The thorny matter of gentrification

From Kaid Benfield’s Blog another stab at  this eternally problematic area of development – its underbelly as it were – my guess is that it was a problem for pre CE Roman administrators too, and in some distant future age t on the old colonised Planet Z there will still be this discussion – that does not mean we don’t need to address it, but the question is how…? Kaid revues some of the issues here..

a sign in Chicago (by: Eric Allix Rogers, creative commons)

A few days ago, I made a presentation to a group of thoughtful and accomplished philanthropists on sustainable land development.  I made a strong pitch for urban revitalization and was countered with a question about gentrification, the messy phenomenon that occurs if longtime residents of older neighborhoods find themselves priced out of their own communities as those neighborhoods become more sought-after and valuable.  To be honest, I don’t think I handled the question particularly well.

I never do, really, even though it comes up a lot.  The issue is just too thorny on all sides and, in most cases, racially charged, because minority populations are the ones who feel squeezed when more affluent, generally white, residents rediscover cities and move in.  I have a lot of sympathy for long-timers who fear losing control of their neighborhoods and, in too many cases, their very homes as rents and property taxes go up with increased value brought on by increased demand.  But, on the other hand, the environmental, fiscal and, yes, social benefits of revitalization and repopulation of our older, frequently distressed neighborhoods are so substantial that I believe strongly that they must continue.

Surely we haven’t reached the point where making inner-city neighborhoods more attractive to more residents is a bad thing.  And does anyone really have a right in the US to keep newcomers out?  Didn’t we have a civil rights movement largely over that very issue?

I get it that we want the rebirth of America’s long-forgotten neighborhoods to lift all boats, not just provide a haven for affluent new residents.  But I find myself stymied when trying to find a balanced solution, since the argument of anti-gentrification forces can all too easily amount to, “I don’t want the neighborhood to improve so much that properties in it become worth much more.”  No one would say it in those words, of course.  Is there a way to provide some protection to longstanding residents without providing so much that it inhibits the very improvement that so many of our neighborhoods badly need?

The paralysis of imperfect choices

The good news is that a number of thoughtful people have been thinking and writing about these things.  Writing last year in Rooflines, the excellent blog of the National Housing Institute, Rick Jacobus eloquently described how gentrification can too easily feel like a problem with no solution at all:

“The way most people talk and think about [gentrification] seems to create a black hole of self-doubt from which no realistic strategy for neighborhood improvement can escape. 

“The paralyzing thinking goes like this: We want to improve lower-income neighborhoods to make them better places for the people who live there now but anything we do to make them better a poster in LA (by: Keith Hamm, creative commons)places will inevitably make people with more money want to live there and this will inevitably drive up rents and prices and displace the current residents, harming the people we set out to help (or, in many cases, harming the very people responsible for making the neighborhood better through years of hard work) and rewarding people who drop in at the last minute to displace them.

“Once you recognize this dynamic, it is very hard to talk yourself into wholeheartedly backing any kind of action. It seems wrong to leave distressed communities to rot but it also seems wrong to turn them around. Sadly, the most common response is to try to find strategies that improve things, but not too much.”

One of my favorite recent articles on the subject was written last month by Scott Doyon for his planning firm’s blog, PlaceShakers.  Scott, who has become a friend through an online community of urbanists who check in with each other almost daily, might be described by some as an early-generation gentrifier:  he and his wife bought into a working-class, African American neighborhood some twenty years ago because it was affordable.  At the time, they had good education but almost no money.  Since then, he’s seen the neighborhood attract more and more white, increasingly affluent residents.

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Two Views of Woodstock:Cape Town – “Upscaling” vs “Gentrification”

Here are two opposed views of the regeneration of an old area of Cape Town, Woodstock,   it seems inevitable that any upgrading or regeneration effort  runs the risk  being labeled ‘gentrification’ with its negative connotations of poor locals being forced out by profit hungry developers. It seems ironic that in many of these cases the developers are out-of-work young professionals who seeing the opportunity, make the best of their creativity, contacts and by hard work get the thing going in the face of enormous odds. Only once they have made the area acceptably safe and more economically viable, does the area become the target for  developers to enter the market and the price of rents, land etc become a problem as the “poor”  landowning residents decide to cash in and sell their properties.

The   first post by Ravi Naidoo is the positive and development oriented “neo-liberal” view of things, from Dezeen and Mini World Tour

“South Africa has always had an Upscaling Culture”

In the second part of our tour around Cape Town, Design Indaba founder Ravi Naidoo shows us the former industrial suburb of Woodstock, which the city’s design community has recently made its home, and explains the importance of upcycling in South African design."South Africa has always had an upcycling culture"“If you have 36 hours in Cape Town and time is at a premium, you have to head down to Woodstock,” says Naidoo. It is an area of Cape Town three kilometres from the city centre that has undergone an “extreme makeover” in recent years and is now home to an array of arts, craft, fashion and design studios and shops, as well as cafés and restaurants.

"South Africa has always had an upcycling culture"

Naidoo takes us to The Old Biscuit Mill, a 19th-century biscuit factory in the heart of Woodstock, which was redeveloped in 2005 by Kristof Basson Architects, and where many of the designers that present their work at theDesign Indaba Expo are now based. It also hosts a weekly food market that draws crowds from across the city every Saturday.

"South Africa has always had an upcycling culture"

The Old Biscuit Mill recently underwent its second phase of redevelopment, converting the old  flour silo into six storeys of mixed-use space, which now houses the Cape Town Creative Academy as well as a new penthouse restaurant called The Pot Luck Club by leading South African chef Luke Dale-Roberts.

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Laura Wenz’s post,  while  more “gentrification” orientated, examines some of the problems and attempts to mitigate the negative effects from Daily Maverick

Woodstock’s urban renewal: Much more at stake than the loss of parking

In South Africa, the phenomenon of gentrification is commonly associated with the resurrection of downtown Johannesburg and the rebirth of Woodstock in Cape Town. Both areas share a common denominator for gentrification: a growing middle class with disposable incomes and a taste for all things designer. And both fail to support government’s claim that it is creating inclusive cities for all, writes LAURA A WENZ.

“When I first moved to New York, it was dingy, disgusting, dirty, ugly, flea-ridden, stinky and altogether terrifying – but then sadly the whole city started to go uphill,” laments Ted Mosby, the naïve and inveterately romantic protagonist of the popular American TV-comedy series  How I met your Mother. His sentimental statement captures the glum irony of urban regeneration: Neighbourhoods with the right mix of historical flair, cosmopolitan ambience and urban decay perpetually attract students, young professionals and artists in search of cheap rent and inspiration.

Armed with the best intentions and an undaunted can-do attitude, these pioneers set out to make their newly adopted working-class neighbourhood an even better one, praising its “gritty charm” and “original character” while they open coffee shops and organic eateries. Only too late do they realise that property developers have been watching them closely and once the word on the potential value of the once hidden gem is out, land prices shoot through the roof, artists exit through the gift shop and long-time residents end up on their stoep, door locked firmly behind them.

woodstock bromwell door

Photo: Bromwell Boutique Mall, with close-up of doorman.

Rising property values are often too readily assumed to benefit local home-owners, while in fact they have put severe strain on old-established residents, who have had to cope with rising municipal rates due to property re-evaluation. According to the Anti-Eviction Campaign, some families have not been able to afford the escalating rates, leading to their eviction and removal to‘Blikkiesdorp’.  This infamous Temporary Relocation Area (TRA) – a not-so-glamorous World Cup legacy – has been repeatedly slammed by human rights groups for its inhumane living conditions.

Though the market effects of higher land value are at first glance supporting the city council’s densification strategy as space needs to be used more efficiently, it simultaneously prohibits the development of affordable housing and rental units. This however is an essential prerequisite for making the inner city more accessible to people in the low-income bracket and cracking open the encrusted patterns of urban inequality.

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