Judith Perrolle, Shelley Kimelberg, Joan Fitzgerald
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Department or Academic Unit
College of Social Sciences and Humanities, Department of Sociology and Anthropology
sociology, environmental studies, urban planning, participatory process, social capital, urban greening
Community Engagement | Place and Environment | Sociology
This dissertation explores the social impacts of an urban greening project in Boston, the Urban Ecology Institute's "City Roots" program. By "urban greening", I am referring to projects designed to bring natural elements back into urban areas - these projects altered the built environment by creating small pocket parks, greening front yards and installing rain barrels.
I examine how, on an individual level, a) participation in the urban greening process influenced political and civic participation and activism, and the impact of the participatory process on collective efficacy and flow of information, b) the impact of participation on individual perception of social capital, particularly in terms of prosocial norms of involvement and sense of safety, and c) how participants negotiated altering the built environment, and narratives around fear of and desire for welcoming public spaces.
Using participant observation and interview data from four of the eight project sites in Dorchester, Massachusetts during the summer of 2009, I examined the challenges and rewards of building urban-based natural assets, and the contradictions of creating social space that fosters inclusion while also excluding elements of perceived danger. Additionally, I explored how the process of changing the physical space of a neighborhood impacts perceived social capital.
I argue that the process of urban greening is often more important than the physical space these projects create. The process of working together to achieve tangible, discrete goals creates crucial social ties among neighbors. The largest challenge of creating these urban-based natural assets was balancing fear with desire. Participants simultaneously desired vibrant social spaces, and feared creating parks that might attract those perceived as dangerous. Although none of the projects created spaces conducive to gathering due to participants' safety concerns, I found that the strategy of meeting neighborhoods where they were by creating spaces that took their fears into account constituted an important intermediary step, laying the groundwork for future greening projects more conducive to public gathering. This provides a critical contribution to the sociological literature on urban greening, which does not take into account residents' simultaneous fear of and desire for green space, or the importance of the process, rather than just the end product, of urban greening. Urban greening projects can only work if they reflect the needs, desires, and fears of the community. Although the best city parks are those that appear welcoming to the community (Jacobs 1961, Whyte 1980: 37), it would be unrealistic and unwise for an urban greening project to ask that residents take a leap of faith in creating public spaces that they are not ready to create. This has important implications for other urban greening projects, as it complicates urban planning wisdom that creating appealing community spaces will solve safety concerns.
Projects like these form an important intermediary step, where participants gain social ties, a sense of safety, and a feeling of pride and possibility regarding their own yards and neighborhoods - all of which are necessary before the process of creating bustling neighborhood parks can begin.
Katherine Marie Rickenbacker
Rickenbacker, Katherine Marie, "City roots: grassroots efforts to build environmental and social capital in urban areas" (2012). Sociology Dissertations. Paper 15. http://hdl.handle.net/2047/d20002662
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