It is time for mayors and real estate developers to talk about equitable development. “Smart growth,” (or “smart development”) has been in the lexicon of environmentalists for over a generation. Californians would argue they coined the terms: after all, the state’s rapid population growth from World War II through the 1980s pushed many community leaders, generally within the suburbs, to rethink growth and development. Much of the discussion, however, was driven by NIMBYs – folks concerned with local development – “not in my backyard!”
But for several years, the NIMBYs’ children have moved back to cities in California. Throughout the U.S., downtown and urban cores once described as “dangerous” now teem with hipsters, young professionals and the “creative types.” Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, LA’s Silver Lake and the Pearl District in Portland, OR, are only a few examples of neighborhoods that have gone through gentrification. And even in Detroit, where the population has cratered and government has teetered into bankruptcy, professionals are moving into downtown lofts.
With the odds in favor this trend will not only continue, but accelerate. City halls discuss “smart growth” more than ever, only with a “sustainability” angle attached to future plans that include transit centers, bike paths, light rail, high-density housing, mixed-use developments and yes, of course, urban gardens.
But while city planners and developers talk about LEED, no one is leading the discussion about an overlooked challenge: what happens to the residents who have lived in these longstanding urban neighborhoods for years, if not generations? And will these people feel welcomed in these reborn, “revitalized” neighborhoods? I admit I had overlooked this factor in the past, like last year when I wrote about Columbia University’s plans for a new Manhattanville campus—without mentioning that this is an established and historic African-American community in West Harlem.
To better understand the displacement that can occur alongside redevelopment, I spoke with two experts on urban planning who are well versed on equitable development: Michael Lythcott, who looks at such projects from a social impact perspective, and Vernice Miller-Travis, an expert in brownfield redevelopment.
Michael Lythcott has certainly lived and experienced gentrification throughout his life and career. He moved into Harlem in the 1970s, definitely going against the grain when most cities, including New York, suffered from the flight of citizens into the suburbs. During our talk, he reminisced about how long-time residents would walk up to him and thank him when he swept his front porch and the sidewalk in front of his rowhouse. Soon after, he noticed others who lived in the neighborhood would then do the same.
Years later, Lythcott sees many of these residents themselves getting swept out of their neighborhoods, either due to rising rents or, for homeowners, rising property taxes as gentrification exacts a financial toll. He recalled one scenario in Portland, OR, several years ago. The city had proposed a light rail line that would pass through a historic African-American neighborhood. An employee from the local redevelopment agency visited homes in the area and showed two pictures: one of a Starbucks, one of a crack house. Residents were then asked to choose their preference.
“But that’s a false choice,” said Lythcott, and he argued residents who suffered through the bad times should believe they have a stake in their neighborhoods as new developments launch. According to Lythcott, municipal leaders who tout “smart growth” only look at redevelopment through an environmental lens. But to ensure these gentrified areas are truly diverse, cities must focus on equitable development, which ties in more modern and environmental approaches to urban planning with concern for the people who already occupy that space. Of course no one wants a crack house in his or her neighborhood, and all residents want better stores, cleaner air and better transportation. People who live in neighborhoods should be included in conversations over redevelopment—but the reality is, civic leaders generally either overlook them or only give them lip service.
A more consultative approach, insisted Lythcott, is for cities and developers to include a “community benefit agreement” within an overall redevelopment plan. Such an agreement could include concrete proposals for affordable housing, grandfathered property tax rates and business incubators that would help established residents to not only remain in their neighborhoods, but invest and participate in these newly revitalized areas.
“By design, the way you can tell if your community is slated for gentrification is when a Starbucks comes in. By then, you’ve lost the fight.” says Vernice Miller-Travis, Senior Associate, Skeo Solutions.
While many sustainability advocates applaud the return of former suburbanites to the inner cities, Miller-Travis offers a pointed reminder: “People are already there.” A graduate of Columbia University who has also spent much time in Harlem, Travis-Miller is on board with Lythcott when discussing the transformation unfolding in America’s cities. “Harlem is unrecognizable,” she said as we started our talk, recalling how during freshmen orientation at Columbia, the aforementioned West Harlem, now slated for a LEED-certified complex, was once described as dangerous.
Miller-Travis sees a bothersome trend where the newly reurbanized neighborhoods score all the benefits, from parks to shopping to rail stops, while other districts heavily populated by people of color are overlooked or become home to trash collection centers and power stations. But this is not just a rich vs. poor problem in her view: middle class Latino and African-American neighborhoods are under siege, too.
She pointed out a long, protracted fight in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Baldwin Hills, often known as the “Black Hollywood Hills.” Over a decade ago, Baldwin Hills residents fought tooth and nail against the proposed building of a power plant in the middle of a state park to meet the increasing demand for energy brought on by the 2001 energy crisis in California. Locals won that fight, but had to resume their struggle against LA’s City Hall again when the city proposed a garbage dump (in bureaucratic speak, “a solid waste transfer station”) in 2003. Long pockmarked by oil wells, residents are now pushing to create a two-square mile Baldwin Hills Park, which, if approved, would become the largest urban park to open in 100 years. Such plans have stalled: as of now the park is only 57 acres, with the dream of adding another 1,343 acres not yet a reality.
For Miller-Travis, the change in urban America is one that has got to focus on more than just the environment, or what often drives these changes – finances. Rather than a top-down approach that favors those who have the monetary resources, she calls for more community-based approaches, such as tactics the EPA recommends that emphasize local needs, transparency and a commitment to diversity—not just racial diversity, but that of income and life experience. After all, despite the hope inspired by Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech of 50 years ago this summer, America is in many ways more segregated than ever before. “What kind of country do we really want to be,” she asked as we wrapped up our talk, “and are these trends, which suppress opportunities for more than half this country’s population, really ‘sustainable’?”
[Image credit of historic Baldwin Hills Village Office: Wikipedia]