted by park and recreation researchers at the universities of Arizona, Utah, North Carolina State and Clemson on the effects of neighborhood stigma on greenway use recently found that when greenways are located in neighborhoods occupied by residents of color, stigma may lead to avoidance, discrimination, and exclusion.

University of Arizona researcher Brandon Harris, who led the study team, says that neighborhood stigma – a perception by people that certain areas struggle with crime and disorder, whether or not that is actually the case – affects how nearby residents see and use parks and other recreational spaces. 

“Racial bias can have a serious impact on communities, influencing travel patterns, housing prices, and exacerbating existing social and environmental justice issues,” Harris said. “This bias also leads to some residents avoiding parts of a park or trail they have heard, or perhaps decided on their own, are unsafe while also fueling discrimination against their neighbors of color.”

In order to see how the introduction of green spaces can contribute to neighborhood stigma, the research team chose to study Humboldt Park, a predominantly Latinx community that has experienced a number of changes since the 606, a rail-to-trail project, was adopted and introduced into the neighborhood—providing a fluid connection for residents to more affluent parts of the city.

The study team interviewed 86 nearby residents and people using the trail, with 49 percent identifying as white, 43 percent as Hispanic or Latinx, 6 percent as Black, and 2 percent as Asian or Middle Eastern. Of those who participated in the study, 63 percent lived in either Logan Square or Humboldt Park. On-site observations were also made about the park and its surrounding area, infrastructure and maintenance, and safety and security features.

Results demonstrated that usage of the trails around Humboldt Park were affected by the community’s reputation, inequalities in trail maintenance and appearance, and negative stereotypes about Latinx youth.

For example, many white trail users avoided that side of the trail altogether, expressing concerns about crime, even though overall crime rates in all of the neighborhoods along the greenway have significantly declined since the trail was introduced.

According to Mariela Fernandez from Clemson University, there are also clear disparities between the Humboldt Park trail and other parts of the 606.

“Sections of the Humboldt Park trail were either poorly maintained or incomplete,” says Mariela Fernandez. “We learned that overgrown vegetation and graffiti that were quickly addressed in other parts of the greenway simply aren’t being addressed the same way on the Humboldt side.”

Survey results also demonstrated that stereotypes associated with Latinx youth affected park usage. Although Latinx youth surveyed felt that the 606 in Humboldt Park was a place where they felt welcome and safe, they felt unwelcome in other parts of the greenway, where they were often profiled and cast as criminals by white residents and police. These claims were substantiated by interviews with white park users.

“We heard concerns about ‘gangs’ on the Humboldt Park side of the trail, and that youth needed to be monitored in the space to make sure that they are using in “properly,” says Harris. “It’s concerning to think that seeing kids having fun is considered a problem, instead of a healthy use of an public, outdoor park space.”

Many of the white park users felt that gentrification of the area would make them feel safer using those parts of the trail traversing Humboldt Park.

Larson noted that these views are likely encouraged by local developers to drive redevelopment, with advertising and branding that repositions the neighborhood as an extension of the Bucktown area and creating visuals of a community that is ideal for white newcomers to the area.

“It’s really about economic growth and profit for developers. The trail has the ability to attract white newcomers to an area, but not if stigma is allowed to persist. Fear of a space can be a powerful obstruction to development and really keep people away. For developers and other agencies involved in housing and redevelopment, gentrification becomes a solution to lessen stigma-related issues,” said Larson. “It is just sad that the rich cultural heritage and history of this neighborhood is largely ignored.”

Humboldt Park residents that participated in the study are aware of the stereotypes about their part of the 606. Many of those surveyed also avoid the eastern side of the park altogether, though others were dismissive or indifferent to the stigmatization.

These findings are important for park and city officials, who can use park-based programming to can help mitigate fear and create an inclusive community space. Although the Chicago Park District hosts programs and events on the trail, many of the study respondents were unaware. Increasing outreach to community members through social media, working with local businesses and community leaders, and neighborhood school could help drive interest and participation in these programs. Ensuring their programs celebrate culture and diversity can also help build bridges between people and communities. 

Schmalz says that the City of Chicago also has an important role to play in finding a solution. “The city needs to finish the incomplete portions of the trail and keep it in the same condition as the more affluent sections if they want it to truly be a resource for all of their residents,” said Schmalz. “Otherwise, all they’re doing is condemning Humboldt Park and its residents to continued stigmatization, denigration and avoidance.”

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by David Wilson from Oak Park, Illinois, USA – 20151110 08 606 Trail @ Kedzie Ave., CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56762107

Author Biography

Brandon Harris is an Assistant Professor of Practice in the Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies Department at the University of Arizona. Brandon’s research examines the influence of green amenities on the physical and social environments in urban communities; environmental justice issues related to environmental gentrification; and the impacts of neighborhood stigma on the recreational choices and behaviors of urban youth. His work has been featured in peer-reviewed academic journals, newspapers, and books.

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