We hear alot about gentrification – but what does that term really mean? Not even the New York Times has a firm definition, sometimes wielding the term recklessly and inflaming passions in the process. Over the years, I have come to define it as residential and commercial displacement as a result of an increase in prices that eventually make a community less affordable for the people who were there “first”. Like most people, I agree that displacement is a problem that we would like to avoid.
By that definition, however, new, higher-income residents in a community don’t always result in gentrification. In fact, if new, wealthier residents do NOT displace existing residents and instead reside in newly constructed residential units, then is there really a problem? If existing residents benefit from the new services and offerings that result from the influx of new residents, and their quality of life improves as a result, isn’t this a good thing? If we could find a way to keep poorer residents in these improving neighborhoods, by guaranteeing affordable housing so they can remain as the environment improves, wouldn’t we want that? And in communities dotted by abandoned lots and vacant retail space, isn’t new development a welcome thing that results in less trash strewn vacant lots and a safer environment for children? Pockets of concentrated poverty are no good for people who live in them, so why are we demonizing efforts to create a healthier balance? What we are left with if you take this argument to its logical conclusion is the suggestion that the urban poor should live in communities marked by disinvestment and physical decay, because the moment you start improving things, you are setting the stage for their eventual displacement. It is a sad commentary for those of us who have dedicated our lives to improving urban neighborhoods.
I recently came across the Dynamic Neighborhood Taxonomy (DNT) project, a research project funded by Living Cities – a partnership of financial institutions, national foundations and the federal government in an effort to advance urban communities. The analysis, led by Bob Weissbourd of RW Ventures, considered four cities in an effort to understand what makes neighborhoods change over time and how to use this information to guide improvements and neighborhood stabilization in the most effective way possible. So, what does the DNT project have to do with gentrification? Well, if we can identify the kinds of neighborhoods most prone to displacement, we can design targeted interventions that maintain neighborhood stability and prevent displacement overtime.
In reviewing the research, the piece of information that I found most interesting was the finding that regional economic trends account for 35% of neighborhood change. That means a little over 1/3 of neighborhood change has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with anything that any of us do to improve neighborhoods. This is a powerful thing to absorb (and a bit depressing, honestly). But it also suggests that one of the most significant things we can do to improve the lives of people living in lower income communities is to connect them to the local economy, rather than maintain their isolation.
The good news is that the flip side of that data point means that 65% of neighborhood change is related to other factors. The DNT project found that additional drivers of change include neighborhood characteristics that include access to transit and the ability to more easily get to and from jobs easily, the presence of existing services and offerings, including police stations, supermarkets, and cultural amenities like art galleries. Communities that offer these amenities are next in line for rapid neighborhood change. If we can identify these places, we can design policy that creates a win-win – a great neighborhood for new and old residents alike.
In the end, I think we have to stop making judgement calls about “gentrification”. Neighborhoods thrive when they have a mix of incomes, and those at the bottom rung of the ladder benefit substantially too.