Last week, NewGeography published an interesting post by urban planner Pete Sanders entitled A Typology of Gentrification. Sanders made the case that gentrification is more likely to thrive in cities with older, walkable urban neighborhoods and, somewhat provocatively, cities with lower African American populations. The point of the essay was that gentrification is not a uniform phenomenon and there are both physical and sociological factors influencing the trend.
This got me thinking about both the physical and social implications of the nationwide downtown revival. Our own Global Trends analysis convincingly concludes that there are converging demographic and lifestyle trends that are favorable for urban areas. Young, highly skilled workers are attracted to cities and downtowns are competing to get them. Long-time urban development professionals, such as myself, are giddy at the reversal of fortunes for downtowns with market forces in our favor for the first time in our lifetimes.
But is this all good?
The physical implications of gentrification in downtowns have been evident for decades. I first lamented the loss of “grit” in Denver’s Lower Downtown 20 years ago. Many of the physical factors that made the place unique in the first place — brick streets, abandoned railroad tracks, loading docks and angled parking – were replaced by uniform streetscapes intended to make the neighborhood more inviting, but ultimately sanitized it.
Fast forward to 2014, are we now in danger of socially sanitizing our downtowns? Social gentrification, which replaces diverse households with more upscale and homogenous groups, is not a new phenomenon to urban neighborhoods, but it is new to downtowns. In the post-World War II era, downtowns commonly had clusters of low income households or were largely abandoned. It’s just in the past 15 years that downtown residential has taken off, and the current investment cycle is bringing mostly higher priced housing to our center cities.
The lack of diversity in workforce and housing can bring a whole new set of challenges. In Life After Brooklyn, the New York Times recently explored how rising rents and shifting demographics have changed the Williamsburg neighborhood. The latest wave of professionals is displacing the last wave of professionals that moved into the area pre-recession, displacing many of the working class households before them. The unique and diverse social fabric of Williamsburg, a quality that made the community attractive in the first place, is rapidly disappearing and being sanitized by waves of affluence.
This pattern is evident in emerging downtowns and other newer urban areas. Consider my recent illustrative encounter in one of Denver’s trendiest millennial industrial neighborhoods. At a local coffee shop that offers the usual menu of espresso drinks, the hipster barista refused to provide cream or milk to soften the house brew. Cream would interfere with the purity of beverage, and despite the customer’s repeated requests, the barista would not budge. Finally, he refunded the purchase with more than what was paid since he couldn’t be bothered with the change. Maybe this is how they serve coffee in Paris, but in industrial Denver?! I found it arrogant and it got me thinking about who are all these millennials we’re salivating over right now. Fact is, many, if not most of the young skilled workers moving into cities did not grow up in cities – they are shaped by suburban and collegiate experiences often in sheltered and homogenous environments.
There are foundational core values in cities that should be paramount as we revitalize and build new urban communities. These include tolerance, authenticity, diversity and providing a welcoming environment for all. As we plan for the future, the social elements of new communities in downtowns should be as important as the physical aspects of how they are designed.