The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Repost: Community Cultivation?

Don’t we all want cats and dogs to get along?  Source:
(Note: Work obligations and some minor computer issues have prevented me from writing some new material.  New stuff will commence in the very near future.  In the meantime I’m bringing back this piece from October2014. -Pete)
Can communities actually cultivate the kind of citizenry they want?  Or, in other words, is community succession inevitable?

Hear me out here.  This is a question that has been vexing me for some time, as I wrestle with issues related to the general dynamism of cities — the spread of both wealth and poverty over the urban landscape.  This has particularly vexed me as the flashpoint that is Ferguson, Missouri erupted this summer, and I wonder if there was another road that the suburb of St. Louis could have traveled.

Most communities — and by that, I mean city neighborhoods, or most small to mid-sized suburban municipalities, in terms of scale — seem to be subject to the winds of much broader forces, and act (on the surface) as if they are unable to do much to counter the forces.  Is your community facing a potential wave of low-income or high-income residents, with a very different demographic makeup than what currently exists there?  Either way, you better get ready.

As I look at communities that I know well, it seems they take one of two approaches to community change, with neither of them effective for finding any kind of balance between longtime residents and newcomers.  The well-known conventional suburban approach has been to establish a land use and zoning policy that signals the kind of citizenry it wants — one that is wealthy enough to afford single-family homes at a certain price point, on lots of a certain size, done as homogeneously as possible.  Most everything that creates the kind of communities people say they want flows from this.  The quality of your schools, your commercial districts, your community institutions, can be determined by this approach.  We could call this signaling.

Another approach would be to establish social barriers that attempt to corral or contain newcomers within a certain area.  Maybe a community decides to highlight the distinction between homeowners and renters, favoring one and stigmatizing the other.  Maybe a community invests significantly in one commercial district, yet allows others to languish.  Maybe a community even gets assertive about making newcomers feel uneasy or uncomfortable about living in a community.  After Ferguson, I’ve called such strategies insulation.

I keep thinking, however, that both approaches ultimately lead to eventual complete succession once change is at a community’s doorstep.  If a neighborhood or suburb has done everything it can to maximize its home values, but the community next door doesn’t, succession of some sort might happen.  If your community’s housing stock is no longer perceived to be contemporary or of high quality, prices could fall and succession is once again likely.  And worse, if social barriers end up ratcheting up pressures within a community, tensions could explode and also lead to further succession.

Returning to Ferguson, could it be that there was a point at which it could’ve anticipated and addressed the change that was coming its way?  Could it have been proactive and established policies that would have led to a more balanced community?  Or were the tensions that led to Michael Brown’s killing and subsequent protests inevitable?

This fascinating graphic from USA Today illustrates how Ferguson shifted from just 1% black in 1970 to 67% black by 2010:

The pace of change there suggests that maybe in the ’80s or the ’90s Ferguson could’ve expected eventual succession.  Whether or not they could’ve devised strategies to create a more balanced community, I guess we’ll never know.

In my mind, this goes both ways.  I’m talking about growing diversity and poverty in the suburbs at the same time I’m talking about pressures related to gentrification in our cities.  Either way, we seem to accept the inevitability of succession — eventually, one group will displace another from this place.

About three weeks ago, Aaron Renn wrote a piece about his neighborhood in Indianapolis, in light of events in Ferguson.  He mentioned living in a racially diverse community that didn’t seem to be experiencing any outward gentrification pressures, but noted that parallel societies exist:

Blacks and whites get along, and even patronize some of the same stores, but there does not appear to be much in the way of real social capital that has developed between the two groups. This leaves the neighborhood extremely vulnerable to racial divisiveness if anything goes wrong.

This was illustrated to me by our local neighborhood group on the Next Door platform. This app is very popular in my neighborhood. However, judging from the avatar photos, it appears to be overwhelmingly white people who use it. Here’s an application that is building social capital in the neighborhood – I used to it meet my neighbors at the corner when I needed to borrow an extension ladder – but which has developed along racial boundaries. It seems to be spreading by word of mouth, and since existing social networks seem to be predominantly intra-race, it’s no surprise the online manifestations of them are as well.

Things seem to be fine in Aaron’s neighborhood now, but that reads like a neighborhood that is simply on the cusp of eventual succession, by one group or the other.  All it requires is the right catalyst or stimulus, and the dominos start to fall.

So I’m legitimately asking the question.  Can communities cultivate their human capital?  Should they?  Or is movement related to succession simply easier?

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