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With the rise of “smart growth” approaches to urban development, which promote dense, walkable urban centers as an alternative to sprawl, there are questions about whether smart growth is actually equitable. Those compact, walkable neighborhoods are in hot demand across the country so it costs more to live there. So this also means not everyone gets to reap all the health benefits from living in a walkable community. In gentrifying neighborhoods, the issue is further compounded. People who lived in these communities and got to walk everywhere are being pushed out because they can’t afford the rising rents and property taxes. They are instead being shunted to the suburbs, the growing place for the poor in the U.S. There, many of the poor can’t afford cars so they are even more affected: they’ve lost their community, ability to walk around and get exercise, and can’t get to work easily. At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Chicago, a group of really-smart smart growth advocates, David Dixon, Goody Clancy; Dena Belzer, Strategic Economics; and F. Kaid Benfield, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and The Atlantic Cities blogger, took a hard look at these issues.

Dixon painted a pretty gloomy portrait of inequality in the U.S., arguing that it’s just going to get worse given how the U.S. economy is now set up. While manufacturing’s share of the total economy has grown 50 percent over the past decades, the share of jobs in manufacturing has fallen by 30 percent. Manufacturing is becoming much more efficient, which means fewer middle class jobs. At the same time, 60 percent of employers demand educators workers, those with at least a college degree. But by 2020, only 40 percent will find those workers. More and more college students aren’t completing their programs due to rising education costs. “This is a built-in engine for greater economic fragmentation and increased inequality.” Dixon added that the middle tier of workers will be “lucky to stay in place” over the coming decades.

At the same time, demographics are also changing so that there’s a greater demand for walkable neighborhoods. Married couples with children are less than 25 percent of the population now. Singles or couples now make up 62 percent of the country. “Non-traditional households outnumber traditional families.” These different families want different places to live. “In the ’90s, it was about golf courses, escaping from work, homogeneity. In 2012, it’s about walkability, transit, diversity, and living near work. Sustainability is also important.” Moving toward 2030, there will be a “tectonic shift in values, with the majority of people in cities as opposed to suburbs.”

Where are all those people who want to live in dense, walkable environments going to go? For Dixon and the others on the panel, they are most likely going to displace the people already living in cities. “In fact, people are already being displaced at a rapid rate.”

In Brooklyn, Dixon explained how that city has two of the country’s fastest gentrifying neighborhoods. There, “the cost of a good walkscore means poverty has moved to the suburbs.” Housing nearer to transit is expensive, but housing further out that requires more transportation is even more expensive. Some 40 percent of low-income people can’t afford a car “so moving to a suburb is a catastrophe.” Beyond that, pushing these people to the suburbs is condemning them to a less healthy life.

For Belzer, who is an economist, the big issue in the ’90s was “dumb growth or suburban sprawl.” The response was to try to save farmland and preserve open space. The Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) pushed for “traditional neighborhood development,” really new cities that replicated old ones with their dense, compact, mixed-use neighborhoods. In the ’00s, the issue became how distant housing was from transit and employment centers and rising greenhouse gas emissions. To combat these trends while also improving health, advocates began to push for urban infill and “transit-oriented development.”

Now, according to a recent Brookings Institution report, for the first time in nine decades, major cities had more population growth than their combined suburbs. This means that white flight is certainly over: in fact, the opposite trend is now at work.

Belzer said gentrification is certainly happening but not uniformly everywhere. She argued that the only way to prevent widespread negative impacts of gentrification is for “smart growth advocates and equity advocates” to join forces and become “community advocates.” These community advocates can then force infill growth. So what do these community advocates need to make happen? She said they must make “social investing central to any physical planning strategy.” Healthcare, daycare, and food banks are important. “Every $1 invested in childhood education can return 4-5 times in social value.” Another priority must be preserving and even adding to the stock of affordable housing, particularly in places where high income households are coming in. If done right, affordable housing can even boost property values. She added that communities need to diversify their sources of income. “You can’t just rely on hipsters coming in to finance urban amenities.”

Benfield complained about the gloomy picture painted by Dixon, saying that many low-income communities may not be rich, but are rich in culture, leadership, possibility. Restoring or revitalization these communities is really the smartest growth strategy. To prove this, NRDC has been working with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) to help disinvested communities. Applying the LEED for Neighborhood Development (ND) rating system, which Benfield co-created, communities can think through the issues. LEED-ND is unlike LEED because it focuses on the broader context of development, not just inside the building. With its point system, LEED-ND incentivizes walkability, affordability, diversity, and density. “It’s about the green management of systems, the totality of the environmental performance.”

Codman Square, Boston, is an example of one of these rich low-income places. It’s an area that has faced disinvestment, but a new transit station has brought new possibilities. The area, Benfield said, is highly walkable, even pleasant, but “if you look closely, you see elements of decay.” There are brownfields, abandoned properties; other buildings aren’t in good shape. Working with local leaders and LISC, Benfield came in and helped them apply LEED-ND as a planning tool in a two-day charrette to “see the opportunities.” He made a point of applauding two local leaders — Larry, who runs a “net-zero” car body shop that we wants to put a green roof on, and Paul, who runs the Boston Project, a faith-based ministry that aims to restore older, disinvested neighborhoods. Part of his home is a community drop-in center.

Benfield found that the community would achieve a low-level certification as it is now. There were also a lot of “maybe” points that could be achieved. These were what intrigued Benfield the most. To get those points and also make some real gains, the community has decided to “redesign New England avenue corridor, making it much more dense and green; conduct deep energy retrofits; create a new eco-innovation district; and go for LEED-ND certification.” (see a fascinating set of posts by Benfield on Codman at NRDC’s site).

Dixon outlined some other positive examples of smart growth in depressed urban areas. He described how Claibourne, a central avenue in Treme, New Orleans, is at the hub of an effort to use culture to fight gentrification and improve neighborhood cohesion. Local groups are using the deep-rooted culture of Treme to build “human capital” that can have economic benefits. In Minneapolis, Juxtaposition Arts is building social capital in an effort to rebuild the neighborhood.

Also, Baltimore is undertaking a project to avoid the harsh effects of gentrification and create more “equitable density.” There, the goal is to encourage people to stay as density rises. “Otherwise, something has got to give, and it’s usually the poor people.” Dixon said Baltimore will probably need three-times its existing density to “keep existing people.”

Image credit: Codman Square / Kaid Benfield, NRDC