THE BLOG
11/17/2016 05:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ending "Code Talk" About Gentrification

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Brooklyn anti-gentrification network activists / Kirra magazine

"When we talk about gentrification, there is a lot of 'code talk' that is often very subtle," said Timothy Cassidy, ASLA, a landscape architect with Bernardon, at the American Society of Landscape Architect's 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. That code talk is a way to hide the racial nature of a process in which a group of mostly-white newcomers move into a neighborhood predominantly made up of people of color, renovate buildings, increase property values, change the character of the place, and then, eventually, displace the existing community.

Cassidy said gentrification is often described as an incremental process, with code words like "renovation, renewal, and revival." The problem with these seemingly-positive words is they convey the "idea of improvement," but it's not clear who these improvements benefit. In many cases, developers, which are "external forces," jump in and reap the benefits with new high-rise luxury developments, particularly with adaptive reuse projects. Existing communities that may have made incremental improvements over the decades and inadvertently laid the foundation for gentrification lose out and then eventually lose their neighborhood, too.

The problem is most pronounced in the communities nearest the central business districts. This is because of some larger shifts. "The suburbs are now dead. Nobody wants to move into a single family home anymore." Instead, companies have moved back into downtown cores. And their surrounding neighborhoods, with a range of entertainment options, are now the place to "live, work, and play." With inner-city neighborhoods now in higher demand, increased competition means neighborhoods once cheap and undesirable are now more valuable. For Cassidy, the ultimate question is: "Can you tell people where to live?"

Unfortunately, existing studies of gentrification may not tell the full extent of the story. James Brasuell, managing editor at Planetizen, went through study after study, pointing out their limitations. For example, an often-cited 2015 report on the state of the housing marked in New York City from the Furman Center at New York University said gentrification was occurring in 15 out of NYC's 55 neighborhoods. But the researchers made these conclusions looking at only one measure: rents. Furthermore, the report was largely financed by banks who may have an interest in downplaying any of the negative effects of gentrification.

Another study by Governing magazine, also widely cited, showed that gentrification is up 20 percent in 50 cities since 2000, in comparison to only 9 percent over the 1990s. However, he said the study only relied on "inflation adjusted home values and the percentage of adults with bachelor's degrees." And a footnote in the study showed that for a city to be eligible for gentrification it had to be in the bottom 40 percent of household income numbers. "Right off the bat, the study tilts the table."

Brasuell researched and found all the possible measures used to studies to analyze gentrification. These include average rent, median home values, median incomes, percentage who are renters, population density, housing types, proximity of transit, parks, and schools -- which he thought all failed to measure the complex experience of being gentrified. One scholarly study even used fried chicken restaurants and coffee shops as indicators, which he found absurd.

He identified some of the policies that are pro-development, that spur on gentrification. These include: upzoning, which is about expanding the envelope of development options in a neighborhood; regulations that reduce parking; increased redevelopment powers; loan policy reforms; and bonuses developers receive for increasing density.

There are also a set of policies cities can use to mitigate the worst impacts of gentrification, that are anti-development. These include: downzoning, which involves reducing the types of development that can occur; building moratoriums; improved tenants rights; rent control programs; inclusionary zoning that promotes an intermix of affordable housing in development projects; condo conversion protections; tax abatements; community land trusts; limited equity coop housing; and others.

He cautioned that given the complexity of these topics, planning and design media should not simply use terms like investment, revitalization, and redevelopment in their stories. "These empty euphemisms really create more of a problem."

And that flowed into Cassidy's broader critique of the prevailing analyses on gentrification. "We need to look at the impact on neighborhood composition and character rooted in community identity. When change occurs, it triggers an emotional response that's beyond empirical measure. It's an existential change in which neighborhood familiarity is gone. Your community literally disappears before your eyes, which is emotionally draining."

Kelly Majewski, Affiliate ASLA, an urban designer at Superjacent in Los Angeles, delved into the ethical responsibility of landscape architects and designers in gentrifying cities. She wondered if the "spirit of a place can guide ethical building." She said community "authenticity, distinctiveness, and narrative" are worth preserving, even if "change has become a constant."

If a landscape architect sees gentrification happening in a community, then "it's too late; policy and planning have already made an impact." But she also argued that efforts to slow gentrification with projects that try to undertake the "just green enough" approach won't work. These kinds of park and other public space projects call for making improvements that may please locals, but are not so grand as to attract outsiders. Majewski said "these projects don't make a ton of sense; they are both inclusionary and exclusionary at the same time." And, furthermore, how does a landscape architect decide where to stop: will that one extra tree make it too nice?

Designers can ensure they don't inadvertently contribute to gentrification by working with communities in developing their own visions. "If communities can plan out their vision before a rezoning process, they can get ahead." She pointed to a planning initiative started by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as a model: the Planning for Livability, Affordability, Community, Economic Opportunity and Sustainability (PLACES) program, which creates a larger role for communities in planning processes. For example, the Bridging Gowanus process and the East Harlem neighborhood plan were empowering and helped ensure that "growth advances community goals."

In the Q&A, Charles Cross, ASLA, an African American landscape architect with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, stood up and said the "landscape architecture profession must diversify" if it wants to play a greater role in fighting gentrification. In a recent survey of graduating landscape architecture students, African Americans are still at only 3 percent of the student body. Much more work needs to be done to ensure landscape architects look like the communities they are helping.