Ethical Design Practices May Help Slow Gentrification

Newtown Creek Nature Walk / Quennell Rothschild & Partners
Newtown Creek Nature Walk / Quennell Rothschild & Partners

Gentrification replaces diversity with homogenized people and places. This process has “rippling social and cultural effects,” said Winifred Curran, a professor at DePaul University at the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago. There are many reasons why gentrification has been happening across American cities — and the process may prove nearly unstoppable — but there are ways landscape architects and other designers can ensure they don’t further contribute to the problem. Instead of creating “shiny new parks” that spur on redevelopment, they can work with existing communities to design public spaces that are “just green enough” and celebrate a community’s diversity. Landscape architecture firms can create internal ethical policies to ensure they are supporting diversity rather than supplanting it through designed spaces produced in a fundamentally non-democratic way.

The most damaging effect of gentrification is displacement, which can affect cultures, industries, and people alike, said Curran. “Ethnic communities and manufacturing factories can be pushed out, and low-income communities left out of the democratic process.” Gentrification results in higher property values, eventual upgrading or homogenization of the environment, and the privatization of public spaces.

One big problem, Curran said, is that city policymakers and planners are in effect encouraging gentrification, with results that exclude existing populations. “Cities love higher property values, which means higher taxes.” In many cities, urban policies have been put in place to grow the tax base. This often involves tearing down what is there in favor of new condo towers that all look alike. And to generate appeal for these new buildings, city leaders use public private partnerships to create and manage public spaces. “These public-private partnerships create landscapes without a democratic process. They may look better, but they aren’t democratic.”

City leaders may also be pursuing a process of “environmental gentrification.” Under the rubric of becoming more sustainable, city planners and developers are investing in new parks and rails-to-trails projects to “sell upgraded neighborhoods.” Sadly, this may put many long-term residents of neighborhoods in the unfortunate position of not supporting a much-needed park because it could cause displacement. The fears are real, Curran said.

For example, the High Line in New York City has raised nearby property values by 103 percent. But Curran says “here, landscape architecture is not the problem, but the symptom” of a deeper condition. “The High Line is the physical expression of an underlying system — it couldn’t have happened without rezoning, and it was only accomplished with lots of private money.” The result is that Chelsea today has just two discrete populations — those who make less than $30,000 annually and live in the few remaining public housing blocks, or those who make well over $100,000 a year. In reality, this means the lower-income people still in Chelsea have to do their grocery shopping out in New Jersey, because they can’t afford the prices in their own neighborhood.

And in Chicago, housing along the Bloomingdale Trail, now called the 606, which cuts through multiple residential neighborhoods, including a number actively fighting gentrification, has seen “a spike in value after the trail opened.” The trail was financed by the Trust for Public Land and the Chicago city government. The Trust for Public Land, Curran argued, was “not responsive to the democratic process. And now they direct any local concerns about raising rents and property values to the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, which has no power or resources. The association pushes for property tax caps, but gets nowhere.” Between the “city and the Trust for Public Land, the community has no place to go.”

For Curran, the solution for communities may be to “just green enough.” She pointed to the Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, designed by Quenell Rothschild & Partners, as an example of a “community-driven” improvement that improves access to the water while providing new public space. Greenpoint is gentrifying but the existing Polish community has forged partnerships with newcomers, in part by educating them about the history of the toxic creek, which is a Superfund site. While the creek is still highly poisonous, “the community can at least still get down to the waterfront, where they can see any pollution violations from nearby factories.” But it’s strictly no-frills: there are “no cafes or boat launches. It’s not so green that it’s desirable. The area is still a functioning manufacturing district that just accomplished some greening.”

Newtown Creek Nature Walk / Gowanus Lounge
Newtown Creek Nature Walk / Gowanus Lounge

Dan Pitera, University of Detroit and the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, echoed many of these ideas, but talked about what Detroit is now doing to slow gentrification, which is already happening in some areas. His Detroit Collaborative Design Center only works in communities where they have been invited. In some communities they’ve been active for more than 10 years.

He differentiated between participation and engagement, arguing that participation is project-based and episodic while engagement is systemic and long-term. He said landscape architects and designers need to take the long view and truly engage all community members when working in places dealing with gentrification, building relationships and spending the time to understand the local history and context. He opposes design charrettes, thinking there are no “single solutions,” only dialogues that are part of a broader process. And he urged designers to be careful with their language, understanding that the meaning of terms can change depend on one’s frame of reference.

At the beginning of the talk, Kathleen King, Associate ASLA, a landscape architect with Design Workshop, outlined her fears about whether she is inadvertently contributing to the process of gentrification through a park project she is working on in the Latino community of Elyria Swansea in Denver. Perhaps the most direct response to those concerns came from Jennifer Wolch, a professor of urban planning at the University of California Berkeley, who told her and other landscape architects assembled that firms “need to think through for themselves whether to come into a process cold when things have already been decided. It’s important to understand the history, context, and look upstream at the organizations that promulgate or repress discourses, and who will benefit or not from a project.”

The reality is that many landscape architecture firms “can’t actually practice in 80 places at once if they truly want to do this well. Don’t parachute in. Accumulate knowledge about a place.”

Wolch also supports the “just green enough” approach, which can go a long ways to helping a community meet its needs without making it too appealing to outsiders. She called for “appropriate design and high quality materials that resonate with the community,” but told landscape architects to avoid “‘bright shiny object’ designs that trigger adjulation.” As an example, she pointed to Augustus F. Hawkins Nature Park in Los Angeles, a well-designed park that improves quality of life but without contributing to gentrification.

Augustus F. Hawkins Nature Park / Where do the children play Los Angeles
Augustus F. Hawkins Nature Park / Where do the children play Los Angeles

Landscape architecture firms, she said, need to develop a set of ethical principles and policies, which can be helpful to both firms and clients. “Establish expectations. Find out what you are willing to do or not. Be prepared to walk away.”

One thought on “Ethical Design Practices May Help Slow Gentrification

  1. Michael Lewyn 11/09/2015 / 9:51 am

    “Gentrification replaces diversity with homogenized people and places” you write. This may be true in the richest areas (e.g parts of Manhattan and San Francisco). But in weaker markets, gentrification might actually INCREASE diversity, by turning a homogenously poor area into a more mixed area.

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