The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Growing Beyond the Margins

Proposed development at 47th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, in Bronzeville.  I hope it happens.  Source:

I never set out to be a provocateur.  I still don’t consider myself one.  I simply wanted to find ways to bring more of the revitalization that is occurring in our nation’s large cities, perhaps at the greatest extent in my lifetime, to more of the city, and to catalyze it where it does not yet exist.  That is the crux of my search.

I wasn’t able to complete my thoughts in my most recent post, so I’ll pick things up here.  First, I want to start with a couple of clarifications.  It appears that my initial post on this matter may have been interpreted to include the implementation of a cap on zoning in dense, highly desirable areas.  That’s not exactly correct.  My point is that, using Chicago as an example again, the ten community areas of the city’s north lakefront that are most desirable already have densities among the highest in the nation.  I would support maintaining a balance there, even support incremental increases where necessary.  But I find large-scale upzoning in that area problematic, as much for its impact on infrastructure (necessary public transit and other public works improvements) as for its social implications.

Second, my position seems to have also been interpreted to include accelerated displacement as gentrification spreads to other areas.  Despite the fact I thought Spike Lee was right (at least in terms of the social side of gentrification), there are recent studies that suggest that low-income resident displacement due to gentrification is overstated.  Lance Freeman of Columbia University authored a study that found that longtime residents were often less likely to move, choosing to bask in the growing number of amenities and local job opportunities that gentrification brings.  This was corroborated by a study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, which found that while in-movers to gentrifying neighborhoods received a boost in creditworthiness by making the move, nonmovers also received increases in credit scores (albeit slightly less than in-movers).

I’m OK with the gentrification process.  It hasn’t always been managed well, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t.  In fact, I think that’s one of the pressing issues that will have to be resolved as the shift back to cities accelerates.  Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns seems to agree with me, as he talked about his recent visit to Memphis:

“The notion of gentrification was on the lips of many last week and, while not dismissing it, I feel like it is one of the few problems we should welcome. We can actually deal with gentrification (by growing incrementally instead of in huge leaps). And the problems of gentrification may seem quaint when compared to the mess we are going to leave on the periphery of our cities.”

I noted before that perhaps a sociological approach to dealing with segregation and inequality is more appropriate than an economic one, and that laws exist that could create more balanced communities that have never been fully employed.  As part of ProPublica’s Segregation Now series, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones paints a picture of extreme reluctance at the federal level to use its dollars as leverage to implement the 1968 Fair Housing Act:

ProPublica could find only two occasions since (HUD Secretary George) Romney’s tenure (from 1969-1973) in which the department withheld money from communities for violating the Fair Housing Act. In several instances, records show, HUD has sent grants to communities even after they’ve been found by courts to have promoted segregated housing or been sued by the U.S. Department of Justice.  

I agree with many that our nation’s current housing policies are a big part of the problem, and that they need to go.  However, I disagree on what the source of the problem is, and how that change can happen.

3 Responses to “Growing Beyond the Margins”

  1. Anonymous

    Thank you for the post; getting your perspective really helps illuminate the details of an intricate issue. I've really enjoyed seeing your back and forth with Daniel.


  2. Jaja

    I agree with most of your thoughts in the past three articles, but one point of contention I have is the idea that increasing density and affordability will contribute to depopulation and disinvestment of non-gentrified minority communities. The current status quo is that blacks are leaving neighborhoods on the South and West sides, but they are primarily moving to suburbs instead of :Global City Chicago\” neighborhoods. If \”Global City Chicago\” were more affordable, many of these people might move there instead. While increasing affordability won't save \”Rust Belt Chicago,\” it won't cause people to leave who wouldn't have left anyway. Plus, it would prevent a future scenario where blacks are pushed to the suburbs, about which you have previously expressed concern. Also, it would help break up the North-South division which is increasingly becoming prevalent on the metropolitan level and not just the city level.



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