For those who follow my blog, you know me as a freelance graphic designer and entrepreneur. Rarely have I donned my cap as an urban planner on any of my earlier posts; with a few exceptions like the one on Airbnb’s next move (story here). A slightly ambitious project this time around, where I’ll explore aspects of urban planning and urban design under the topics, ‘The Future of Cities’. I have absolutely no idea how long this series will last, but it’s definitely a subject worth exploring. Maybe I’ll even try to get a few other urban planners and urban designers involved in the discussion. We’ll see. For now though, I’ll start by looking at one “solution” that has bothered me throughout my decade-long career as an urban planner and consultant — gentrification.
What is gentrification? Well, depending on who you ask, they might tell you it’s the best thing to ever happen to any neighbourhood or city. And you know what; they’d be partly right, but not completely.
“Gentrification is a process of renovation and revival of deteriorated urban neighbourhoods with influx of more affluent residents, which results in increased property values and the displacing of lower-income families and small businesses.” – Wikipedia
It sounds spectacular for the housing and commercial developers, hipsters, and investors, but one of the greatest downside to gentrification is what it does to the character of a neighbourhood or city.
Put simply, gentrification is a lot like “Out with the old, in with the new!” approach to urban planning. Where planning fails to cater to what’s most important and that is preserving the character of a place.
We’ve all seen it happen to famous neighbourhoods like Harlem (New York City). A largely African-American neighbourhood that emerged from 1920s and 30s America to drive the cultural movement — the “Harlem Renaissance” that gave the world poetry, music, art, dance, beauty. Harlem’s had a tumultuous history that saw its people face poverty, violence, and suffering. Flash-forward to present, Harlem has evolved into high-end everything — housing, yoga studios, restaurants, coffee shops, and so on. It’s become the cookie-cutter approach to gentrification.
While this may seem like a good thing and in many ways, and it is, the downside to all this high-end lifestyle is that it can only be given by those from the outside. Those who were the original residents, whose families have spent decades in those neighbourhoods are quickly or slowly finding themselves on their way out. It’s just how the real estate market works. Fancy things mean everything else around it goes up in price. This spells great for the developers, politicians, and technocrats, but we can see who ends up the biggest losers. This is where gentrification fails.
Another classic example is the High Line project, again in New York City. It’s a fantastic project that exhibits how we can review derelict infrastructure and transform them into shiny new things and spaces to be enjoyed and savoured. In this case over six million people a year visit this space. In summary, the High Line project was an iconic railway-turned-park that has helped to catapult “a new era of landscape design”, according to one article.
Personally, the only failure of projects like High Line is not taking the steps to protect the future of the original residents in the surrounding neighbourhoods. There should always be the ambition to keep the character and authenticity of a place.
The failure of gentrification stems from not designing neighbourhoods and cities around people and their existing and future needs. Urban planning and urban design should encourage balance and equity where practical.
Here in Toronto, there has been pockets of gentrification throughout at least 25% of city in areas like South Riverdale/Leslieville, Trinity Bellwoods, the Junction, and St. James Town. Again, it’s more of the same — house prices skyrocketing (by 140 per cent), mom-and-pop eateries making way for new condominiums, little improvement in average household salaries for those at the bottom, Starbucks, restaurants, and bars (and maybe a yoga studio here and there). There’s still inequity and at the end of the day, those who are poor still get displaced by those with salaries between $65K to $99.5K.
From my previous urban planning experiences, it is tantamount that every city is a place to live, work, learn, and play. What pushes people out of a neighbourhood experiencing gentrification are increased prices and stagnant salaries. The lack of disposable income becomes a factor that works against them. The ideal scenario ought to be on that encourages employment opportunities and services within a commutable radius. Gentrification should be about elevating people’s lives and not just about generating profit.
When it comes to gentrification, here’s what should happen:
1. Engage multi-stakeholders (neighbourhoods, NGOs, politicians, developers) using workshops, vox populi, surveys, etc. and find out what their visions are for the future of their neighbourhood.
2. Get everyone to create the future they’ve envisioned using a multi-day design charrette with the help of urban designers, city planners, and architects. Gather all the pens, pencils, coloured markers and crayons, and paper you can find. It’s guaranteed to produce design ideas for master plans, artist renderings, and a brief or comprehensive report that can be disseminated to the public.
3. Focus on creating mixed-use developments with an emphasis on diverse housing solutions for those at the lower-end of the salary scale (working class). The great thing about design is experimentation. Costs can be driven down with alternate construction methods, building materials, and finishes (as well as by significant demand).
4. Attract investors by using derelict buildings, tax breaks, and other incentives on the contingency that they create employment opportunities for qualified locals.
5. Policy should then be introduced to make sure neighbourhood preservation as new buildings are constructed; for e.g. mom-and-pop restaurants juxtaposed with “hip and trendy” restaurants.
The important thing leading up to and during gentrification is to consider people as people and not as statistics from a census. View neighbourhoods as neighbourhoods and not as prime real estate opportunities to drive prices upwards just to cash in on a bubble susceptible to bursting. Finally, every city should engage both its internal and external stakeholders. It is only through public-private participation and creative collaboration can sustainable results be achieved.