Meeting of the Minds took a few moments to talk with Herrie Schalekamp about new working relationships between researchers and paratransit operators in South Africa and beyond. Herrie is the ACET Research Officer at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Transport Studies. In addition to his research, teaching and consulting in the fields of paratransit and public transport reform he is involved in specialised educational programmes for paratransit operators and government officials. Herrie’s activities form part of a broader endeavour to investigate and contribute to improved public transport operations and regulation in Sub-Saharan African cities under ACET – the African Centre of Excellence for Studies in Public and Non-motorised Transport.
Will Smart Cities be Gentrified Cities?
Can cities become victims of their own success as they enhance and prosper? The idea of dislocation and displacement from a community is contrary to the urban ethic, and yet this undercurrent is rising in the public discourse wherever revitalization is occurring. Cities such as New York and San Francisco are on the tip of our tongues, as their housing costs in certain neighborhoods climb 12%-40% and reports proliferate of longtime businesses and residents being driven out.
As a backdrop, Fast Company announced their Top 10 Smartest Cities in North America on November 14th. The criteria were based on Boyd Cohen’s Smart Cities Wheel Framework, which helps to visually frame what makes a smart city and includes criteria such as GINI index (measure of inequality), data transparency, and support of entrepreneurship. Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington D.C. round out the top four.
Interestingly, those cities also appear at the top of a list of gentrifying cities in a study published on November 6 by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Daniel Hartley employed metrics to quantify the actual occurrence of gentrification, something that has been notoriously difficult to capture.
Four cities saw significant shares of the neighborhoods that could gentrify, do so: Boston (61 percent), Seattle (55 percent), New York (46 percent), and San Francisco (42 percent). In Boston, the gentrifying neighborhoods represented about a fourth of the entire city’s population. In other cities, the proportion was much smaller.
He defines a gentrifying neighborhood as one that “is located in the central city of a metropolitan area and it goes from being in the bottom half of the distribution of home prices in the metropolitan area to the top half between 2000 and 2007″. The rationale is that housing prices are a good overall reflection of the economic health of a neighborhood, including factors such as school quality and crime rate.
While most would agree that investment in cities can help spur economies, stabilize tax bases, enhance civic culture, and contribute to a more environmentally sustainable society, they would also agree that putting longtime residents at a disadvantage by this growth is not the intention. Of course, issues of politics, race, socioeconomics, and social fabric play intimately into these discussions. As one blog notes, “simply put, gentrification is our word for how money controls our cities.”
Complex economics can play out here. An influx of people and businesses in a city without corresponding growth in supply of space will drive up demand and prices. Increasing real estate value should be a good thing, but that can also cause corresponding rise in property taxes, rents, and cost of living that impacts both homeowners and tenants. The other cause for resistance is that unchecked growth can irrevocably alter a neighborhood’s character, although in some cases this could be a welcome upgrade. The rise of housing prices can be aggravated further by Wall Street – not in the traditional sense of speculation and flipping real estate, but by commercial investment from private equity and real estate investment firms looking for long term returns from renting out homes, as billions of dollars have flowed to purchasing blocks of home inventories in the New York area.
Perhaps the cities of the future are not driving their citizens out, but shifting them around within. In New York City, while some areas such as the part of Brooklyn adjacent to Manhattan may see housing prices rise, there may be other areas where housing prices are falling such as south Brooklyn , as this map depicts. Is the stereotypical blighted American downtown undergoing a shift to the city periphery, following the pattern of many megacities around the world?
Putting aside displacement, what if gentrification actually benefits current residents? Daniel Hartley seems to think so, as his research shows that “there is a positive change in the financial health of the existing residents of gentrifying neighborhoods as measured by their Equifax Risk Score ™ and delinquency rates. This positive change is present for mortgage holders, for nonmortgage holders, for those that stay in the neighborhood, as well as for those that move out.” More research is needed here, particularly over longer timelines than Hartley includes in his analysis, but these results certainly are enough to give some pause.
Revitalization not Gentrification
It’s clear that dislocation and displacement are not desired in our cities. Managed well, revitalization can bring increased funding for services that help people cope with rising prices, such as affordable housing allocations and increased taxes for human health services. In fact, from 2011 to 2013 there was a significant increase in public support for affordable housing, according to the 2013 American Community Survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors. The study also showed that Americans place more importance on community diversity across categories of race, ethnicity, income, and age. These are important trends for smart cities to monitor.
However, Americans can send very confusing messages about what they want out of a community, as Kaid Benfield points out in this article.
It’s not easy to take a single consistent set of messages from this survey. The evidence appears clear that Americans value convenience and walkability, but also large yards, privacy from neighbors, and travel by car. Is it possible to have all that in the same community? To me, the poll suggests that figuring out how close we can get to supplying a diversity of housing and lifestyle choices in the same community may be key to the success of a sustainability agenda. Privacy from neighbors, in particular, seems so important to Americans that those of us who favor walkable neighborhoods should devote additional resources to designing solutions that supply it in less sprawling forms than we have now.
I think we can agree that smart cities should be shaped in way that does not depict income disparity via satellite images of tree cover. Maybe the theme here is that our society must be comfortable becoming more fluid in adapting to change, whether we view it as gentrification or revitalization. This graphical visualization of migration patterns between states is a good reminder that our communities are ever in flux. As smart cities plan for growth, they will be well served to consider and articulate the balance they hope to strike between their history and their future.
Image via Mitchell J. Goldstein.
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Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Brownfields are sites that are vacant or underutilized due to environmental contamination, real or imagined. There are brownfields of some kind in virtually every city and town in the U.S., usually related to a gas station, dry cleaner, auto repair shop, car dealership or some other ubiquitous local business that once benefited the community it now burdens with environmental hazards or old buildings.
In addressing this issue, technology has not been effectively deployed to promote redevelopment of these sites and catalyze community revitalization. We find that the question around the use of technology and data in advancing the redevelopment of brownfields is twofold:
How can current and future technology advancements be applied to upgrade existing brownfield modeling tools? And then, how can those modeling tools be used to accelerate transformative, sustainable, and smart redevelopment and community revitalization?
Across the country, urban parks are enjoying a renaissance. Dozens of new parks are being built or restored and cities are being creative about how and where they are located. Space under highways, on old rail infrastructure, reclaimed industrial waterfronts or even landfills are all in play as development pressure on urban land grows along with outdoor recreation needs.
These innovative parks are helping cities face common challenges, from demographic shifts, to global competitiveness to changing climate conditions. Mayors and other city officials are taking a fresh look at parks to improve overall community health and sense of place, strengthen local economies by attracting new investments and creating jobs, help manage storm water run-off, improve air quality, and much more. When we think of city parks holistically, accounting for their full role in communities, they become some of the smartest investments we can make.