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June 07, 2005

Gentrification and its Discontents

Apropos of the recent brouhaha over dense development in Seattle's downtown (a few opinion columnists in the city have decided that high-rises are pricing out the middle class) here's an interesting op-ed by John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, on gentrification in US cities.  The gist...

[T]he gentrification issue is best understood as nuanced with costs and benefits. It's also better understood in local context, i.e. it is genuinely a debatable issue in San Francisco or Manhattan, but a totally phony issue in Detroit or Buffalo. Some places fall in the middle of the spectrum. Faint signs of gentrification can be detected in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Memphis, but there is so little of it that concern about it should logically be among the lowest priorities. Yet it isn't. The hot rhetoric spewed (perhaps appropriately) in San Francisco gets mindlessly repeated in cities that desperately need investment in their building stock.

I don't know where Seattle, Portland, Vacnouver, etc. would fall on Norquist's spectrum.  But in general I think that that his perspective on the issue is worth giving a fair hearing.

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Definitely worth paying attention to. Making a better downtown that is fun to hang out in, with great public spaces, and lovely interesting things to look at, and provocative enlightening things to do -- that should be Seattle's goal. The resultant larger good (strong economy, great street life, civic energy, happy tourists) is something for all of us to enjoy and share. If a few developers make a profit by building housing for people who want to live in such a swell place, well get over your righteousness, Seattle. However, let's make sure the the public sector does its job: keep a healthy mix of housing for people at diverse incomes, and create generous and inviting public spaces. The free market tends to segregate people by income levels and use up all available land, and it's not that hard for city government to shape a healthier balance. To paraphrase my hero David Harvey, "Urbanization is inevitable, and getting the city right is the only path toward improving opportunities for all segments of the population." There is no clearer argument for sustainable urbanism, in my view.

Posted by: Cary | Jun 7, 2005 8:48:52 PM

I think panic over gentrification is usually sublimated panic over risk or unfairness in the economy as a whole. We just think we can control the local housing market.

After all, if neighborhoods got physically nicer without ejecting their original inhabitants, that would be wonderful. (See _Owning Up_, by Michelle Miller-Adams; etc. )

Posted by: clew | Jun 8, 2005 9:34:20 AM

The massive increase in high rise residential living in downtown Vancouver has not been without its costs: the loss of the industrial jobs that used to cluster along False Creek and in Downtown South has to be a factor in the deterioration of the Downtown Eastside from gritty blue collar neighbourhood to zone of despair; and many of the displaced businesses have relocated to suburban, freeway locations (such as Annacis Island) and in some cases (the CPR intermodal yards in Pitt Meadows for example)have ended up on high quality farmland at the urban edge. That said, Vancouver nevertheless has made efforts to limit the community displacement effects of gentrification through substantial requirements for social housing (in the order of 20% of new units)and through policies to ensure the maintenance and upgrade of single room occupancy hotel rooms. As well, further to the discussion of supply side economics, the huge increase in condo units has had the effect of freeing up rental residential space in the West End and other parts of the city, as renters move to the higher amenity condos that in a great many cases are owned by investors or boomers who rent in the meantime in anticipation of moving in upon retirement. In the main, I think Vancouver offers a good example that supports the arguments John Norquist makes about the overall positive contribution urban re-investment makes in the vitality of central city locations.

Posted by: Mark | Jun 9, 2005 10:01:23 AM