From the Philadelphia neighborhood of Point Breeze to the corners of Brooklyn, city planners and long-time residents across the country are grappling with urban development. Some call it revitalization; others call it gentrification.
Benjamin Grant is urban design policy director at SPUR, a leading US civic planning organization. It's part of his job description to understand the intricacies and complications of gentrification — a word that gets thrown around by real estate agents as a selling point, and by displaced people as a pejorative term.
“Gentrification is sort of an imprecise term that takes in a lot of different phenomena,” he says. “But broadly speaking, it’s a bunch of related processes by which a wealthier, typically whiter, group of people start to move into an urban neighborhood that has historically been a working class neighborhood or a neighborhood of color in many cases. Prices start to go up, and it’s a process that has a lot of different actors and a lot of different forces shaping it, but we give the term gentrification to that process.”
Grant says that it’s important to separate the idea of gentrification from the idea of displacement. The latter, he argues, is the inherent problem facing changing urban communities.
“It’s not intrinsically the case that the benefits of investment that come to urban neighborhoods exclude the residents that live there,” Grant says. “I think in some cases, and with some types of investments, that’s true. For example, a high-end restaurant or an exclusive condo built in one of these neighborhoods is certainly not something that’s going to be available to the lower-income people that have historically lived there.”
However, Grant says new waves of investment in urban neighborhoods can bring improvements to public safety, to public parks and area schools — features that benefit a community more broadly. But beyond investment, he argues government can play a role.
“There are a lot of different layers where policy can act,” Grant says. “Probably the most immediate actor in that space are city planning and economic development departments — city governments control zoning, regulations about inclusionary housing, and the ability to provide affordable housing that’s financed by market rate housing as a way to leverage some of that investment to benefit a broader swath of people.”
In addition to city governments, Grant says regional, state, and federal government can fight displacement through tax credit financing for affordable housing, and directing expenditures for large infrastructure projects so public money can flow to areas that benefit large swaths of people.
Still, newcomers to urban areas — people dubbed “yuppies” or “evil hipsters” — are often accused of ignoring broader communities in favor of their own interests.
“I think that narrative and that set of terms is unfortunate,” Grant says. “The gentrification process that we see in many cities around the country, it’s not something that one group of people is doing to another group of people — it is a process that is emerging from thousands of individual decisions.”
Grant adds that the narrative of “heroes” and “villains” can distort the larger problems facing urban communities around the country.
“We need to understand that in many cities we have a serious housing crisis — a shortage that is a result of us not providing adequate housing, particularly in the kind of urban, walkable, amenity-rich neighborhoods that people increasingly want to live in,” he says. “I think it’s important to note that this broader process is a side effect of a very positive change in American cities where, after 85 years of abandoning our cities, people want to live in cities again.”
According the the US Census Bureau, more Americans are living in cities — almost 200 million in 2013, a 14 percent increase over 2000 — something Grant considers a positive trend.
“That’s good news for the planet, that’s good news for our democracy, I believe, in terms of public space and people living together instead of in isolated houses behind two car garages,” he says. “There are a lot of positive aspects to the American desire to live in cities again. But there are also very real consequences for people that stuck it out or were stuck during the period when we abandoned our cities and let them decline. We need to keep in perspective that this is somewhat a creature of a big picture urban and economic phenomena in this country.”