The Future of Cities Series: Why and When Gentrification Fail

For those who follow my blog, you know me as a freelance graphic designer and entrepreneur. Rarely have I donned my cap as an urban planner on any of my earlier posts; with a few exceptions like the one on Airbnb’s next move (story here). A slightly ambitious project this time around, where I’ll explore aspects of urban planning and urban design under the topics, ‘The Future of Cities’. I have absolutely no idea how long this series will last, but it’s definitely a subject worth exploring. Maybe I’ll even try to get a few other urban planners and urban designers involved in the discussion. We’ll see. For now though, I’ll start by looking at one “solution” that has bothered me throughout my decade-long career as an urban planner and consultant — gentrification.

What is gentrification? Well, depending on who you ask, they might tell you it’s the best thing to ever happen to any neighbourhood or city. And you know what; they’d be partly right, but not completely.

“Gentrification is a process of renovation and revival of deteriorated urban neighbourhoods with influx of more affluent residents, which results in increased property values and the displacing of lower-income families and small businesses.” – Wikipedia

It sounds spectacular for the housing and commercial developers, hipsters, and investors, but one of the greatest downside to gentrification is what it does to the character of a neighbourhood or city.

Put simply, gentrification is a lot like “Out with the old, in with the new!” approach to urban planning. Where planning fails to cater to what’s most important and that is preserving the character of a place.

We’ve all seen it happen to famous neighbourhoods like Harlem (New York City). A largely African-American neighbourhood that emerged from 1920s and 30s America to drive the cultural movement — the “Harlem Renaissance” that gave the world poetry, music, art, dance, beauty. Harlem’s had a tumultuous history that saw its people face poverty, violence, and suffering. Flash-forward to present, Harlem has evolved into high-end everything — housing, yoga studios, restaurants, coffee shops, and so on. It’s become the cookie-cutter approach to gentrification.

While this may seem like a good thing and in many ways, and it is, the downside to all this high-end lifestyle is that it can only be given by those from the outside. Those who were the original residents, whose families have spent decades in those neighbourhoods are quickly or slowly finding themselves on their way out. It’s just how the real estate market works. Fancy things mean everything else around it goes up in price. This spells great for the developers, politicians, and technocrats, but we can see who ends up the biggest losers. This is where gentrification fails.

Another classic example is the High Line project, again in New York City. It’s a fantastic project that exhibits how we can review derelict infrastructure and transform them into shiny new things and spaces to be enjoyed and savoured. In this case over six million people a year visit this space. In summary, the High Line project was an iconic railway-turned-park that has helped to catapult “a new era of landscape design”, according to one article.

Personally, the only failure of projects like High Line is not taking the steps to protect the future of the original residents in the surrounding neighbourhoods. There should always be the ambition to keep the character and authenticity of a place.

The failure of gentrification stems from not designing neighbourhoods and cities around people and their existing and future needs. Urban planning and urban design should encourage balance and equity where practical.

Here in Toronto, there has been pockets of gentrification throughout at least 25% of city in areas like South Riverdale/Leslieville, Trinity Bellwoods, the Junction, and St. James Town. Again, it’s more of the same — house prices skyrocketing (by 140 per cent), mom-and-pop eateries making way for new condominiums, little improvement in average household salaries for those at the bottom, Starbucks, restaurants, and bars (and maybe a yoga studio here and there). There’s still inequity and at the end of the day, those who are poor still get displaced by those with salaries between $65K to $99.5K.

From my previous urban planning experiences, it is tantamount that every city is a place to live, work, learn, and play. What pushes people out of a neighbourhood experiencing gentrification are increased prices and stagnant salaries. The lack of disposable income becomes a factor that works against them. The ideal scenario ought to be on that encourages employment opportunities and services within a commutable radius. Gentrification should be about elevating people’s lives and not just about generating profit.

When it comes to gentrification, here’s what should happen:

1. Engage multi-stakeholders (neighbourhoods, NGOs, politicians, developers) using workshops, vox populi, surveys, etc. and find out what their visions are for the future of their neighbourhood.

2. Get everyone to create the future they’ve envisioned using a multi-day design charrette with the help of urban designers, city planners, and architects. Gather all the pens, pencils, coloured markers and crayons, and paper you can find. It’s guaranteed to produce design ideas for master plans, artist renderings, and a brief or comprehensive report that can be disseminated to the public.

3. Focus on creating mixed-use developments with an emphasis on diverse housing solutions for those at the lower-end of the salary scale (working class). The great thing about design is experimentation. Costs can be driven down with alternate construction methods, building materials, and finishes (as well as by significant demand).

4. Attract investors by using derelict buildings, tax breaks, and other incentives on the contingency that they create employment opportunities for qualified locals.

5. Policy should then be introduced to promote neighbourhood preservation as new buildings are constructed; for e.g. mom-and-pop restaurants juxtaposed with “hip and trendy” restaurants.

The important thing leading up to and during gentrification is to consider people as people and not as statistics from a census. View neighbourhoods as neighbourhoods and not as prime real estate opportunities to drive prices upwards just to cash in on a bubble susceptible to bursting. Finally, every city should engage both its internal and external stakeholders. It is only through public-private participation and creative collaboration can sustainable results be achieved.

The How You Living Interview Series: London, England

I wanted to try something new, so I created this interview series dubbed “How you living?!” that will feature glimpses of city living through the lens of some friends of mine. Hopefully 10 to 13 questions are enough. This week, London’s calling (#TheClash) with exceptional museums and art galleries!! Enjoy the interview and leave a comment using your Facebook or Twitter account!

Interviewee: Brendan Cormier
Location: London, England

Photo credit: Brendan Cormier
Photo credit: Brendan Cormier

The Interview

Phil Rodriques (PR): Where are you originally from?
Brendan Cormier (BC): I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada.

PR: Why did you move to London?
BC: I was living in the Netherlands at the time editing a magazine [Volume] about architecture and urbanism. But I was looking for more opportunities to curate exhibitions, because I think they can speak to a broader public. I applied for a job at the Victoria and Albert Museum as a curator, and I got it. The fact that it was in London was a bonus.

PR: What’s the best part about living in London?
BC: For me, it’s about access to so many good people, interesting design practices, great museums, and excellent schools. If you’re doing anything related to design it’s a great place to be.

Photo credit: Brendan Cormier
Photo credit: Brendan Cormier

PR: What’s the worst thing about living in London?
BC: The Rent. Is. Too. Damn. High.

PR: You’re an urban designer. What are your favourite streetscape features throughout London?
BC: I’m a big fan of the post-war housing estates that were produced in London. The Barbican is an obvious one, and it’s truly incredible, but they exist throughout the city, and it’s a delight to explore them all. They aren’t streetscapes in the traditional sense, but the interior layouts of the estates behave like streets, or sometimes even streets in the sky.

Photo credit: Brendan Cormier
Photo credit: Brendan Cormier

PR: These days, you’re a lead curator of 20th and 21st century design working in London that’s steeped in the arts. What are some of the best museums and art galleries you’ve visited?
BC: There are too many to count. When I first moved here, I had the ambition of visiting every one, and would do one per weekend, but I haven’t even scratched the surface. The big ones are excellent like the Tate Modern, the British Museum and of course, the Victoria and Albert Museum. But there are smaller ones with really unusual collections that are worth your while. The Soane Museum is one man’s personal collection all stuffed into one house. The Wellcome Collection is a great source of medical oddities.

PR: What parts of London would you say have the best places to eat?
BC: You can eat well in almost any neighborhood in London. That said, you can find terrible food in any neighbourhood in London as well. So you need to do your research.

PR: Where are the best places to go for the nightlife experience?
BC: Catching a show at Soho Theatre on the weekend will put you in the center of the city with tonnes of people around, and you’ll get a bit of culture while you’re at it.

Photo credit: Brendan Cormier
Photo credit: Brendan Cormier

PR: Where’s your favourite part of the city?
BC: My new neighbourhood, Highbury, which is quiet and boring, which are rare commodities in London.

PR: How do you get around the city on a daily basis?
BC: I started by taking subways everywhere. But now I try to take the bus as often as possible. If you only take the Tube, you never really see the city or learn its geography. But if you sit on the top of a double-decker bus, you get the sights and you also start to connect the dots between places.

Photo credit: Brendan Cormier
Photo credit: Brendan Cormier

PR: What’s the most horrific thing you’ve seen since living there?
BC: Brixton Station at rush hour when an escalator is out of order. It is a mass mob of people slowly shuffling in to catch a train.

PR: Tell us one stereotypical thing about Londoners that’s true.
BC: They drink a lot.

PR: What’s the one thing every visitor must do before leaving London?
BC: Go to the British Museum. It really has some of the greatest treasures of humanity all assembled under one roof.


Make Renewable Energy While the Sun Shines!

Solar pane atop bus stop in Bridgetown, Barbados.
Solar panel atop bus stop in Bridgetown, Barbados.

At my core, I’m an urban planner through and through and when I saw this bus stop whilst walking through the streets of Christ Church, Barbados, I was extremely and pleasantly surprised all at once.

A solar panel atop a bus stop!! How cool is that?! I couldn’t resist or wait to take a snapshot of this model. I thought at first, “maybe its a pilot project”, but to my relief, I looked around and noticed there was a panel on every bus stop along the street. Amazing!

To my friends in North America and Europe and maybe some parts of Asian this might not be such a big deal, but in the Caribbean seeing renewable energy being harvested in this manor is refreshing.

There are some days when I wonder why I ever became an urban planner, but unexpected encounters like these remind me that maybe it was fate. There’s absolutely no reason why one structure should not be used for dual or multi-roles or purposes.

A bus stop is designed to offer shelter to pedestrians, but it spends 365 days sitting still in the sunlight, it makes sense to harvest solar power. The future looks a little “brighter”, but I just wish Jamaica would catch up.

More and more I’m convinced that if you want to have a true world perspective then you must travel the world. The more I’m fortunate to do so, is the more I’m “enlightened” (last word play).

Capture the moments that give you hope and learn from them. Everything in life is not always a chance encounter, but destiny.

Fun fact: There’s a contest to name this bus stop now on. If that doesn’t promote interactivity, I don’t know what else will! Love urban design.