Archive for the ‘Gentrification’ Category

Urban Space (Theory)

Monday, May 28th, 2012

Today’s post is going to be heavy on theory and theoretical models of the built environment.  The goal here is to make these theories understandable and applicable to our everyday experience.

Henri Lefebvre famously said that urban space is socially constructed.  But what did that 1970s French Marxist urban theorist mean?  I interpret it to suggest that a society’s and community’s values, assumptions, and ideologies end up shaping the way the human made environment is constructed.  Thus if a society values the personal freedom of the car and believes that single family houses provide the healthiest environments for raising children, and if that society established social norms that look down on using public transit or living in  inner cities, then the result will be a suburban focused society of single family houses on large lots:  the late 20th century US suburb.

Later urban theorists have suggested that space is the result of conflict.  Much of this theory came out of the experience of gentrification where there were often economic and physical conflicts between newcomers and those being displaced.  Thus if affluent households move into previously poor neighborhoods, the dynamic can be described as a conflict between the two groups, one that the unequal power relationships result in neighborhood change.

I’d like to put these ideas together and suggest that urban space is the result of conflicts of ideas.  Some people envision a neighborhood of low income, white ethnic families centered around Catholic parishes.  Others see the community as a place where newly arriving  immigrants from the South can find affordable housing.  The result is the racial change and conflict of the 1950s – 1990s.  But notice that the conflict “on the ground” flows from this conflict of ideas.  One group sees the neighborhood to be one way, the other another.  The result is that each group competes for the space by trying to enforce its views of the ideal neighborhood form on the physical ground.  Today, we see this conflict between those who believe in car centric suburbs and those who want walkable communities.  But again, the vision for the community precedes the actual urban form as seen on the ground.


Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Last week I wrote about how US cities were growing for the most part and how that was a good thing. There is a downside to this growth, however, because in many places it is leading to what is known as gentrification, the displacement of poorer or non-White people by the more affluent. In part this is happening because many if not most cities have a finite amount of space and any growth of one group can only take place at the expense of other groups. Cities such as New York, Boston, San Francisco, among others, are essentially built out and thus the expansion of middle class and wealthy people inevitably results in putting pressure on the poor and those without resources.  Cities represent contested space.

I just finished reading the book gentrification by Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, an Elvin Wyly. In general it is a great book and I highly recommend it for those who are interested in the topic of gentrification. Among the book’s strength is its social justice framework for analyzing the issue and the way it connects the rights of those who are disadvantaged to what is happening in many cities around the globe. It has extensive discussions on the causes of gentrification and includes detailed analysis of both demand-side and supply-side theories of why gentrification takes place. Its global approach is also helpful because gentrification is clearly an international phenomenon.

The book does have some failings however. For one thing it takes anyone’s claim that gentrification is happening in their community as true. And it takes any single article or a single real estate agent’s claim that gentrification is happening in a neighborhood is changing at face value. Despite what the book may say I have a hard time believing that the South Bronx, for example, is truly gentrifying. Also it seems to make any movement of the upper income people into a community is gentrification or any kind of displacement of lower income people is gentrification. So the book goes back repeatedly to the HOPE VI program, the program that began in the 1990s to rebuilt public housing developments (often reducing the total number of units, the number of units for low income people, and reconfiguring buildings along New Urbanist principles) as an example of gentrification. I dislike the HOPE VI program because it reduces densities in cities and because it does result in fewer units for low-income people. But somehow I don’t think it’s a good example gentrification. Just because something is bad and just because poor people are disproportionately harmed does not mean that gentrification itself. There was also the problem the book lacks a historic perspective and frequently says that suddenly in a neighborhood in the 1980s in the United States that loans were available for real estate. The implication is that the loans became available because of or to promote gentrification. The authors apparently never heard of the community reinvestment act. Race also strangely disappears from the book promote the middle chapters and the issue of racial segregation is not discussed.

But in any case what the book doesn’t really get into is what to do about gentrification and the problem of how to manage conflicting demand for space and a finite container that are cities. It does mention the work of several community groups to stop gentrification in their communities but it doesn’t really get into the whole issue of how to manage growth and how to keep cities open to all. But then again this is such a complex and difficult issue to manage it may need a book all to itself.