A Placemaking Journal
Livability, Division, Exclusion and Other Naughty Words
This is what we’ve come to: An escalation in urban property values and cost of living so extreme in some quarters that there are now those who, with a straight face, argue against efforts to improve neighborhoods. Don’t bring those improvements goes the often implied but less frequently articulated point of view, as improvement increases quality of life, quality of life increases desirability, desirability increases demand, and demand brings newcomers and drives up cost.
That’s how the process goes, for sure. You’ll get no argument from me in that regard. But surely we’re capable of something better than leave suffering areas suffering so they can stay off the radar.
My colleague Ben Brown sums up the conflict nicely in his recent consideration of Richard Florida’s latest book:
“…if cities were good at giving lots of citizens opportunities for happier, more prosperous lives, they were also good at making more obvious a widening gap between those with sufficient wealth to make the most of city life and those who were priced out. Demand for the best urban environments — those with a range of housing options, with transit and with an abundance of walkable and bikeable destinations — outstrips supply. Which means those with the means to secure what they want bid up the costs of living in those kinds of places, particularly the costs of housing. In the most desirable places, prices strain the budgets of even the young, Creative Classmates who are stuck in low-paying jobs and struggling to pay off student loans. People who’ve endured generations of disadvantage, isolated in pockets of poverty underserved by city services? For them, urban life was and is anything but paradise.”
So what to do?
The underlying challenge, at least as I tend to see it, is that the economic frame frequently used to encapsulate the issues is lacking. It may adequately articulate the mechanics of the story but it fails to actually tell the full story. And that story involves the duality of being human, with all the positives and negatives that suggests.
When people fight against livability investments in their neighborhoods, it’s not because they’re actually against gathering places or safer streets or whatever. It’s because they fear what might be waiting on the other side.
They fear the motivations of whomever’s driving change. They fear new residents with different priorities, or different cultural norms, or different goals for the future of the neighborhood. They fear diminishing influence over their surroundings. They fear a full-on economic upheaval in which they can no longer afford their own neighborhood.
And you know what? Rightfully so. It’s the all-too-common playbook of how the urban renaissance has played out in no shortage of places.
But as I said, is erecting barriers to new investment and the people it subsequently attracts really the best we’ve got? All so we can repel for another day the changing nature of how and where people want to make their life?
The way such conflicts play out is further complicated by the fact that, all too often, no one ends up owning the moral high ground. I’ve written before about the failings of both sides in a changing neighborhood, most specifically with this:
“[N]ewcomers may be painfully clueless. They may be culturally tone deaf. They may even be dismissive but, for better or worse, their presence alone makes them part of the community and that needs to be acknowledged. If not, you end up with two types of entitlement going on: Newcomers who think they’re entitled to just run roughshod, remaking the neighborhood to serve their own narrow band of interests; but also long-timers who think they’re somehow entitled to a world without change.”
In short, the people around you — all of ‘em — are in your life. Whether you like it or not. So what are you going to do?
I’m not really advancing a solidified agenda here so much as I’m sort of thinking out loud. And it all comes down to the duality of being human I mentioned earlier. Because if I can acknowledge that we, as humans, can and do succumb to our pettiest, most divisive, most exclusionary instincts as a form of self-preservation, I have to equally acknowledge that the opposite is also possible. That we have within us the capacity for great character, empathy, conviction, creativity, and kindness that, when the going gets tough, can be made manifest to great effect.
What if our response to change wasn’t “no, because…” but rather, “yes, if….”? What if, in the truest sense of what community really means, we brought a level of humility and grace to the proceedings and had frank discussions about exactly how, together, we might successfully improve our neighborhoods while simultaneously protecting the most vulnerable among us?
That sounds like a precursor to one of community’s greatest potential assets — the prospect of a meaningful political constituency to push for local policy changes that might offset or mitigate the often-neglected downsides of neighborhood evolution.
Yes, I’m talking about a sure-to-be-volatile (or at least awkward) jumbling of community, culture, and politics. And yes, I’m asking that it begin with people putting the We ahead of the Me.
That’s a tall order and I’ve no real sense of how it might look in practice. But I do know that the us vs. them standoff presently in play in changing neighborhoods around the country is failing to produce any real solutions. It’s just widening divides we’ve grown comfortable with after years of segregating ourselves.
That’s not right, even if I’m only stabbing at possibilities for how we might turn it all around. But even in the face of such uncertainty, one thing’s absolutely clear: However we make it work, it doesn’t start by putting up walls.
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