What is wrong with “How to Make an Attractive City”

critica

How to Make an Attractive City”, a video by The School of Life, recently gained attention in social media. Well presented and pretty much aligned with today’s mainstream urbanism, the video earned plenty of shares and few critiques. This is probably the first critique you may read.

The video is divided into six parts, each with ideas the author suggests are important to make an attractive city. I will cover each one of them separately and analyze the author’s conclusion in a final section.

1 – Not too chaotic, not too ordered

The author argues that a city must establish simple rules to to give aesthetic order to a city without producing excessive uniformity. From Alain Bertaud’s and Paul Romer’s ideas, it can make sense to maintain a certain order of basic infrastructure planning in to enable more freedom to build in private lots. However, this is not the order to which the video refers, suggesting rules on the architectural form of buildings.

The main premise behind this is that it “is what humans love”. But though the producers of the video certainly do love this kind of result, it is impossible to affirm that all humans love a certain type of urban aesthetics generated by an urbanist. It is even less convincing when this rule will impact density by restricting built area of a certain lot of land or even raising building costs, two probable consequences of this kind of policy: a specific kind of beauty does not come for free.

Jane Jacobs, one of the most celebrated and influential urbanists of the modern era, clearly argued that

“To approach a city, or even a city neighborhood, as if it were a larger architectural problem, capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art, is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life. The results of such profound confusion between art and life are neither art nor life. They are taxidermy.”

The video also makes a factual mistake when it states that London skyscrapers are carefully planned. Their location, in fact, is based on preserving specific viewing corridors established almost 200 years ago. As The Economist reported last year, views of these landmarks have completely lost its relevance in contemporary London.

2 – Visible Life

The video argues that cities full of street life are more desirable. That is observably apparent, as people’s preference is observable in their chose to be drawn to these spaces. Nevertheless, the video makes a contradiction: first saying that Hong Kong is an example of a city with street life, then claiming cities full of skyscrapers aren’t conducive to street life.  Cities with “anonymous commercial towers” do not necessarily lacks street life: New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo and City of London are examples of cities full of skyscrapers that have active street life.

3 – Compact cities

Suburbanization and sprawl has been vigorously incentivized by public policy, most massively in the United States. United States policy featured an Interstate Highway System with massive investment in large road projects; education funding that favored good public schools in the suburbs; subsidies that favored owning larger-and-larger homes such as Mortgage Interest Deduction; zoning restrictions such as minimum lot areas and setbacks, as well as state support for the auto and oil industry. These programs fueled a form of urbanization we’ve come to know as suburban sprawl. Compact cities, which the videos celebrate have typically grown spontaneously without significant interventions.

The historic European and Brazilian downtowns typically have shorter commute distances, an intensive street life and a smaller dependency on the automobile.

4 – Orientation and mystery

It is true that people have diverse preferences for urban form, and that an attractive city can supply a greater variety of forms. However, it is dangerous for a city to dictate a certain kind of urban form for the city as a whole, even if it is a mix between different models. Although we can control form within a neighborhood or a large-scale development, municipal norms with these goals in mind can generate distortions exactly because of the infinitely varying  preferences of the citizens. Incapable of catering to all the subjective preferences of everyone that participates in the city environment, planners inherently lack the capability to determine ideal quantities of orientation and mystery the video suggests. In a truly organic and complex city, orientation emerges in a truly spontaneous and decentralized way that brings more “mystery” than any planner can fathom.

5 – Scale

Here the author quotes Joseph Campbell: “If you want to see what a society really believes in, look at what the biggest buildings on the horizon are dedicated to”, and deduces that we don’t actually collectively value sports shoe corporations, tax specialists, the oil industry and pharmaceuticals, as a few examples. But is that in fact true? A certain citizen may even say that he does not value these corporations and services, but he is a daily consumer of shoes, he pays his taxes, burns fuel and uses plastic products. And when he gets sick, he relies on pharmaceutical drugs. In the behaviors of each person, a preference for these goods and services is in fact revealed.  The video misunderstands how the complexity of the economy actually works and how preferences in society are be manifested.

What happens within tall commercial buildings is never as simple as their appearance. They often house the companies that produce or support the computers we use, the planes we fly in or the milk we have with our everyday breakfast. Such a city reflects the social valuation of a complex network of voluntary action that generates the products and services that make our lives better.

Soon the author argues for preserving views and limiting building heights to five stories. The rule itself is a paradox, as a four story building will have its view blocked by a five story building. Going even further with this reasoning, we can infer that a single-story house can block the view of another single-story house. Arguing for the preservation of views is, in fact, a direct contradiction with what it means to live in a city.

In any case, it is not reasonable to limit buildings within a city to five stories. The height of the old cities the video refers to was not defined by planning norms, but by practical necessity of walking up and down stairs in an era before the elevators we now take for granted. In contrast to today, top floors in pre-elevator buildings were always the cheapest as they were the hardest floors to reach. Limiting building heights to five stories suggests an artificial and arbitrary limit to real estate supply, a tangible side effect of the “sense of insignificance” the producers of the video talk about.

6 – A local city

The video says that buildings must not look alike everywhere in the world, as his trips get boring and because each city has a specific climate, needs and different positive and negative attributes. It argues for a strong local character and for the use of local forms and materials.

This is very true with commercial real estate in Latin America, where developers have built several glass towers which are totally inadequate for a tropical climate. These designs are intended to copy temperate climate buildings in developed countries, where the “greenhouse effect” within glass-enclosed buildings is conducive to indoor working environments. Smart builders will certainly learn from these mistakes and develop more adequate local solutions instead of imitating inefficient and inadequate forms.

The use of local forms and materials, however, is a major problem. Aesthetic and architectural form – trying to separate it from building technology – were always globalized, being influenced by different cultures and ideas. The same argument goes for materials: locally available materials will hardly be the best for every specific building.  This principle can be applied to any object. It is impossible to imagine a pencil, a single and relatively simple object, to be produced only with local materials, much less an entire city. The historical examples given in the video were built that way mainly by lack of options, not by an aesthetic or functional preference. The only contemporary example given, architect Glenn Murcutt, does not use local materials and whether he designs are distinctly “Australian architecture” is a very subjective interpretation.

Conclusion

In the last section, the author asserts that the greatest challenges to implementation of these ideas are a lack of political will and intellectual confusion about aesthetics. This was one of the most dangerous ideas the video communicates. In saying that it is possible to affirm what is inherently beautiful or ugly, is realistically impossible as these are not universal truths. I personally know people who find the glass towers the author hates beautiful. Others think the Brazilian favelas or the shantytowns in Bangkok are the most amazing and spontaneous expression of humanity. Some even think Paris is not the romantic city travel guides tell us, but instead a repetitive and boring vision of the past. The stand the video takes is worrying, as it argues for a correct and universal aesthetic enforced by increasing political power.

The tourism statistics used in this argument is simply false. Dubai, Singapore, New York and Hong Kong are part of the top ten most visited cities in the world and represent urban aesthetics and form opposite to the one argued in the video. For example, my personal experience of Frankfurt does not align with what the video says: I had the opportunity to spend a few days there on vacation and thought the city was amazing.

The final conclusion is an attack on real estate developers, who apparently greedily fight to make the city an ugly unattractive place. Unfortunately not everything is easy in this world. Some developers invest in renowned architects to serve niche clients and citizens that are willing to pay a premium for aesthetic extravagance. However, those who build for the masses cannot budget for extravagance, as real estate is usually the largest expenditure in someone’s life – and the burden of housing costs ever growing in most part because of very regulations the video is promoting. The given example of New Town, Edinburgh is actually perfect, as it is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in town.  Ironically it’s probably the neighborhood with the least amount of street life because of it’s strict residential zoning.

Another contradiction is when the video argues a city cannot be shaped by a free real estate market.  However, most of the cities the video uses as good examples were, in fact, built by within extremely deregulated real estate market compared to today’s standards. This is true for almost all medieval cities, old London neighborhoods, the Marais in Paris (what was untouched by Haussmann’s renovation) with the additional examples of Hong Kong, New York and even the historical centers of Brazilian cities.

By understanding the city as a complex, emergent environment, we should let go of the urge to impose our personal interests in urban form. The video’s final conclusions, calling for an increase in government control and a rigid regulation of the urban environment is as dangerous and has the same mindset as the failed plans of Brasilia.  And as dangerous as modern urbanism theory in general, which sees the city as built physical space that can be modeled by what planners want to achieve. Cities must be the result of spontaneous and voluntary action by all its citizens, not of a committee that decides what is right, wrong, beautiful or ugly.  Restraint from imposition by those who arrogantly proclaim they know what’s best for the extremely complex organisms we call cities will eventually lead to what I like to call planned chaos.

Seamless Transit: Thoughts on the new report from SPUR

SPUR_Seamless_Transit

Seamless Transit is the new transportation policy report from SPUR. Main author Ratna Amin proposes integrating the Bay Area’s balkanized transit systems to improve lackluster ridership. Given that the region has 23 separate transit providers–more than any other metropolitan area in the country–she may have a point.

The report proposes standardizing service maps, fare structures, and payment systems; eliminating inter-system coverage gaps as well as redundant coverage; and reforming transit governance so that the different agencies actually make plans together instead of working at cross-purposes or not at all.

The recommendations are sound and the report includes historical footnotes for context. These are helpful for understanding region’s complicated institutional arrangements. Seamless Transit is a fine piece of work and well worth the read for anyone interested in Bay Area transportation.

But while organizational efficiency is important, it’s not the only thing to discuss. If we want to improve the region’s mass transit systems, we have to consider the physical environment in which those systems are embedded. To get transit right, the region needs to embrace density.

Denser development around transit nodes would increase ridership substantially. When people live, work, and play in smaller geographic areas, more people travel between a fewer number of points. Mass transit, especially fixed rail transit, becomes more effective the denser development becomes.

Hong Kong’s Metro Transit Railway (MTR) might be the quintessential example of urban density begetting mass transit success. The city is home to over 7 million inhabitants. It has a population density of over 18,000 residents per square mile. And of this population, 41% live within a half mile of an MTR station. The result? The MTR has a farebox recovery ratio of 186%–the highest in the world.

Because of legal as well as political differences between Hong Kong and the Bay Area, copy/pasting the MTR’s Integrated Rail-Property Development approach probably isn’t  feasible. But the general lesson remains the same. Increasing ridership means accepting density. And accepting density means reforming the region’s anti-growth, anti-urban land use policies.

None of this is a critique of Ms. Amin or her co-authors. They set out to address a specific set of issues and they did it well. But in the wider conversation about regional transportation, we’d do well to remember the importance of land use. And we’d do well to recognize the necessity of reform. Ultimately, getting mass transit right may have as much to do with embracing urban levels of density as it does with making sure the trains show up on time.

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Jane Jacobs! (Now Let’s Have A Debate)

Jane Jacobs

1. This week I wrote three articles: one for Governing Magazine about how to make pedestrian malls successful; and two for Forbes—about how Syracuse is squelching a driveway-sharing app, and the latest attempts from San Francisco NIMBYs to stop a Warriors arena.

2. Today would have been Jane Jacobs’ 99th birthday, and I know many of you celebrated by attending (or hosting) Jane’s Walks in your cities. Because of other obligations, I wasn’t able to attend the Miami one, which was hosted in Little Havana by local realtor Carlos Fausto Miranda. If any of you did, tell me how it went.

3. I hate to use Jacob’s birthday as an excuse to seem divisive, but there’s something about her writings—and the way they’re interpreted—that I want to explore:

The thing that’s always made Jane Jacobs’s work so refreshing is that it has ideological crossover appeal. But this has also caused different schools of thought to emerge about her.

The left-leaning among Jacobs’ fans emphasize her work on urban form. Jacobs’ favorite neighborhood was her home base of Greenwich Village, and living there inspired her vision for other neighborhoods. As she brilliantly explained throughout The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the ones that functioned best had traditional street grids, human-scale buildings and parks, a mix of old and new architecture, and pedestrian accessibility. These elements of her teaching have been embraced by New Urbanists like Andres Duany, who have built entire neighborhoods on her principles; and by “smart growth” planners, who take the next step by imposing historic overlays and “form-based codes” on urban areas. These latter moves are done to stave off modernization, which they see as threatening Jacobs’ aesthetic vision for cities.

But the right-leaning side of Jacob’s followers focus less on design, than on her economic teachings, many of which came in later works. They adore the woman who loathed central planning and land use controls, and who thought that the “organized complexity” of city life was best tackled through organic growth. Rather than advocating for new layers of regulation, then, conservatives view Jacobs as an early advocate of market-based solutions. This side is led by people like Edward Glaeser, a proponent of more skyscrapers. Although skyscrapers might be taller than Jacobs’ ideal neighborhood, he argues, they would be a Jacobian response to many cities’ housing shortages, and if designed properly, would generate the street life she described.

I’m not here to say that one side is right or the other wrong. Both Jacobs’ economic and design teachings—and the way they’ve been interpreted—have been mostly beneficial for cities. But I will say that the New Urbanist side has gotten more representation. If you think today of what someone means when referring to a “Jane Jacobs-style neighborhood,” you picture a medium-density area with historic character, pocket parks, and niche coffee shops—places like Greenwich Village, The Haight in San Francisco, Capitol Hill in Seattle, Wicker Park in Chicago, or Boston’s Back Bay. Meantime, large-scale neighborhoods—such as a typical downtown business district—are considered antithetical to Jacobian urbanism, and are frowned upon by planners.

I wish this perception would change, though, because high-rise neighborhoods play a role in cities that Jacobs would have appreciated. As I wrote on this site several weeks ago, the Miami neighborhood of Brickell—which is an overnight skyscraper zone that would have Glaeser beaming—is essential to the city’s economy, providing housing, offices, and recreation for the ever-important banking industry. It has also helped preserve surrounding downtown neighborhoods, by containing the city’s banking wealth to a small area, rather than having it inflict gentrification elsewhere. While Brickell doesn’t yet have great pedestrian infrastructure, the neighborhood’s sheer density has made it (as Glaeser would have predicted, and Jacobs would have liked) one of the city’s most active around the clock.

Yet I can’t imagine Brickell ever being the subject of a Jane’s Walk. There is something about the neighborhood’s sensibility—corporate, wealthy, glossy, neo-liberal—that doesn’t gel with Jacobs’ left-wing faction. However, Brickell and other skyscraper neighborhoods are essential in helping cities grow and stay competitive in a global economy. True fans of Jacobs should see the value of encouraging (or at least allowing) such neighborhoods, as a compliment to the more traditional-style ones.

 

Travel Update: Recent Articles On Housing

I wrote a housing-related article this week for Forbes, and in the process of research, came across several other interesting recent ones. Here’s the roundup:

1. My article discussed the connection between rent control and high housing prices. To my surprise, only 6 of America’s 50 largest cities still have rent control, as numerous others ended what they saw as a counterproductive policy. But those six remain among the nation’s most expensive, and I argue that rent control is a big reason why.

2. This didn’t prevent Seattle from trying to revive the policy this week, led by Socialist Party councilor Kshama Sawant.

3. While rent control is seen today as antiquated, this hasn’t stopped the rise of its close cousin, “inclusionary zoning.” Steven Greenhut writes for Reason about a California state court case that could determine the policy’s constitutionality. The case, he says, is “about whether cities have unlimited power to extract concessions from homebuilders for things that are not ‘impacts’ from the project. In other words, it’s legitimate for government to require new developments to pay to mitigate the effect of the new residents on local infrastructure (roads, sewers, fire service), but is it OK for cities to require affordable housing just because officials want to see more of it built?”

4. Michael Lewyn challenges the notion that Airbnb hurts housing affordability by taking units off the market.

5. Recently the New York Times published a short time-lapse video of lower Manhattan’s various developmental stages over 500 years. Daniel Bier at Newsweek points out something strange about the video’s last few decades: “The pace of change slows dramatically toward the end…because the city government has deliberately calcified New York City, encasing the city’s structures in a legal state of suspended animation.”

6. Emily Badger writes on Wonkblog about the rise of urban adult singles, and the way that cities’ housing stocks have failed to adapt–thanks to government regulation. Her piece is worth quoting at length.

Our housing stock wasn’t built for a society full of singles. Our communities instead are full of homes meant for the traditional nuclear family — two-bedroom starter homes, three-bedroom houses, apartments with more bathrooms than a singleton needs, full-service kitchens when 25-year-old bachelors now primarily dine by microwave….In New York, Austin and Denver, nearly 57 percent of adults were single in 2010 (although not necessarily living alone). In Washington, D.C., that figure is a whopping 71 percent. But none of these cities have anywhere near enough small-sized housing to accommodate them. That means that a lot of people are probably living with unrelated adult roommates who’d prefer to live alone (half you people in D.C. group homes?). And it means that some people who do live alone are likely paying more for space they don’t want in a large one-bedroom because there aren’t enough alternatives in studios and efficiencies.

Changes in demographics and social norms invariably occur faster than changes in the built world around us…[But] a lot of cities are also actively making it hard for the housing supply to adjust. The rise of singles calls in particular for more micro housing: apartments the size of studios or even smaller, and “accessory dwelling units” (think in-law cottages or garage apartments) that might be built in the back yard of existing homes. It also calls for a different model of housing where, for instance, four singles might share a communal living space adjacent to their separate units instead of each having their own living room. Neighborhood opposition and existing regulation make this kind of housing hard to build in most cities, though. Parking requirements, for example, often mandate that new housing come with new off-street parking spots, too. But that rule is impractical for someone who wants to rent a cottage in her backyard. And it makes projects financially unworkable for a developer who wants to build an apartment full of micro units next to a train stop for residents who don’t own cars. Other laws set minimum standards for how small a housing unit can be — in much of New York, it’s 400 square feet — making micro units effectively illegal.

 

Travel Update: A Tale Of Two Latino Areas In Miami And San Francisco

Miami, FL

1. The two Forbes articles I wrote this week are about New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s effort to modernize the city’s courts; and a tech program under New York governor Andrew Cuomo that failed colossally in year one.

2. The highlight of my week, though, came at the tail end on Saturday night, when I explored Miami’s Little Havana, a Cuban neighborhood outside of downtown. What surprised me was how Cuban it actually was, despite abutting one of the nation’s booming financial districts. Almost everyone there is Cuban—save the few gringo tourists like me—and the neighborhood is rooted in their culture. Spanish is the first language, salsa music echoes through the streets, and retail areas are lined with Caribbean cuisine. It’s not unusual to find live chickens running though people’s backyards. The architecture reflects what I’ve seen in photos of Havana, and hasn’t been interspersed with condos and yoga studios.

This surprised me because, usually when I walk into such neighborhoods that abut rich areas, I find that they have been gentrified past the state of being “ethnic.” For example in San Francisco, The Mission District, historically the city’s Mexican neighborhood, is a shell of its former self. While it may have some streets dedicated to Mexican culture, there is literally a one-block demarcation from hipster Valencia Street, and the only thing keeping the old-timers around is rent control. San Francisco also has an increasingly diluted Chinatown and Japantown, and the decline of its black culture is well-documented. Meanwhile Miami’s “Little Havana” is still Cuban and historically-black Overtown remains black. Both neighborhoods are a stone’s-throw from downtown.

The fact that Miami is better than San Francisco at preserving close-in ethnic neighborhoods is surprising, because the cities are similar. Both have experienced a flood of new people and capital due, respectively, to their booming financial and tech industries. Both are warm-weather cities that attract tourists, artists, and the creative class. So how has Miami resisted gentrification? The answer lies in its downtown housing policies.

Rather than acting like they had no clue what to do with all these incoming rich people, Miami officials allowed them a place to go: Brickell. This is a neo-liberal mecca that several decades ago was a low-slung neighborhood. But in the 1970s, it began attracting small banks, and in the decades since has boomed into the “Wall Street of Miami.” It is now home to dozens of banks, and more than just a daytime work center, has evolved into a 24/7 skyscraper neighborhood, with a residential population that doubled from 2000-2010, to 27,000. A 2013 report found that 19 new condos were under construction, and another two dozen were in the planning stages. Along with this has come the fancy restaurants, bars, light rail, and walkable streets.

“If you’re a yuppie in Miami,” said a finance-industry woman who I went on a date with in the area, during a characteristically hopping Thursday night. “You’re going to live in Brickell.”

brickell

San Francisco, meanwhile, doesn’t have a Brickell-like area, and thus not a decisive place for its techies to live. The reason is politics. For one, Brickell’s ostentatious wealth displays conform with Miami’s culture, but would send San Francisco’s class warriors into spasms of outrage. Brickell also wouldn’t get built because San Francisco’s NIMBYs wouldn’t just allow a high-rise neighborhood to go up overnight—or at all. Even when something as harmless as a 12-story condo—8 Washington—is proposed in downtown San Francisco, it faces years of litigation. The stretch of land most eligible to become San Francisco’s Brickell would be the Mission Bay area around the Giants’ baseball stadium. But much of this land is government-operated, and all of it is regulated, leading to parking lots and low-scale buildings.

If this area were allowed to explode with high-end condos, it would be a natural destination for SF’s techies—just as Brickell is for Miami’s bankers. Many of America’s rich young professionals, after all, have shown a taste for the type of high-rise, upscale, security-laden condos found in Brickell. But because San Francisco lacks such development, yuppies there instead settle for older housing in low-slung neighborhoods like The Mission, Potrero Hill, and the Tenderloin. And this has brought chaos to those neighborhoods, as prices rise and established tenants are evicted.

All this, of course, suggests an ironic aspect of urban housing markets that is misunderstood by most government officials and NIMBYs: “if a city wants to preserve, it must build.” In other words, if a city is being flooded with rich people, then allow the market to build to their specifications, namely in under-utilized areas, and watch them concentrate there. That way, they won’t overwhelm the old-school ethnic areas, keeping prices down, and enabling those areas to function as they long have.

 

Travel Update: Miami Is Denser Than When I Left It

Miami, FL

I’ve been busy this week writing, but still carved out time to walk Miami. The first thing that hit me was how much denser it got since I last visited in 2011. The downtown, once caked in human waste, is only halfway like this now; a few square blocks of cafes and bars have emerged just off the waterfront. New condos in nearby Brickell have turned it into a legitimate 24/7 neighborhood, with unique cultural status as a playground for young bankers. And just north, Wynwood–Miami’s arts neighborhood–is making strides.

My observations are confirmed by the data. From 2010-2013, the city grew by 20,000 (or 5%) and there has been similar growth in key adjacent suburbs like South Beach, Hialeah, and Coral Gables (where I’m staying). Since that visit, Miami’s Walk Score went from the nation’s 8th- to 5th- best, behind only New York, SF, Boston, and Philly–and ahead of Chicago!

But as MU reader Chris Harlan noted, the city hasn’t built the pedestrian infrastructure to keep pace. Added density always brings more of two traditionally conflicting uses: cars and pedestrians. If traffic engineering is not changed to encourage their graceful interaction, then cities will have public safety disasters. And this has happened in Miami, which is the nation’s 4th most dangerous city for pedestrians (trailing only the other 3 major ones in Florida). Walking around, it wasn’t hard to see why: people here drive aggressively, encouraged by wide roads, long blocks, and a lack of side-street parking to encourage slower speeds. Long blocks mean fewer cross-walks, and because waits at intersections take forever, many people choose to cut across mid-block, with cars speeding by in both directions. I found myself behaving the same way; after waiting long enough for things to clear, I would literally just sprint across busy roadways. But those more accustomed would mozy out halfway and wait at the yellow stripe–with dozens of cars going past in each direction–until the other half cleared. It seemed like practical suicide, but is a common form of jaywalking here. Solving this would be as simple as building medians, but there are precious little of these in Miami.

Now for the links:

1. I wrote 4 articles this week for Forbes: on the private gift that will fund another iconic park in Lower Manhattan; on how beach towns cope in the slow months; on Newark’s idiotic idea to fund vertical farming; and on Los Angeles’ government-manufactured housing crisis.

2. For brevity’s sake, I’ll save this subject for next week, but would like to know: is there a Market Urbanist position for how governments should invest the money in their employee pension systems? Although I haven’t studied the issue, it seems that having government-run management boards invites disaster, since they have less incentive to seek high returns (and often don’t, falling well under their predicted 7-8% returns, thus leading to under-funded systems). I’ve already heard of the phenomenon of “social divestment,” in which boards steer money away from companies that the left finds offensive, like gun and oil manufacturers. As Governing Magazine finance writer Liz Farmer has noted, this can lead to under-performance or even huge losses. Is the answer to privatize city governments’ asset management? Anyone with expertise on this issue, feel free to weigh in…

Only 2 Ways to Fight Gentrification (you’re not going to like one of them)

Tompkins Square Riots in 1988

Gentrification is the result of powerful economic forces. Those who misunderstand the nature of the economic forces at play, risk misdirecting those forces in ways that exasperate city-wide displacement.  Before discussing solutions, it is important to accept that gentrification is one symptom of a larger problem.

Anti-capitalists often portrays gentrification as class war, painting the archetypal greedy developer as the culprit:

Gentrification has always been a top-down affair, not a spontaneous hipster influx, orchestrated by the real estate developers and investors who pull the strings of city policy, with individual home-buyers deployed in mopping up operations.

Is gentrification a class war?  In a way, yes.  But the typical class analysis mistakes the symptom for the cause, and ends up pointing the finger at the wrong rich people.  There is no grand conspiracy concocted by real estate developers, though its not surprising it seems that way.

Real estate developers would be happy to build in already expensive neighborhoods where demand is stable and predictable.  They don’t because they are typically not allowed to.  Take Chicago’s Lincoln Park for example.  Daniel Hertz points out that the number of housing units there actually decreased 4.1% since 2000 and the neighborhood hasn’t allowed a single unit of affordable housing to be developed in 35 years. The affluent residents of Lincoln Park like their neighborhood the way it is and have the political clout to keep it that way.

Given that development projects are blocked in upper class neighborhoods, developers seek out alternatives. Here’s where “pulling the strings” is a viable strategy for developers. Politicians are far more willing to upzone working class neighborhoods. These communities are far less influential and have far fewer resources with which to fight back. The end result is that rich, entitled, white areas get down-zoned, while less-affluent, disempowered, minority areas are up-zoned. Politicians appease politically influential neighborhoods through limited growth, and then appease developers who see less influential neighborhoods as the only viable place for new construction.

Too often, the knee-jerk response is to fight development in these gentrifying neighborhoods. The consequences of this are two-fold. First, economics 101 tells us that capping supply will only cause prices to rise. Instead of newcomers filling newly-constructed units, they will quickly flood the existing stock of housing, quickening gentrification. Second, thwarting development shuts the release valve that alleviates housing price pressures that caused gentrification in the first place. Since not building is not an option, politicians would prefer to funnel new construction into disadvantaged neighborhoods instead of letting it happen where there is market demand. Development suppressed, gentrification swiftly captures the neighborhood and moves on to the next neighborhood in its path.

When considering gentrification, we must accept the fact that rich people don’t just vaporize by prohibiting the creation of housing for them.  If housing desires cannot be met in upscale neighborhoods, the wealthy can and will outbid less affluent people elsewhere.  With that in mind, there are only 2 solutions to stem the tide of gentrification.  The first solution is widespread liberalization of zoning.  This is particularly needed in already desirable locations where incumbent residents have effectively depopulated their neighborhoods over several decades.  The only other solution is to eradicate rich people altogether. This, I hope, is not what people have in mind when they declare class war.

Whether you are a class warrior or Market Urbanist, here are some tips to more effectively fight gentrification:

  • The battlefield is not in the gentrifying neighborhoods.  It is in the more wealthy neighborhoods where empowered residents fight to keep new people out.
  • The enemy is not the gentrifiers or developers trying to serve them.  It is the rich people who use their influence to thwart development in their neighborhoods.  The more they fight to depopulate desirable neighborhoods, the more people are left seeking alternative neighborhoods.
  • The mechanism of gentrification is not development.   It is zoning, and other regulations that thwart development in currently desirable areas.
  • The solution is not to fight development in currently gentrifying areas.  It’s to call for radical liberalization of zoning in already wealthy areas, and to stand up to neighborhood groups who try to abuse zoning to prevent that.
  • The reason people gentrify is not to disrupt ethnic or economically-challenged neighborhoods.  It is likely because they have been priced out of the neighborhood they desire.

 

Gentrification in Reverse

Co-authored with Anthony Ling, editor at Caos Planejado

Gentrification is the process through which real estate becomes more valuable and, therefore, more expensive. Rising prices displace older residents in favor of transplants with higher incomes. This shouldn’t be confused with the forced removal of citizens via eminent domain. Ejecting residents by official fiat is a different problem entirely.

Greenwich_Village,_1900

Greenwich Village circa ~1900

 

A classic example of gentrification is that of Greenwich Village, New York. Affluent residents initially occupied the neighborhood. It later became the city’s center for prostitution, prompting an upper-middle class exodus. Low prices and good location would later attract the textile industry. This was the neighborhood’s first wave of gentrification. But after a large factory fire, the neighborhood was once again abandoned.

Failure, however, would give way to unexpected success: artists and galleries began to occupy the vacant factories. These old industrial spaces soon became home to one of the most important movements in modern art. In Greenwich Village, different populations came and went. And in the process they each made lasting contributions to New York’s economic and cultural heritage. This was only possible because change was allowed to take place.

Greenwhich Village circa 2014

Greenwich Village circa 2014

But change isn’t always easy.

As a neighborhood becomes more popular, it also becomes more expensive. Tensions run high when long-time residents can’t afford rising rents. Some begin to call for rent controls or other measures to prevent demographic churn.

But rent control is a temporary fix at best; in the longer term, its effects are negative. By reducing supply, it tends to actually drive up the cost of housing. And in the face of price controls, landlords may seek to exit the rental market entirely, further exacerbating any housing shortage.
What, then, does this mean for urban development? How can cities evolve without completely displacing their middle and working class residents? By embracing gentrification’s opposite: filtering.

Buildings, like anything else, are expensive when they’re new but depreciate over time. Architectural styles change. Wear and tear accumulate. Buildings become harder to update with the newest amenities. Here is where we find filtering; aging units, originally built for the wealthy, become more affordable over time. What’s difficult to see is that filtering occurs simultaneously with gentrification. Every “gentrifier” frees up their former unit for someone slightly less well-off. That person, in turn, also frees up a unit and so on down the line. The process is akin to a game of musical chairs.

But for the game to work for everyone, chairs must be added, not taken away. Cities must allow additional units to be built so that the housing stock expands over time. Research suggests that this is a necessary condition for filtering to take place.

While filtering is not some panacea that cures all housing ills, it’s an important part of how housing markets work. Allowed to take place, it contributes to providing housing at all levels of income. The more a city impedes the process by restricting growth, the more its poorest areas will gentrify without the offsetting creation of less expensive housing over time.