Urban Design without Displacement

Experts: Focus on the Needs of the Neighborhood

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Kathleen King is a landscape architect with the Design Workshop firm in Denver.

Dr. Winifred Curran is an associate professor of geography at DePaul University in Chicago.

Posted: Wednesday, May 24, 2017 9:24 am

Gentrification has changed the composition of a number of urban areas in the United States and internationally. In the U.S., this has sometimes meant the displacement of poorer communities of color by wealthier white populations moving in and pricing them out of the market.

Often, the phenomenon results from profit-driven developers seeking cheap land in neighborhoods that have a history of disinvestment. Cities like Portland, Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., among others, are often identified in tandem with gentrification.

How is a landscape architect or urban planner to approach community design that meets the needs of a city, developer or other client but also with appropriate sensitivity to the needs and desires of a community? A lot of it comes down to communication.

“What we constantly try to do is educate our clients and work with our staff,” explained Kathleen King, a landscape architect with the Design Workshop firm in Denver. King said community input and support are key to their approach with cities, transportation authorities, resorts, golf courses or other clients. “Design Workshop invests in community engagement and integrates community design throughout our process,” she said.

Dr. Winifred Curran, an associate professor of geography at DePaul University in Chicago, agreed with this approach. “It’s great if a planner can act as an advocate for people who don’t necessarily have a voice,” she said. If that intent is present, Curran said, a little can go a long way. Often times, the attractive qualities of a neighborhood have been built on years of perseverance and activism of long-time residents. When developers come in without recognizing that, there is often push-back she said.

King and Curran were participants in a panel discussion titled “Designing Without Displacement” presented earlier this year at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in St. Louis.

“In my experience, what community members are most resentful of is that they are seen to be kind of obsolete, with no place in their own neighborhood and in some ways as barriers to development,” Curran said.

“These kind of conditions and factors and elements of community need to be ingrained in the process,” said King. “For one thing because it’s the right thing to do but, for a project like a resort, if you do a little give, where you have affordable housing as part of project or something like that, you will get through county approval processes easier, faster and with more community support than if you didn't do that. There are ways to make some of these issues and some of these strategies a win-win.”

The landscape architecture profession’s governing body, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), has taken note of the shift in orientation of members like King. In response to a successful panel King put together at an ASLA annual meeting on the role of social justice in their profession, the organization established an Environmental Justice Professional Planning Network in 2015. King was its first co-chair.

The term gentrification merits some unpacking. British sociologist Ruth Glass is credited with introducing the word “gentrification” in the 1960s in the context of a then rapidly-changing London, though the process is thought by some to extend back as far as Roman times. The term builds on the word “gentry,” which refers to upper class citizens, and, for Glass, referenced the process by which working class Londoners were “invaded” and “displaced” by the middle class. Today, over 50 years later, Glass’s term persists.

However, there are a number of different ways researchers pinpoint the existence of gentrification and there is no broad consensus on how to do so. Most identify it as areas with median incomes and housing prices increasing at the swiftest rates over a certain period of time, but some single out only neighborhoods in the lowest-income areas to begin with, and others isolate varying periods of time. Some include education levels.

Where there is consensus is that no matter how it is measured, very few U.S. neighborhoods have actually experienced it - less than 10 percent. Still, unwanted displacement of large numbers of people is cause for concern, and in cities where gentrification is occurring, community development and planning professionals are taking note, shifting their lenses to the issue and developing strategies to minimize negative impacts or even head it off from the get go.

Curran coined the phrase “just green enough” several years ago to explain a strategy for communities to prevent gentrification. This means keeping any design efforts - new parks, for example - less flashy and less expensive. This will, in theory, minimize the attention of developers on the neighborhood.

“If a project is supposed to be green and sustainable, it’s not necessarily about high design,” said Curran. “Green doesn’t have to mean luxury. It doesn’t have to mean the High Line,” she said, referring to the elevated New York City park that has driven up surrounding property values and proven expensive to maintain. “You can have benefits without flashy projects and displacement,” Curran said.

King, who agrees with the philosophy, described it succinctly as, “avoid the shiny and make it meet the needs (of the neighborhood) but don’t meet someone else’s need or your needs as a designer.”

Responsible planning and design work must go hand in hand with other efforts like affordable housing and zoning. “In areas that are already industrial, if you can preserve industrial zoning, that is a way to discourage real estate speculation,” said Curran. She also mentioned demolition fees and de-conversion fees as resources. Others could be social equity co-ops and community land trusts. Both Curran and King noted that neighborhoods with high rates of home ownership are much less vulnerable to gentrification.

Some urban planners have taken stands when their projects have evolved in ways that diverge from the original intent and plan of community inclusion. Ryan Gravel, the urban planner behind Atlanta’s BeltLine did just that, over concerns of a lack of equity and affordability being taken into consideration with the multi-use trail project.

Community engagement must not just be a box to check off on a list. It’s not easy, and there are a lot of moving parts. “You have to want to do it,” said Curran, “genuinely.”

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