Cities, Climate and Inequalities

Access to green spaces: A source of environmental inequalities? The case of Saint-Henri in Montreal

April 2024

Étienne Tardif-Paradis PhD candidate in human geography (Université de Montréal) and political & social sciences (Université catholique de Louvain)


In the last two decades, Quebec municipalities (through public policy, master plans, etc.) have become increasingly focused on urban greening initiatives as a means of achieving sustainable urban development (Poitras, 2009; Thibodeau & Lamontagne, 2011). But by the early 2010s, proponents of such initiatives had also begun to justify them in terms of environmental equity and justice (e.g., universal accessibility), resilience and adaptation, and the “fight” against climate change (e.g., greenhouse gas reductions) (Sigward & Trudelle, 2016). In Montreal, public authorities have regularly appealed to these notions when promoting projects like the revitalization of the Lachine Canal (Ngom, Gosselin, & Blais, 2016). Meanwhile, some of the initiatives in question have involved neighbourhoods subject to the socio-economic and cultural impacts of gentrification. The former working-class neighbourhood of Saint-Henri, in Montreal’s Sud-Ouest borough, is a case in point (Bélanger, 2010, 2012; Poitras, 2009; Rose, 2004; 2006; Twigge-Molecey, 2014). Ultimately, the implementation of urban greening projects needs to be guided by more than just a desire to improve living conditions by creating spaces like green alleys, or to counter the harmful effects of climate change through measures like cool islands. The realities and socio-economic needs of residents also need to be taken into account (García Lamarca, 2020; Wolch, Byrne, & Newell, 2014).

This article is based on my master’s thesis (Tardif-Paradis, 2021), which discusses how green gentrification (also called environmental or ecological gentrification) exacerbates environmental inequalities in terms of access to green spaces. My research focused on Saint-Henri, a Montreal neighbourhood where urban development policy has fostered the creation of numerous green spaces. Such a context provides the opportunity to reflect on the disconnect between public policies intended to reduce environmental inequalities by ensuring universal access to green spaces, and the socially and economically disruptive impacts of green gentrification on vulnerable residents. To better understand this disconnect, I explore the gap between discourse and practice when it comes to greening initiatives and disparities in access to green spaces. The analysis relies on a conceptual framework rooted in critical environmental justice studies.

Conceptual Framework: Access to Green Spaces and Green Gentrification in the Context of Neoliberal “Sustainable” Urban Development

My conceptual framework has allowed me to identify and analyzing instances of environmental injustice associated with green gentrification that clearly reveal the gap between discourse and practice when it comes to accessing urban green spaces. This has involved applying knowledge in the fields of human geography and urban environmental policy through the lens of critical environmental justice (Anguelovski et al., 2019, 2020; Dooling, 2012). This perspective provides new insight into notions of accessibility and urban sustainability. The ideal of sustainable urban development has been a major impetus for the creation of green spaces, such as parks and green alleys. This article seeks to reveal how the concepts of green gentrification and sustainable urban development relate to notions regarding the accessibility and sustainability of green spaces.

The concept of green gentrification first emerged among researchers in the humanities and social sciences interested in urban gentrification (Brown-Saracino, 2010; Helbrecht, 2018; Lees & Phillips, 2018), and in how this process relates to urban environmental initiatives (Checker, 2011; Dooling, 2009; Dooling & Simon, 2012; Quastel, 2009). As formulated by British sociologist Ruth Glass, the traditional definition of gentrification refers to the mass influx of middle-class and wealthy families into modest working-class neighbourhoods, a process that transforms the urban fabric through improved housing and, in the medium term, the displacement of working-class families (Glass, 1964). This definition has been widely embraced and extensively refined by scholars in the field of urban studies, through research on topics such as direct and indirect displacement (Marcuse, 1985; Pinson, 2020). By contrast, I use a definition of green gentrification based on research in the field of critical environmental justice studies, a definition that allows me to take a critical perspective on the often blurry line between the roles and responsibilities of public and private stakeholders. Furthermore, an approach rooted in critical environmental justice studies draws attention to the relational dynamics at play around urban green spaces (Anguelovski et al., 2020; Dooling & Simon, 2012). Essentially, green gentrification involves a traditional process of gentrification driven by public or private initiatives that claim to be “green” and that are justified in terms of environmental ethics by both public and private stakeholders (see Figure 1) (Dooling, 2009; Dooling & Simon, 2012). In a neighbourhood defined by significant socio-economic divisions, such a process can lead to profound social, cultural, economic, and political changes (e.g., changes in living practices). It may also contribute to the marginalization and displacement of vulnerable populations while exacerbating preexisting inequalities (Anguelovski et al., 2019, 2020; Checker, 2011; Dooling, 2009; Dooling & Simon, 2012; Quastel, 2009).

I have also taken a fresh look at how the ideal of sustainable urban development, as well as notions of accessibility and sustainability, influence the development of green spaces. Sustainable urban development cannot be reduced to a set of “green” development practices (e.g., greening and revitalization), or to a series of functionalist discourses on access to green spaces (Cornet, 2020; see description below). Rather, it needs to be reassessed in terms of its socio-political dynamics, including neoliberal governance, market-based approaches to the creation of green spaces, and the associated risk of socio-economic injustice (Anguelovski et al., 2020; Brenner & Theodore, 2002; Dooling & Simon, 2012; Hackworth, 2007; Naguib Pellow, 2019; Pinson, 2020; Willis & Satish Kumar, 2020). From the perspective of “sustainable” urban development, access to green spaces refers to not only their use and physical accessibility (proximity), but also their ability to achieve more utilitarian aims. To begin with, the use of green spaces by residents improves quality of life, such as by fostering better psychological and physical health (Cornet, 2020). Residents are also more likely to use green spaces that are located close to their homes (Cornet, 2020). Likewise, a higher number or density of green spaces promotes their use (Cornet, 2020). Finally, the creation of green spaces helps increase the economic value of a neighbourhood. For instance, it leads to higher property assessments (Cornet, 2020). As for my own approach, it seeks to reveal how efforts to improve quality of life, promote environmental equality, and foster economic growth can end up limiting accessibility. Vulnerable populations find themselves unable to live near green spaces, because rents are too high. Nor can they visit such spaces without feeling judged, physically constrained, and socially marginalized due to dynamics of social class, distance, and exclusion (Anguelovski et al., 2020; Dooling & Simon, 2012). Restrictions like these generate environmental inequalities in terms of access to green spaces, such as by preventing certain groups from enjoying the physical and psychological benefits of visiting a park.

Research Methodology 

To better understand the relationship between sustainable urban development, green gentrification, and green spaces in the discourses and practices of public stakeholders (in this case, mainly at the municipal level), I undertook a case study of Montreal’s Saint-Henri neighbourhood. The study was designed to reveal how this threefold relationship impacts the neighbourhood’s vulnerable residents. Based on data gathered through direct observations and interviews conducted in 2021, I have been able to shed light on the realities faced by these residents and achieve a better understanding of their viewpoints.

Research was conducted against the backdrop of the ongoing creation of new green spaces and a process of gentrification that has been underway for decades. This process has led to the massive displacement of economically and socially vulnerable residents, who have been pushed out of the neighbourhood by increases in rents and the cost of living. They have been replaced by middle-class and wealthy residents who began arriving in large numbers at the turn of the millennium, amid major development projects designed to revitalize the neighbourhood’s public spaces (Twigge-Molecey, 2009, 2014). Alongside socio-economic pressures, sociocultural factors have also helped shape these population movements. For example, long-term residents have lost shared reference points and the neighbourhood identity has been fundamentally altered (Bélanger, 2010, 2012). More recently, the ideal of a greener Saint-Henri has been widely promoted.

I began by identifying the area of Saint-Henri with the highest density of green spaces, the so-called green triangle. This is where I conducted participatory and non-participatory field observations of mainly non-verbal behaviours associated with the use of green spaces. This fieldwork, which involved using various tools (logbook, photography, informal interviews), consisted of one roughly six-hour visit per week over the course of three months. Meanwhile, I undertook documentary research and analysis to identify relevant municipal policies, such as the borough’s master plan for parks and green spaces (Le Sud-Ouest, 2019); major economic development initiatives, including construction projects; and discussions of the social dynamics surrounding real estate issues in reports prepared by community organizations and the borough council, among other sources. Next, I conducted a total of 15 semi-structured interviews with individuals representing a range of stakeholder groups: politicians, property developments, community organizations, and residents. The aim was to explore how interviewees portrayed the neighbourhood and its green spaces, how they perceived the social and physical changes the area had undergone over the years, how they understood the social and environmental issues and dynamics at play, and the nature of their relationships and interactions with other stakeholder groups. Finally, I conducted a cross-sectional qualitative analysis of practices and discourses with a view to revealing the social, environmental, economic, and spatial dimensions of access to and use of green spaces in the context of green gentrification.

The Mirage of Accessibility: How Gentrification Exacerbates Social and Environmental Inequalities

My initial research findings fell into two main categories: practices and discourses. With regard to practices, I made four key observations. First, in socio-economic terms, the area where I conducted observations was mainly occupied by middle-class and wealthy individuals. Despite accounting for a significant share of the neighbourhood population, socially and economically vulnerable residents were almost entirely absent. According to the community organizations I consulted (P.O.P.I.R. and Solidarité Saint-Henri) and Statistics Canada (2016 census), 19.7% of local households have an annual income below $20,000 a year, 27.4% have an annual income of between $20,000 and $39,999, 27.9% have an annual income of between $40,000 and $79,999, and 25% have an annual income of $80,000 or more. The second key observation related to how the area’s green spaces are used. People tended to be engaged in forms of physical and social activity that involve significant costs. For example, I noted the presence of personal trainers and, on the perimeter of green spaces, high-priced bars and restaurants. Third, I observed the proximity between green spaces and building projects. In some cases, green spaces were even integrated within major building projects (see figures 1, 2, and 3). Moreover, these projects use green branding to promote the sale of luxury housing. For example, the marketing materials for the Galdìn (Gaelic for garden) condominium project, developed by Mondev, refers to green architecture and green space (see figures 1 and 2). In 2020, individual units were priced at between $550,000 and $1,350,000. The final key observation concerned the perspectives and needs of different stakeholder groups in relation to green urban spaces. Although not all interviewees emphasized the same advantages (e.g., some focused on opportunities for socializing, others on increased property values), they consistently saw green spaces in a positive light based on physical and psychological health benefits (healthy environment).

I also made four key observations with regard to discourses. To begin with, everyone I spoke with during my fieldwork and in the context of interviews were happy to have green spaces created in the neighbourhood and viewed them positively. For instance, various individuals cited positive impacts on the environment, health, and the social fabric. By contrast, I noted a significant divergence of opinion on the issue of real estate development and, more specifically, its impact on the neighbourhood. Whereas some emphasized economic revitalization of the neighbourhood, others focused on the displacement of economically vulnerable residents. Second, the individuals I spoke with in the context of semi-structured interviews and participatory field observations associated social tensions surrounding urban development with the gentrification process. However, the meanings associated with gentrification often varied significantly from one person to the next. Third, positive attitudes toward green space were most often expressed in terms of sustainable development and urban sustainability. Finally, although stakeholders appreciated the importance of proximity, quality, and quantity, they mainly saw green spaces as an efficient means of dealing with certain negative aspects of urban life (e.g., pollution and heat islands). And insofar as green spaces constituted an urban resource, all those surveyed believed they were accessible to everyone.

The cross-sectional analysis of these various practices and discourses surrounding the issue of urban green space provided me with a better understanding of the gap between discourse and practice when it comes to accessibility. It also served to highlight the presence or exacerbation of environmental inequalities. The first major finding from the analysis regards the presence of a gentrification process, the impacts of which are the subject of debate and a source of social tension. That said, the proliferation of green spaces—the many parks in the green triangle, green alleyways, the redevelopment of the Lachine Canal—does not appear to have led to increased tensions. Most of those surveyed made no connection between the creation of green spaces and green gentrification. Granted, the creation of green spaces does initially benefit local populations by temporarily improving access. However, newly arrived middle-class and wealthy residents (who enjoy increased property values and a higher quality of life) and certain economic stakeholders involved in urban development (including property developers like Mondev) reap most of the medium- and long-term benefits. This socio-spatial process helps to reinforce the social (e.g., changes in the social fabric), economic (e.g., the rising cost of living), and cultural (e.g., new uses of parks) transformations already underway, leading to the direct and indirect displacement of impoverished populations away from areas with a high density of green spaces.
The second major finding relates to how public and private stakeholders (e.g., policymakers and real estate developers) justify the creation of green spaces. Often, they do so by drawing from discourses on sustainable development and the reduction of environmental inequalities. Especially among municipal authorities, these arguments are connected to the idea that environmental inequalities can be addressed through the proliferation of green spaces. Essentially, these public figures aim to improve accessibility by increasing supply, thereby bringing a better quality of life to all urban residents. However, this policy approach—whether expressed through the master plan for parks and green spaces or development projects previously completed under the plan (e.g., Woonerf Alley)—fails to consider the potential impacts of green gentrification. For instance, a proliferation of green spaces can spur more luxury real estate developments that bill themselves as green but also drive up rents. Such a chain of events would clearly have a negative impact on economically vulnerable residents. Based on my observations, it appears that social tensions have led certain populations to restrict their use of green spaces. Also, some green spaces are integrated into real estate projects in a way that makes them appear private (see Figure 3), while residents who feel dispossessed or like they no longer belong have altered their use of green spaces. These observations were confirmed during some of the interviews, especially those conducted with community organization representatives and long-time residents. These interviewees claimed that people living in luxury condominiums treat public green spaces like their “backyard.” By contrast, public officials tend to emphasize the many benefits of green spaces and how they are accessible to everyone, regardless of social class. This situation gives rise to environmental inequalities, insofar as the benefits of using green spaces are monopolized by those with the financial means to live near them. 


My study has made it possible to expose the gap between discourse and practice when it comes to accessing green spaces intended to improve quality of life for all urban residents. Although greening initiatives are universally applauded, they mainly benefit more prosperous socio-economic groups. Furthermore, they do not necessarily help socially and economically vulnerable populations overcome environmental inequalities in terms of access. Recognizing the existence of this gap makes it possible to reflect on the possibility that it stems directly from a process of green gentrification. By looking at how access to green spaces has been restricted in Saint-Henri’s green triangle, I have been able to shed light on the common objectives underpinning “green” real estate development as well as public policy on environmental equity and the development of green spaces: sustainability, accessibility, and urban development. Green gentrification may well be contributing to various pressures currently affecting the neighbourhood, thereby leading to the indirect or direct displacement of the very people who were supposed to benefit from new green developments.

Despite the various insights made possible by my study, it is important to acknowledge certain conceptual and practical shortcomings. For instance, I had to conduct research during a pandemic, when residents were less inclined to talk in public. But it is also important to recognize that my general approach was rooted in theory and largely detached from daily life in the neighbourhood. In other words, I had limited opportunities to personally experience social and political engagement in the Saint-Henri neighbourhood, such as by regularly attending local events. This is a significant limitation that may have impacted various aspects of the research process, from how I developed the conceptual framework to my choice of issues to consider. In the future, I plan to address this limitation and better engage with local realities (Gintrac, 2012, 2017) by delving into critical urban geography and especially by adopting action research methodologies designed to foster “a scientific practice that is overtly committed to condemning urban forms of domination and that seeks to actively participate in building a fairer city” (Gintrac, 2017, p. 11).

To cite this article

Tardif-Paradis, E. (2024). Access to green spaces: A source of environmental inequalities? The case of Saint-Henri in Montreal. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

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