Ending “Code Talk” about Gentrification

Brooklyn anti-gentrification activists / Kirra magazine
Brooklyn anti-gentrification network activists / Kirra magazine

“When we talk about gentrification, there is a lot of ‘code talk’ that is often very subtle,” said Timothy Cassidy, ASLA, a landscape architect with Bernardon, at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. That code talk is a way to hide the racial nature of a process in which a group of mostly-white newcomers move into a neighborhood predominantly made up of people of color, renovate buildings, increase property values, change the character of the place, and then, eventually, displace the existing community.

Cassidy said gentrification is often described as an incremental process, with code words like “renovation, renewal, and revival.” The problem with these seemingly-positive words is they convey the “idea of improvement,” but it’s not clear who these improvements benefit. In many cases, developers, which are “external forces,” jump in and reap the benefits with new high-rise luxury developments, particularly with adaptive reuse projects. Existing communities that may have made incremental improvements over the decades and inadvertently laid the foundation for gentrification lose out and then eventually lose their neighborhood, too.

The problem is most pronounced in the communities nearest the central business districts. This is because of some larger shifts. “The suburbs are now dead. Nobody wants to move into a single family home anymore.” Instead, companies have moved back into downtown cores. And their surrounding neighborhoods, with a range of entertainment options, are now the place to “live, work, and play.” With inner-city neighborhoods now in higher demand, increased competition means neighborhoods once cheap and undesirable are now more valuable. For Cassidy, the ultimate question is: “Can you tell people where to live?”

Unfortunately, existing studies of gentrification may not tell the full extent of the story. James Brasuell, managing editor at Planetizen, went through study after study, pointing out their limitations. For example, an often-cited 2015 report on the state of the housing marked in New York City from the Furman Center at New York University said gentrification was occurring in 15 out of NYC’s 55 neighborhoods. But the researchers made these conclusions looking at only one measure: rents. Furthermore, the report was largely financed by banks who may have an interest in downplaying any of the negative effects of gentrification.

Another study by Governing magazine, also widely cited, showed that gentrification is up 20 percent in 50 cities since 2000, in comparison to only 9 percent over the 1990s. However, he said the study only relied on “inflation adjusted home values and the percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees.” And a footnote in the study showed that for a city to be eligible for gentrification it had to be in the bottom 40 percent of household income numbers. “Right off the bat, the study tilts the table.”

Brasuell researched and found all the possible measures used to studies to analyze gentrification. These include average rent, median home values, median incomes, percentage who are renters, population density, housing types, proximity of transit, parks, and schools — which he thought all failed to measure the complex experience of being gentrified. One scholarly study even used fried chicken restaurants and coffee shops as indicators, which he found absurd.

He identified some of the policies that are pro-development, that spur on gentrification. These include: upzoning, which is about expanding the envelope of development options in a neighborhood; regulations that reduce parking; increased redevelopment powers; loan policy reforms; and bonuses developers receive for increasing density.

There are also a set of policies cities can use to mitigate the worst impacts of gentrification, that are anti-development. These include: downzoning, which involves reducing the types of development that can occur; building moratoriums; improved tenants rights; rent control programs; inclusionary zoning that promotes an intermix of affordable housing in development projects; condo conversion protections; tax abatements; community land trusts; limited equity coop housing; and others.

He cautioned that given the complexity of these topics, planning and design media should not simply use terms like investment, revitalization, and redevelopment in their stories. “These empty euphemisms really create more of a problem.”

And that flowed into Cassidy’s broader critique of the prevailing analyses on gentrification. “We need to look at the impact on neighborhood composition and character rooted in community identity. When change occurs, it triggers an emotional response that’s beyond empirical measure. It’s an existential change in which neighborhood familiarity is gone. Your community literally disappears before your eyes, which is emotionally draining.”

Kelly Majewski, Affiliate ASLA, an urban designer at Superjacent in Los Angeles, delved into the ethical responsibility of landscape architects and designers in gentrifying cities. She wondered if the “spirit of a place can guide ethical building.” She said community “authenticity, distinctiveness, and narrative” are worth preserving, even if “change has become a constant.”

If a landscape architect sees gentrification happening in a community, then “it’s too late; policy and planning have already made an impact.” But she also argued that efforts to slow gentrification with projects that try to undertake the “just green enough” approach won’t work. These kinds of park and other public space projects call for making improvements that may please locals, but are not so grand as to attract outsiders. Majewski said “these projects don’t make a ton of sense; they are both inclusionary and exclusionary at the same time.” And, furthermore, how does a landscape architect decide where to stop: will that one extra tree make it too nice?

Designers can ensure they don’t inadvertently contribute to gentrification by working with communities in developing their own visions. “If communities can plan out their vision before a rezoning process, they can get ahead.” She pointed to a planning initiative started by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as a model: the Planning for Livability, Affordability, Community, Economic Opportunity and Sustainability (PLACES) program, which creates a larger role for communities in planning processes. For example, the Bridging Gowanus process and the East Harlem neighborhood plan were empowering and helped ensure that “growth advances community goals.”

In the Q&A, Charles Cross, ASLA, an African American landscape architect with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, stood up and said the “landscape architecture profession must diversify” if it wants to play a greater role in fighting gentrification. In a recent survey of graduating landscape architecture students, African Americans are still at only 3 percent of the student body. Much more work needs to be done to ensure landscape architects look like the communities they are helping.

4 thoughts on “Ending “Code Talk” about Gentrification

  1. Tom 10/25/2016 / 8:14 am

    Developers need to be held more accountable. In Philadelphia recently, PMC Property Group “restructured” their end of a deal which allowed them an additional 48′ of building height at their luxury One Water Street development, exercising a loophole in the zoning and making a one-time payment to the Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund instead of providing the 25 affordable housing units previously promised. While the $3.75mil payment will be used to build affordable housing, odds are that these units will not be constructed in a building with “Breathtaking views” and a “Complimentary membership to on-site fitness facility featuring Peloton Cycle Studio”.

  2. Loke 12/21/2016 / 5:01 pm

    Isn’t gentrification a good thing for a community? I guess I would rather live somewhere that is improving itself. Just a thought.

    • Tam 01/17/2017 / 9:37 pm

      A note … this is not meant to be argumentative. Comments like these are just really frustrating and frighteningly common, so I’m sharing my perspective on gentrification …

      No, gentrification isn’t “good for a community” … the fallout is the loss of one community for the expansion of another … the gentry. So, I guess it is good if you’re part of the incoming gentry.

      One clarification that really needs to be made is that the words “gentrification” and “improvement” are not synonymous even though some sources would like to make it seem that way based on a narrow idea of what improvement means – making something suitable for a higher class of people … the gentry. Just because an “improvement” may not meet the standards of one person doesn’t make it less valuable to those for whom it was made.

      What has been happening for decades if not centuries or millennia is that “undesirable,” lower class populations are corralled into places that the upper classes (gentry [thought I’d slide it in again just in case I hadn’t enough yet]) find undesirable for themselves or are just out of sight enough to not mar their (often) superficially “refined” lives, but close enough for them to be called on.

      The populations of these areas are denied the same services as the “nicer” nearby areas, so they make do with what they have. Years pass, decades pass, neighborhood bonds are built … neighborhoods where people know each other, talk to each other, hang out with each other. All this while typically being held under various types of stress-causing threat … denial of homeownership for some leaving their stability at the hands of others (banks, landlords), lack of or negative response from civil servants, lack of access to quality education, various types of harassment, etc. etc.

      Then one day some daring explorer “discovers” a “hidden gem” in the “shady” or “colorful” part of town. It’s so cool, so “different”. Now it’s popular for the kids on the “right side of the tracks”. Someone with deep pockets sees this and starts to speculate, targeting the homeowners that exist in the area. Some think, “Well, of course I’ll take that offer! I wouldn’t make that much in 10 years and this house in this neighborhood has NEVER been worth that much.” Others refuse, this is their home. Meanwhile the cool kids keep bringing more and more of their cool friends to the cool place they “discovered”, and keep exploring. The fascination keeps growing and spreading to more people. Now this is starting to be a destination, but it needs to be “improved” because it’s not as nice as other places they like to hang out, it doesn’t meet their standards … here enter the forces of gentrification. Well, at least the ones that are more obvious than the early speculators and one seemingly benign young explorer.

      Years of offers turned to flat out threats to break the will of those trying to hold on to their homes. But why should they anymore? Their friends and neighbors are disappearing. Their favorite shops are being priced out. The place that had been a tight neighborhood is no longer. And now it looks like many other places … nice shiny and “rustic” finishes, beautiful street trees and ample lighting and seating … public improvements that the previous occupants didn’t seem worthy of … and with them high end stores and eateries. All of the places that initially drew people there – places that may have come from decades of hard work and struggle – are now gone.

      And now where are the people that were from that place that made that neighborhood “different” and attractive? In the vacant, deteriorating places just far enough away … the places that the new people ran to a generation or 2 ago when they were brand new and shiny.

  3. Thomas Hobbes 01/05/2017 / 2:35 pm

    Wait, I thought the solution to all of our problems was to cram more people INTO the cities. How is that supposed to happen if we can’t add density? Living out in the suburbs, it’s too far to ride my fixie to the cafe for my skinny mocha latte.

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