As the renaissance of cities and urban areas in North America continues, more and more neighborhoods are struggling with the challenges of change. Although the market's rediscovery of inner-city, walkable, mixed-use communities is an excellent thing in many ways, the word "gentrification" inevitably comes up in almost every discussion. But one person's gentrification is another person's revitalization, so the debate is always complex and heated.
Can you have revitalization, reinvestment, renewal without some level of gentrification? Probably not, as any perceived improvement in the eyes of the marketplace changes the economics. I do though, continue to believe that in planning for community change, there are reasonable levels of gentrification, that gentrification can be strategically managed, and that we can have "revitalization without displacement." In fact, this phrase has been the vision for Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES) for years.
Gentrification that involves sweeping away the past, and the people, is by comparison easy - you often just have to let it happen. On the other hand, revitalization without displacement, protecting the low-income community as well as the built heritage in the context of change toward a more diverse community - that's much harder, and takes much longer. In every community where it's tried, and certainly here in Vancouver's DTES, it creates incredible tensions and struggles, and rightly so - vulnerable people's homes and lives are often at risk.
It is, however, the right vision. Careful, considered moves to add new and diverse people, reuse and restore vacant buildings, add new stores and services, all while maintaining and hopefully even strengthening the supports and services for the existing and vital low-income community - that's a hard but responsible path for success.
It's hard to have a conversation about this though, with all the baggage around the word gentrification. As long as many argue that any level of gentrification is to be absolutely avoided, positive and responsible change remains virtually impossible.
Recently urbanist Richard Florida joined others in suggesting we need a new word to replace gentrification, asking "if all economic development and neighbourhood revitalization is gentrification, how do we grow and improve our urban areas?"
Good question, and as for a new term, I've begun to use "shared neighbourhoods."
Just as the "shared streets" movement has revolutionized (or just reintroduced) thinking around how walking, biking, transit and cars can all be accommodated within street design, a "shared neighborhoods" approach would emphasize adding more diverse population and uses into neighborhoods without displacement of those most vulnerable. This isn't replacement, - it's renewal where the whole new neighborhood is welcomed and accommodated.
Some will argue that "shared neighborhoods" is just spin for gentrification - and to be clear, I generally detest spin. I use this term because I think it suggests a different path, rather than a new "brand" for business-as-usual.
Others will argue, as with "revitalization without displacement," that the concept is an oxymoron - you can't have revitalization or share a neighborhood without displacing people.
I disagree. It will likely involve new tools and approaches, and a clear vision with the "will & skill" to achieve that vision. But it is possible. Sometimes the hardest tasks, are the most meaningful and worthwhile.