The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

CSY At Forbes: How To Understand Gentrification

Source: salon.com

(Note: Here’s something I posted at Forbes almost a month ago.  In case you missed it there, here’s a chance to see it on the Corner Side Yard.  -Pete)

Just like pornography, everyone seems to know “gentrification” when they see it. See a Starbucks or Whole Foods move into a neighborhood? That’s gentrification. Find out that a house sold for an exorbitant amount or that rents at some building doubled? That’s gentrification. See bike lanes added to your street, or a rack of bike-share bikes pop up near a busy corner? That’s gentrification.

Yes, all of these indicate that change is occurring within a community, but they’re really more symptoms of the process than the actual process itself. If we take a textbook definition of gentrification, the movement into a formerly deteriorating community by middle-class or affluent residents, all of the above would be signs of a process that is well underway. And it says nothing about another part of gentrification that causes the most controversy and anxiety — that it potentially displaces poorer residents.

How can we better define gentrification? How can we better understand it as a process? How can we study its impacts at the neighborhood level, and make some assumptions, or even predictions, about which neighborhoods are the next ones to become “hot”, and which ones are missing out?

I started doing some of this in Chicago, where I live, and it’s produced some interesting results. In the coming weeks I’m going to do similar analysis for the thirty largest U.S. cities, and see what we can take away from the analysis.

Here’s my definition and approach. My sense is that gentrification is the transition of a community from low-income or working-class status to middle-class or affluent status, largely through in-migration. It starts by defining the demographic composition of a city at a fixed time, and documenting changes from that time. My approach is to define the demographics by utilizing the metro area definitions for four key demographic factors — 1) median age; 2) white and minority population composition; 3) educational attainment; and 4) household size.

Here’s why these factors were selected. In my experience, all of the above neighborhood changes are indeed indicators of aspects of gentrification. However, they often come after there’s been some significant change in the four demographic factors I note, which send the signal to the business community that the process is underway. There are many people who would agree with that some personal definition of a gentrified community is one with 1) a lower median age than the metro area; 2) a larger white population presence relative to the metro area; 3) higher educational attainment relative to the metro area; and 4) a smaller household size than the metro area.

I looked at Chicago, using data from the city’s 77 Community Areas (super-neighborhoods that have been the basis for socio-demographic analysis in Chicago for nearly 100 years). I was able to develop a profile of Chicago that looks like this:


With broad community definitions for each of the 77 Community Areas. Based on the four factors above, communities could be split into one of six community types:

Gentrified Communities (dark green): Former middle and working-class neighborhoods that have firmly become well-to-do neighborhoods over the last 30 years or so. Home to a substantial amount of Chicago’s walkable urbanism inventory. Transit supported and amenity rich. After 10 or so years of transition, surpasses the metro average for all four factors.

Gentrifying Communities (light green): Historically similar to the adjacent gentrified communities, but part of a second or third wave of growth that emanated from the first group. Almost as affluent and educated as the first group, and quickly catching up, but not quite there yet. Communities in this group surpass the metro average in two or even three of the four factors.

Frontline Communities (yellow): Largely working-class neighborhoods that may be experiencing development pressure generated in the gentrified/gentrifying communities. People in the above two areas may identify with communities here as places for authentic ethnic dining or shopping. Less wealthy and with more minorities than the gentrified/gentrifying communities, but less than those on its outer flank. In Chicago, at least, fear of the prospects of gentrification here may exceed reality.

Stable Prosperous Communities (gold): Middle-class neighborhoods that sprouted in the city at the advent of the suburban era and have changed little since. Single-family home oriented and auto-oriented. In Chicago, home to many city workers who must remain in the city due to residency requirements. Rapidly growing older in its makeup.

Transitioning Communities (orange): Structurally similar to the stable prosperous communities, but more deeply impacted by one or two transitions. Some are receiving a large influx of new minority residents, largely Latino. Others are experiencing a huge outflow of middle-class families, largely African-American. Those experiencing the Latino influx are becoming younger and less affluent; those experiencing the African-American outmigration are being hollowed out, leaving behind large numbers of older and younger less affluent residents.

Isolated Communities (brown): Impoverished areas of the city. Middle-class white residents left here in the ’50s and ’60s, replaced by middle-class and working-class blacks who bore the brunt of job loss in the subsequent decades. Plenty of walkable urbanism exists here, but demolition means it’s fading away.

If you’re feeling wonky, check out the table below to see how the different community types compare with each other:

Why note such community distinctions? For me, largely because the transformation of our cities is far from complete, and hardly inclusive. Much of the discussion around the rebound of cities over the last twenty years or so has been focused on perhaps three of the six community types I describe: the gentrified (because of their success), the gentrifying (because of their change), and the frontline (because of their anxiety). Largely left out of the discussion are the stable prosperous communities that have “strong bones” but lack the look and feel that many younger types seek, the transitioning communities that remain in a perpetual state of flux, and the isolated communities that are disconnected and disenfranchised. In Chicago’s case, the latter three community types make up 55 percent of the total population, 55 percent of the city’s minority population, and live in 47 percent of the households.

In coming days and weeks, we’ll look at how other cities compare in their composition, most likely through use of data at the zip code level. In the process we may develop a better understanding of gentrification as a process, and how it spreads across the urban landscape.

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