Cities are growing outdated and overcrowded. Old infrastructure, lack of bike lanes, unfriendly to pedestrians, the list continues on. Urban design has and will continue to grow as larger cities see the need to update but wish to do so with as little interruption to daily activities as humanly possible. As population densities skyrocket and space becomes more precious in developing and developed urban landscapes, a push has begun back into the forgotten neighborhoods.
Ranging from old industrial sites to once bustling city "suburb" neighborhoods, there has been a movement back into these usually broken and crime-ridden communities. Space is plentiful and zoning variances often are thrown out the window simply to get people and money flowing through the streets once again. This is great and recently success has been astounding, but a social problem has arisen from the flames of economic growth that is darker than the charred remains of the old homes that stood in the paths of new development.
These charred remains belong to the spirits of the people on the other side of the word we all know as gentrification. Gentrification is defined as:
"the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses."
Developers, architects and event political figures have jumped behind various different gentrification programs as ways to increase a city's profitability as well as increase white-color residents and tax bases in struggling communities. In the wake of such developments, a large number of people are often displaced by way of higher property taxes, discomfort from new neighbors and even eminent domain from good ol' Uncle Sam (new highway extensions through older neighborhoods usually are to blame for that). It's a program/idea which favors the rich or well-to-do and forgets there are others on the opposite end of the fence too who aren't so mobile with their living situations.
It's a dark reality that exists everywhere. Living in Philadelphia for five years I saw right in front of my eyes Northern Liberties transform from an industrial wasteland to a $15 craft beer neighborhood. Don't get me wrong, I loved the development that went into the community as well as the economic stimulus that came of it. What was there before, though? A lot of lower-income families were able to live in the city (so they could use the mass transit) and be able to afford to still buy food for their children. Post hipster paradise, however, the number of lower-income families in the neighborhood visibly dropped. Houses began to be demolished to make way for $800,000 town homes and bars were so crowded new ones would open each week. There people who once lived there could no longer keep up with the taxes or the stealing glares from the doctor that just got home across the street in his shiny black Mercedes. They had no options besides their current situations and along came developers and architects, effectively forcing them from their homes seeking a new place to live that promised to be even worse off. How is this fair?
Justification to Fight?
A lot of big headlines about gentrification and its legality have been coming right out of the Bay Area in San Francisco and Oakland. Probably the first or second most expensive place to live in the country, San Fran continues to push out anybody who doesn't make at least double the poverty line in favor of high-end residential complexes and tree-lined shopping districts. I began to wonder what are the rights of those affected by the ever-increasing growth of urban development.
There should be a huge consideration taken when thinking about developing in an underdeveloped neighborhood. Should a developer ensure that only a certain percentage is built on? Should local governments lock in certain tax rates that are affordable to those standing in the path of gentrification? These are all tough questions because there's hardly a right or wrong. There aren't laws being broken and if you're on the positive side of it all (which the majority of people are) it is great and ultimately makes your life better. It's those who live in this impoverished areas that end up losing at the end of the day, and all because a new developer saw their community as being a positive place for creating the next Haight Ashbury. Ultimately, the only way to ensure that the field remains equal is to make special exceptions for those living in the paths of newer developments guaranteed to drive up property taxes. Not only is it important to ensure that existing community members are able to afford their stay, it's also crucial to make them still feel welcome. Changes in their environment (positive ones, at that) will reverberate through their actions and beliefs. Being stuck in a place of such negativity can often lead to poor decisions including crime, mismanagement of capital and even complete lack of care on upkeep of properties. With positive changes occurring around these existing community members, they will hopefully reiterate through their actions. Atop that, it is also important that those moving into these communities are welcoming of the people that have lived there through the thick and the thin. Increased public spaces and social engagement remain imperative to maintain stable and healthy relationships among all parties.
While industrial-aged cities continue to grow and expand their borders back into neighborhoods that once were, it's important to remember those who built the city. It's tough to please everybody, but it's also unfair to roll through places where real people live and just completely alter their ways of life. While local governments continue to uphold that justice reigns, most times the economic impacts speak enough to override these decisions. Urban redevelopments are great, but we must remember both as designers and developers that it is a complex and at times controversial situation, the solutions proposed should reflect exactly that or else there will be a breaking point and a terrible backlash. We should absolutely continue to masterplan struggling neighborhoods to become the next hipster haven, but we should also treat this as a serious design exercise juggling several different complicated components at once. Cities are great, but it's the diversity that exists that truly makes them unique and awesome places to live.