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sustainable / regenerative urban development while avoiding gentrification and displacement  RSS feed

 
Michael McGurk
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Toby, thanks for answering questions. I've been enjoying your new book.

I live in an urban area, and I've been thinking a lot recently about sustainable / regenerative urban development while avoiding gentrification, and displacement. I'm thinking of an example in my city where a beautiful set of condos was developed that is LEED platinum, collects and uses it for irrigation of green spaces, maintenence cleaning, and a koi pond. There are several communal areas, such as a small rooftop dog park, and an outdoor kitchen / grill / hangout area. The buildings are also super efficient with energy. However, all these awesome things are only available to the residents of the condos. This is in an area that is historically low-income, but recently has been gentrifying. Hip restaurants, younger people moving in, rent costs rising, etc. So, as you might guess, lower-income residents of the neighborhood who don't own their homes, are forced to move away because of the rising rent prices. Also, they cannot eat at the fancy restaurants, and generally feel resentment towards the folks moving in.

With all that said, being an activist in the city fighting for justice and sustainability, I see many people who feel passionately against gentrification. On one hand I'm excited to see "green" development and on the other hand, I understand the feelings of those who are negatively affected. So, I've been reading and thinking about ways to prevent this, and I'd like to hear your thoughts.

One suggestion is to liberalize zoning laws to allow developers to develop in already expensive neighborhoods where demand is stable and predictable, but wealthy residents have more success fighting new development (http://marketurbanism.com/2015/01/28/2-ways-to-fight-gentrification/). Another suggestion is to put in place protections against eviction due to rising rents (http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2014/04/25/there-are-plenty-of-ways-to-combat-gentrification).

When I think of the Permaculture Ethics, the third ethic seems to be about giving back to the community that supports your development. Today, developers in a competitive market are looking to maximize profits, and don't have incentive to ensure that low-income residents benefit from development aimied at a wealthier market. Maybe regulations could ensure that developers creating housing that is greater than double the value of surrounding homes must pay back the community some how (creating public spaces, being taxed to support the community, etc).

From what I know, your viewpoint is not favorable of regulations, and I've tried to look at ways of incentivizing developers to give back to the community. Maybe the city could incentivize developers with temporarily lowered property tax rates if they agree to public community development work. In my eyes, the developers aren't going to give back unless they're incentivized, or forced to. However, I support the green development, and exciting projects, but I don't want to see the negative effects of gentrification harm the community.

In your writings, you stress early involvement of the community in the planning process, which I agree is essential. In my experience, I've all too often seen developers completely ignore, or be extremely secretive with their plans, rather than involving the community, despite community outrage.

I know this is a complicated topic, but what are your thoughts about this issue?
 
Toby Hemenway
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Gentrification is indeed a huge and complex topic, and I doubt if I can do it much justice in the small amount of time I've got right now. Developers need incentives of many kinds to build anything other than high-end housing; that has to come from an enlightened community and tax base that understands the importance of mixed-income communities. Large blocks of low-income housing are not the solution, as we've learned. Regulations and incentives can act as a short-term "solution" (if that is the right word; palliative is more like it) but we're fighting a tough uphill battle here. Every bit of this culture's major economic institutions--finance, real estate, development, construction, tax bases, insurance, government, and more--has evolved to be dependent on income growth, so asking those institutions to take less money rather than more by housing low- rather than high-income people is against their inherent nature. As long as those structures are in place, gentrification will be favored over mixed-income neighborhoods. The ancient Greeks and Chinese complained about gentrification, so it's pretty well baked in at this point. Until those institutions can be radically restructured (and I don't see how to do that except via a collapse of civilization followed by a return to a more decentralized culture) the only way I see to fight gentrification is to enact laws and regulations that de-incentivize it. And that's where citizen activists, responsive government, and a non-NIMBY attitude all come into play.

There's a lot more to say here, but that's all I've got time for.
 
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