How do you feel about the negative aspects of urban gentrification? You write a good deal about urban planning, but I haven’t read your take on this phenomenon.
I try not to use the word “gentrification” because I think the term obscures more than it clarifies, and tends to cover a widely disparate array of situations. But I do have a lot of thoughts on the matter.
One set of complaints about gentrification are the complaints we should dismiss out of hand from what amount to first-wave gentrifiers. I’ve been known to indulge in such complaining myself, and it’s mostly an inevitable brand of nostalgia, but it shouldn’t be taken seriously. The way this works is that you might move to, say, the U Street area when you’re 23 just as businesses were first starting to open. And then you wake your eyes up a few years later and realize that the cat is out of the bag, so to speak. That more stuff has opened, including some distinctly non-cool new big residential developments, and that the bars are crowded and in general you no longer count as edgy or distinctive for living there. Folks are always going to make these kind of noises, but it shouldn’t be taken seriously.
But a much more reasonable complaint concerns the problem of affordable housing. If there’s a crappy neighborhood somewhere — bad schools, high crime, few retail options, poor transportation links to job markets — you would like policy to improve the neighborhood. But in an ideal world, improving the neighborhood should actually improve the lives of many of the people who currently live in the neighborhood. The fear is that improving the neighborhood actually just means making it the case that the people who live there will no longer be able to afford to live there. This is a very real concern, but I hasten to add that a lot of the most commonly proposed countermeasures aren’t very effective or are at times counterproductive.
The main thing you need to do is recognize that this kind of bad gentrification is a relative scarcity issue. It’s very expensive to live in low-crime walkable transit-accessible neighborhoods featuring good public schools because housing in such neighborhoods is in short supply. To reduce the cost of housing in such neighborhoods there are a few things you need to do. One is that where you have neighborhoods with some of those characteristics you need to allow for denser construction of housing units. Another is that you need to work on the social policy problems of crime and school performance in existing walkable urban neighborhoods. And a third is that you need to build more transit lines and transit nodes and ensure that such nodes as exist have “smart” (i.e., dense, walkable, mixed use) development around them. And a fourth is to not waste the opportunities that we have — there’s a giant open-air parking lot right by the Rhode Island Avenue Metro Station in DC, which is just a dumbly low-intensity use of land adjacent to scarce Metro stations.
Long story short, the greatest villains of these kinds of stories aren’t the gentrifiers so much as the folks living in the already very nice areas who’ve tried to “pull up the ladder” and boost their own property values by choking development in the parts of the metro area where they live.
A gentrification phenomenon that sort of mixes the two kinds of concerns is that there’s a tendency for a neighborhood that gets far enough along the gentrification cycle to stop having “cool,” interesting stores, bars, and restaurants. This needs to be understood as a consequence of high retail rents. Simply put, it’s much easier to run an interesting retail business in places where rents are low. This is one of the main reasons why most of the best Asian food in the DC area is in random strip malls in Northern Virginia — both the central city retail space and the prime NoVa mall space are too expensive. Very high rents lead to homogenization, chains, mediocrity, high prices, etc. To some extent this is unavoidable, but it certainly counts as a reason why cities should try to ensure that there’s ample space zoned for retail and not stifle people with unduly burdensome business licensing rules. Your city will be more fun if you make it relatively cheap and easy to open stores.