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What Gentrification Really Is, and How We Can Avoid It (archdaily.com)
28 points by yummyfajitas on Aug 26, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 20 comments

The article mentions anti-development being conflated for anti-gentrification: " In San Francisco, residents who resist gentrification do it by blocking the development of new, high-density housing projects. They imagine that the city’s parks and neighborhoods will be destroyed to make way for gated communities of gleaming skyscrapers full of condos."

But, as the article goes on to point out, this also prevents new housing from mitigating the high cost of housing in low supply. The activists are completely wrong, high-density development has traditionally deteriorated surrounding communities - but there are ways to build up housing supply, while maintaining a pleasant civic environment.

But first let's address the activist's points: high density development traditionally has a negative impact on the surrounding urban space. By negative impact I mean things like: gated communities that segregate income classes, skyscrapers that create harsh micro-climates at pedestrian level and all-glass condos that create glare and require incredible heating and cooling energy to be liveable.

So is it possible to integrate high density housing into urban areas while mitigating the negative impact of the surrounding urban environment? Better planning and building codes would do a lot to prevent gated communities and unsustainable building practices. As for building density, which is tangentially related to my area of study (M.Arch candidate) - the best precedents are historic European cities, like Paris. Paris lies at a optimal sweet spot for building density, that allows it to sustain a rich urban life, achieve moderate energy usage (unlike glass condominium tower developments) with relatively modest densities - mid-rise buildings.[1]

So if there's a path forward to deal with gentrification, it will involve amping up the housing supply in the city using an integrated, consistent midrise development patterns. It is possible, but blocking development is incredibly short-sighted, you've got to tackle the development models used in cities.


What I wish they’d do in the Bay Area & San Francisco is figure out how improve transit and increase the density of single-story residential areas like the Sunset or the Richmond (I think these are zoned to require no more than 2 units per building or something?), or turn some of the areas toward the southern end of the city from low-density warehouses &c. into 3-5 story mixed-use with lots of housing, and then build some more reasonable urban (again 3–5 story) centers in the towns in the peninsula (Mountain View &c.) so there would be better/more interesting places for all the young tech workers who work there to live and they wouldn’t get forced to all move to SF to avoid surburban sprawl.

I’m curious what would happen if many zoning restrictions were loosened (for instance allowing lots of units with no dedicated parking spaces, and encouraging mixed use residential/commercial) and replaced with a 5 or 6 story maximum height, something like central Paris density, and if property taxes were allowed to go up commensurate with property value (damn Prop 13). If combined with transit infrastructure improvements, I suspect it would be possible to keep a very nice walkable livable city with dramatically increased housing stock. [Which is I guess some of what you’re talking about.]

YES. I think regulation is a huge problem here, there's all sorts of mandatory parking requirements, maximum height restrictions, lot ratios etc etc. And it's not just requirements encouraging sprawl - the opposite happens too, like minimum density requirements requiring three story or higher buildings which prevents development in areas with less-demand.

Personally I think there's a culture of over-prescribing development which is making it illegal to building good cities.

The 5-story downtown part of Paris is great, but from what I understand it’s also very expensive housing, and plenty of people commute in from high rises further away.

Yeah, that's inevitable. From the same source I cited above, average densities (people/hectare) for European cities range 50-130, American cities have 5-40, and the far East has 160 - 275.

When I say historic European cities are a sweet spot, I mean, they're the most reasonable density you build up to, without getting into the congestion, traffic and transportation energy problems of Eastern cities.

With regards to the midrise model I'm promoting above, I should add it's usually best practise to 'anchor' public transportation nodes like subway stops, with high-rises, so as to compact more density around these areas. Also, while I have yet to see a convincing scheme to successfully integrate affordable housing into downtown, high-demand areas, one of the least-bad incentive schemes is to make them a condition of allowing developers to build tall.

Essentially, high-rise has it's place in the city as a useful strategy to increase efficiency of high-demand areas or help create mixed-income areas.

>>> the best precedents are historic European cities, like Paris. Paris lies at a optimal sweet spot for building density

I'm assuming you're referring to the Huassmann's renovation?

In a large part, yes - creating large squares, avenues, decongesting dangerously crowded slums. I believe it was Pope Pius IV who did something similar to Rome retroactively imposing an urban structure onto the city by creating main avenues, squares and intersections.

It's interesting watching it unfold in real-time. I've expressed opinions that could be considered 'anti-gentrification' in the past, but the process itself is basically unstoppable. Attempts to stem the flow of gentrification arguably cause much more harm in the long run (e.g. as the author notes, disallowing high-rises most likely just increases the cost of existing units considerably).

The cynic in me wonders whether existing residents are just attempting to (and succeeding in) increase the value of their real-estate investments (however small) under the guise of protesting gentrification, though that might be a little far-fetched.

Ultimately it's an incredibly fascinating process to watch. I don't know that I'd exactly call it xenophobia, but it is incredibly interesting to see the gentrified residents use arguments very similar to larger anti-immigration arguments (e.g. 'they dont fit in with the local culture, they dont even try to integrate, they ruin my livelihood'), arguments that are often used to target those same resident populations on a national scale.

> The cynic in me wonders whether existing residents are just attempting to (and succeeding in) increase the value of their real-estate investments (however small) under the guise of protesting gentrification, though that might be a little far-fetched.

I honestly didn't even realize this was the cynical view, I thought it was quite evident. The fact that people protesting high housing costs could also be against development seemed so insane that the only rational explanation was low-information anti-high-rent voters being bamboozled by all the advertising etc that the homeowner crowd puts out (and election advertising is made even more potent by SF's referendum system).

Aren't they two different groups living in the same area through? Some are happy with rising houses and do not want new buildings (most of them owners, but not only them) and some are not (most of them renters, but not only them).

Yup, that's what I'm saying. You have passionate, low-information voters in Group 1 voting against their interest due to extremely well-run PR campaigns by Group 2 (asshole homeowners* and others who benefit from high housing prices).

*Note that this doesn't imply that homeowners per se are assholes, but is a modifier indicating that I'm referring to the intersection of SF homeowners and assholes.

> The cynic in me wonders whether existing residents are just attempting to (and succeeding in) increase the value of their real-estate investments (however small) under the guise of protesting gentrification, though that might be a little far-fetched.

The realist in me doesn't "wonder."

> A first step would be to revise our attitude toward immigration in cities. Instead of seeing immigrants as aliens, we should welcome their fresh perspectives, their wealth of new cultural traditions — and yes, their cash infusions.

London has a long history of welcoming immigration, and is currently extremely welcoming of wealthy immigrants in particular. Housing density is always rising. New buildings are always going up, and existing buildings are frequently being turned into flats. This welcoming behaviour has done nothing to prevent even reasonably well-off natives being priced out of the city.

> The only crime is in sacrificing one to make way for the other.

There's no real suggestion here. How does one avoid this sacrifice?

Builders of new flats in London are required to offset their luxury accommodation with some "affordable housing", as an attempt to prevent this sacrifice. This has not yet worked. Not-so-wealthy immigrants to London find themselves either in substandard housing, or just not-very-good housing in the outer zones. Natives find themselves living with their parents until they're 40, or leaving the city altogether.

I would say that the only way to ensure that gentrification has a positive effect for all involved is to be more welcoming of actual immigration, but less welcoming to cash-only immigration. The rental and flipping markets are out of control. There is a surplus of big-money cash buyers pricing those on normal incomes out of the homebuying market, whilst charging ever-increasing rents to their tenants (which further reduces said tenants' abilities to escape the rental market, and eventually forces them out to make way for wealthier tenants).

Tipping the balance in favour of renters rather than lessors would help this. Rent controls; making eviction harder; preventing homebuying by non-residents; increased taxes on empty properties. All these would slow house price rises and allow people who don't own a Russian utility company to stay in London for longer.

Why do you want to avoid it? Shouldn't you encourage it?

People are strange. Watch debates about rent control and skilled immigration for similar arguments.

Change "rich white tech workers" to "Mulsim" or "Indian". People move, things change, if you've got a problem with white techy folk driving house prices up then I'm sure you also have a problem with various amounts of South Asian immigration driving house prices down.

Anti-immigration / anti-change is stupid. Nobody would be where they are today if change never happened. Get off my lawn.

And they say white people are racist.

Are they saying we should let the slums remain slums? Keep them in their place? Sounds like it.

I find it odd that the author takes it for granted that we are in a tech bubble. Is this considered common knowledge nowadays?


Unsustainable start-ups? Check.

Easy Fed money? Check.

Hype and BS in proposals? Check.

Not solving real-world problems? Check.

Pre-IPO liquidity for founders and backers? Check.


tl;dr: the optimum solution is not found in the extremes

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