Housing Complex

Are Richer Areas Greener? Not Necessarily.

This morning, Greater Greater Washington linked to an interesting post on Per Square Mile claiming that income inequality can be viewed from space. The difference, the post argues persuasively, is tree cover: Wealthy neighborhoods have lots of it, and poor neighborhoods don't. There follow comparative satellite photos from various cities: a brown Rio favela alongside a leafy well-to-do Rio neighborhood, gray West Oakland next to swanky green Piedmont, etc.

I thought I'd apply the same test to D.C. If the theory's correct, the areas west of the park ought to be far greener than those east of the river.

And indeed, west of Rock Creek Park, it holds up. The "establishment" parts of wealthy D.C. are, in fact, quite green. Here's Palisades:

And Cleveland Park:

But it breaks down once you move east of Rock Creek Park, to neighborhoods whose wealth has only arrived in recent decades. Take a look at the U Street-Logan Circle area:

Or the Dupont/Downtown area:

By contrast, let's look at the poorer areas you'd expect to be devoid of greenery. Here's Anacostia:

And Congress Heights:

The difference here is the model of urban wealth we're talking about. The rich neighborhoods in the Per Square Mile post are, by and large, of a more suburban model: residential, with single-family homes on relatively large plots of land, often requiring a car to get to work, bars, restaurants, shopping, and entertainment. Same with those in Upper Northwest D.C.

The increasingly wealthy neighborhoods of the eastern portion of Northwest D.C., by contrast, are compact and walkable, with people living in apartments or rowhouses and paying a premium to be near the action. East of the Anacostia, there's less action (in the way of restaurants and bars and shopping), partly because there's less walkability—there are lots of single-family houses in residential areas. It's a question of density, and in the smart-growth model of urban development, density is desirable and worth paying for.

In Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser describes two models of urban geography, as they relate to wealth. In cities with good public transit, wealthy people tend to live in the center of the city (think Dupont), where work and play are easily accessed by foot or a short subway ride. Less wealthy people live in a ring around the core area (think Brightwood or Anacostia); they can't afford to live in the center, but they commute in by subway or bus. Around this ring is a ring of well-to-do suburbs (think Bethesda), where people own large houses and get around by car (or, in some cases, by train). Finally, there's a ring of poorer people in the far-flung suburbs (think parts of Prince George's County) who must travel great distances to get to work in the city.

In cities without good public transit and walkability, Glaeser writes, the two inner areas are merged and poor. The inner city is undesirable if you can't get around easily, and so wealthier people prefer to live in safer, farther-out enclaves with plenty of space and good schools. It's this model that's largely represented in the Per Square Mile post—but it's not always what you find in cities like New York and D.C.

  • Erik W

    What happens if you control for density and development style? A more telling comparison might be lower-income areas in near northeast (Trinidad, Rosedale) and core sections of Capitol Hill, where the grids are similar, the housing stock is similar. Or compare upper NW, Ward 3 neighborhoods, with similar density, lower-income neighborhoods in eastern DC or PG. Just curious what happens when you remove some confounding variables. Should even be able to do some rigorous analysis with Casey Trees and DDOT UFA's data.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    I'll say that a comparison of the core of Capitol Hill with Trinidad wouldn't show you much of a difference in tree cover, based on my anecdotal experience.

    Erik makes a good point about controlling for other variables, though.

  • http://leftforledroit.com Left for LeDroit

    In DC I have encountered very few well-off neighborhoods that suffer from a poor canopy. In less well-off neighborhoods, however, the results are mixed. Some have thick canopies and others are noticeably devoid of trees.

  • http://www.justupthepike.com dan reed!

    The model Glaeser describes (sometimes called "income donuts") doesn't really apply to the DC area. If it did, all of inside-the-Beltway PG County would look like Bethesda, wouldn't it? Really, it's more of what they call the "favored quarter": a continuous "wedge" of affluence (and in the case of DC, jobs and activity centers) going from downtown outward. In this area, it's from NW DC and Arlington, then along 270 in MoCo and the Dulles Toll Road and 66 in Northern Virginia.

    You can see the favored quarter (and the income donut) in different metro areas here:

  • The Java Master

    Whether it's about donuts or wedges, this is just more sophistry passing for "urban studies" or ""urban planning. Such fields of study are really all about obvious trends and trendiness, and actually do very little to help us understand our cities and how they work, both economically or functionally.
    Are we now supposed to feel guilty over our living in a certain donut (jelly or glazed?), quarter or wedge (cheese?) and therefore subscribe to various government-sponsored redistribtion schemes? Are we supposed to go outside and plant trees in some neighborhoods, or cut them down in others? Utterly bereft of intellectual heft, this "model" just belabors the obvious here.

  • Austin

    Java Master - Whatever your goals are, it helps to have a model to understand the area you are working with. If you're interested in a new profitable development, for example, you might want to know a few theories about why some areas are wealthy and others aren't. If you're interested in tree cover, or, as you suggest, income redistribution, it's quite helpful to have some ideas on why some areas have more trees, or why some metropolitan areas have certain concentrations of wealth and poverty.

  • SL

    I've seen articles about this pattern before. I don't think the difference is just wealth - there are also a lot of cultural/ethnic differences in whether people want trees or not. We've had tree planting issues come up at ANC meetings in Petworth and there's a very strong anti-tree contingent among African Americans. These are homeowners who can certainly afford trees, but often they just don't like trees (asking who's going to clean up the leaves is a common refrain) and furthermore, they see tree planting as symbolic of the neighborhood gentrifying.