Know Your Enemy; It’s Not Gentrification

Disinvestment is.  It’s infrastructure that shapes where opportunity occurs and where stable, sustainable investment (or disinvestment) occurs.

And disinvestment has root causes which we can identify and predict.  Not to sound like a Cassandra, but it has an awful lot to do with handing the keys of city building over to traffic engineers.  Cities are far too complex to allow single issue professionals frame every issue and dictate every decision.  All other considerations must find themselves at the periphery.  It’s a fundamentally fragmenting process.

It’s with that in mind, thinking I was about to write this post about the Vox Media story on a recent study discussing how not only is gentrification not the enemy, but the inherent investment is what is needed in areas of socio-economic isolation, that I came across Schutze’s story on the Green PAC and the first quote from George Battle, one of many great quotes and speeches from the day (so I’ve heard):

“We want neighborhoods that connect residents to the city around them, not merely warehousing them in their cars and overnight. We want safe neighborhoods that encourage awareness of our neighbors who live next door as well as down the street. We want new economic development, but we want it smarter, more local and more balanced than in the past.

“We want to give our own entrepreneurs the capital they need to thrive and to produce jobs, rather than always throwing tax money at the next big corporate relocation or clearing out small businesses for another chain store. We want the idea of progress to be permanently divorced from always meaning bigger and more expensive.

“We want to put the interests of Dallas residents first, instead of always being subservient to the regional goals that suck the vitality and tax base out of our own city.

“We want neighborhoods that acknowledge and value great spaces and trees and the small wild places where a child can discover a whole host of things. We want a city that is more pleasant, more satisfying, more fulfilling for us to live, recreate and work in, and it is our intent to elect City Council members who feel this same way.”

For years I’ve been writing, speaking, shouting into the wind that Dallas has for too long been focused on all of the wrong things.  Billions into Performing Arts Facilities and Bridges were too focused on the top of Maslow’s Pyramid when there was no foundation for the pyramid.  Does half the city care about a Pritzker Prize Winner coming to town when there isn’t food on a plate?  When there are no jobs in South Dallas and no density to support convenient mass transit, so half the city is spending half a paycheck just to make a paycheck at jobs increasingly further away?

Which brings me back to the Vox piece:

As City Observatory highlights, we often think of gentrification as a big threat to urban areas, driving up the cost of living for people living in poorer areas and eventually forcing them out. You would think that’d lead to a lot of these neighborhoods rebounding out of poverty, albeit with mixed consequences for people there originally. But it appears the bigger threat by far is neighborhoods remaining mired in poverty and new neighborhoods falling into it.

The story goes on to highlight the reason:  mobility, or lack thereof.  Unfortunately, mobility has a false definition here in Dallas because we allowed the same traffic engineering to define mobility.

Opportunities left and the middle class left with them.  Areas didn’t start as entirely poor, it’s just everyone else left because they could.  Along with their need for services, restaurants, and other small businesses that provide the first step ladder of opportunity for the poor.

And we urbanists are getting far better at understanding the root infrastructure causes of dislocation and isolation and thus can predict what areas will see disinvestment and what areas will be gentrified.  It’s all in the streets.  Connectivity matters.  I sense that most urbanists and planners intuitively get that connectivity matters but don’t really get the deeper relationship as to why.

There is a relationship with Ferguson and lack of access to jobs.  There is a relationship between the London riots and physical isolation that then leads to socio-economic isolation.  And there is a link to the Chicago heat wave of 1996, the physical disconnections of terrible suburbanized road engineering tearing apart the social fabric of neighborhoods and leading to a number of unnecessary deaths.

Changing the street networks, the underlying infrastructure of place, inherently changes the value of place.  Value is created by the number of people that can and want to access a place.  Focus on access via car and you undermine the ‘want to’ component, the desirability of place.  Yay parking!  Who needs parking when there is enough demand to live nearby and your parking spot is now a bedroom?

And like all markets there is a delay in finding the true value.  Make an area more disconnected (like say plow a highway between two previously integrated neighborhoods) and over time you see systematic disinvestment due to systemic alterations.  Reconnect, and you create value.  Integration begets accommodation begets decoration and up the virtuous circle of urbanization goes.

Before the Highways, Dallas had a strong, resilient, highly integrated spatial framework, and thus a valuable urban core.

And then…(red is highly interconnected, blue is isolated and fragmented, ie low value.  There might be wealth in a low connected place, but it takes extraordinary individual wealth to maintain property there as opposed to red areas which derive their value from commonwealth, many people seeing value there, and thus therein lies the opportunity for the poor).

Spatial Integration Map of Dallas

Why did downtown empty out?  We cut it off from the world.  I would credit DART more than anything else for bridging those gaps created by the freeways disconnecting downtown from its adjacent neighborhoods.  Why is South Dallas in its current straights?  We isolated it physically.  Why did the Five Points/Vickery Meadow area go from swinging 70s singles area to one of the largest concentrations of poverty in the state?  It has very little legitimate infrastructure.  We can see that mathematically in the degree these areas aren’t connected to the surroundings.  Neighborhoods can’t exist on their own.  Few people can experience the American Dream without the fabric provided by neighbors and neighborhoods.  Real neighborhoods, just like George Battle referenced, that many residents see the value in.  Having many highly desirable, mixed-income, ‘complete’ neighborhoods is the foundation of the pyramid for a great city that can’t stand without.



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