Placemaking is based on the theory that a desirable destination will attract people who like the place’s vibe, restaurants, arts and culture, walkability, community, recreation, and so on. This in turn will attract (or grow) businesses that create jobs, or people who move to these places because they can. And they will also want to spend their money on restaurants and shops and other businesses that keep the local economy strong.
A word that comes with a lot of baggage and is frequently heard in association with placemaking and redevelopment generally is gentrification. It's placemaking gone bad.
Gentrification, generally speaking, results when people with more money move into areas where people with less money have been living, and price them out. It has a lot of race implications, but it’s more about income inequality. As this article points out, the neighborhoods that become gentrified are often places where people live because they have been cast out of other places - in this case, the LGBT community that settled in the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco and made it so cool that it’s now the most expensive place to live in the country. Historically black neighborhoods exist because African-Americans were excluded from white neighborhoods, or when they weren’t excluded, white residents who didn’t want black neighbors moved out. Neighborhoods populated by excluded people are not typically first on the list for investment, by either the public or the private sector.
Gentrification is almost universally seen as evil, neighborhood-killing, and elitist. Most agree that neighborhood investment, better schools, parks, restoring cool old buildings, and more jobs are a good thing. Gentrification means a line has been crossed where those things make a neighborhood too desirable, and no longer affordable for low-income people or low-margin businesses. Low- to middle-income people are priced out by higher rents. Once they're forced out, they may have longer or more expensive commutes, worse schools, fewer employment and housing options, and less access to businesses and public spaces… which is where they started, except they’ve also lost their neighborhood. Same for small businesses – escalating rents and changing residents may make small local businesses less viable. Note, for example, the photo below showing funky neighborhood institutions turned into a pricey boutique and a bank branch.
Sometimes a neighborhood – even one that lacks a hip coffee shop! – is already a place, with a character worth preserving. Can residents limit the kind of change that leads to gentrification? This recent NPR story is about residents’ protests and threats against art galleries, hipsters, and coffee shops moving into their Latino neighborhood. A neighborhood activist says residents need a laundromat, a park, not an art gallery.
This article summarizes and provides links to several people writing about urbanism and gentrification. The article talks about social equity, preserving neighborhood culture, and placemaking elitism. The implied solution is, include neighborhood residents in placemaking – don’t thrust it upon them. To which I say, duh. It reminded me of my Placemaking for Everyone or Anyone post from last year. But it doesn’t address the income and rising costs issue, which residents, small businesses, and placemakers have limited control over. Control so often depends on the other golden rule – he who has the gold, rules. You want to control the businesses coming into your neighborhood? You need to own the building. How does a low-income neighborhood make that happen?
The Brookings Institution recently studied an innovation district in Philadelphia created by stakeholders that included private business, hospitals, a university, and civic leaders. It reminded me of Grand Rapids’ Grand Action group, which has also done some cool stuff in downtown GR, including the Downtown Market which I adore. But one thing both the Philadelphia and Grand Rapids groups have in common is that their stakeholders are the guys with the gold. I saw nothing in the Brookings report – which used the words “inclusive” or “inclusion” 15 times – about a neighborhood or social justice leader at the stakeholders' table. Instead, the report talks about inclusion and diversity programs led by businesses or universities in the district.
I, queen of bleeding hearts, of course look to government or nonprofit intervention for ways to maintain neighborhood fabric and practice social equity led by the residents. Ultimately, it has to be government or a nonprofit, because business generally exists to make money, not to keep low-income neighborhoods intact. If there was an easy fix for gentrification, someone smarter than I am would already have thought of it. But these are some ideas:
- Help current residents succeed. Bring job training to the neighborhood, provide child care, and pay residents to go. People who don’t have access to transportation, or don’t have the money for child care or time off work, don’t go to job training.
- Work with neighborhood groups to determine what kind of businesses THEY want, and provide incentives to residents to start those businesses – more training, mentoring, low-interest loans, land banks, whatever it takes. If residents want a laundromat instead of an art gallery, help them start one. Tax benefits for small businesses – as suggested by one contributor to the Room for Debate column linked below - would not necessarily help. Without controls on who gets them, the fancy hipster coffee shop could benefit as much as the laundromat.
- Co-ops, people. They aren’t just for Birkenstock-wearing, organic-grass-clipping-eaters like me. Is there such a thing as a cooperative laundromat? There should be.
Here is a New Yorker article / book review about urban economic ambiguities, including the rise and fall of Detroit. This one (from The Atlantic) is about being a good neighbor in a gentrifying neighborhood when you are perceived to be the bad guy.
I found this New York Times Room for Debate column about gentrification to be short on any real analysis, but it is a quick description of some of the issues associated with placemaking and redevelopment.
This is an interesting article about creating places that aim for authenticity and historical connection to a neighborhood, but become a little too precious, a little too packaged.
And to leave you with a bit of fluff after all this seriousness… this link is totally worth two minutes of your time.
I finally figured out how to index my old blog posts, so visitors to ordinaryvirtues.com no longer have to scroll down through every post to find something. My apologies if you’ve been annoyed by scrolling, and it is fixed.
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