How can we actually make “cities for all”?

A Stockholm conference by that title explores issues of gentrification, displacement and loss of home affordability — and potential solutions 

Journalist Peter Moskowitz discussing his book, How to Kill a City, at the “Cities for All” conference in Stockholm, Sweden.

A conference in Stockholm, Sweden has concluded that gentrification and spiraling housing costs are the direct end result of “supply-side” government and industry policies — not a selfish citizenry.

Speakers noted that cities around the world are facing a destructive wave of spiraling home prices, displacement, and toxic forms of gentrification and segregation. Portland (the home city of this blog) is experiencing these same trends, although its challenges are, so far, more modest than those of Vancouver BC, Manhattan, San Francisco, or many other cities. At the same time, these other cities offer us a clear warning of what may lie ahead, if we don’t act effectively.

Peter Moskowitz, a New York-based journalist and author of the book How to Kill a City, has documented the processes of gentrification in four US cities, and researched its causes and remedies more broadly, interviewing researchers and examining case studies. He concludes, “Gentrification is not a fluke or an accident. Gentrification is a system that puts the needs of capital (both in terms of city budget and in terms of real estate profits) above the needs of people.”

Moskowitz spoke at the “Cities for All” conference in Stockholm earlier this year, sponsored by KTH Royal Institute of Technology and other partners. (This author is Senior Researcher there and was a co-organizer of the conference.) Moskowitz pointed out that gentrification is not just bad for those who are immediately affected, but for the entire city. It is the path to stagnation and decline, as Jane Jacobs and other critics have argued.

Maria Adebowale-Schwarte, a senior fellow with the Project for Public Spaces and founding director of London’s Living Space project, pointed out that “gentrification” can be a misleading term.    Improving a deprived area and increasing diversity can be a good thing — up to the point that people are displaced, and diversity gives way to another monoculture.

London’s Maria Adebowale-Schwarte with the author, discussing gentrification with the audience at the Cities for All conference.

This was also a point made by the urbanist Jane Jacobs in her discussion of “the self-destruction of diversity.”  In effect, there is a “Goldilocks” point of maximum diversity and opportunity for all.  This zone lies between the extremes of a monoculture of poverty, and a monoculture of wealth.  The job of government is to maintain a dynamic balance within this zone, using a range of tools and strategies.

However, Moskowitz says, government is too often seduced by the profitable processes of gentrification.  (We have also written previously about this “trickle-down” theory of urbanism, which we termed “voodoo urbanism.“)

It is not the selfishness of people who patronize new coffee shops, or seek to preserve and enhance the livability of their neighborhoods that is primarily to blame, Moskowitz says. It is the policies and processes initiated by governments and their development allies:

In every gentrifying city there are always events, usually hidden from public view, that precede street-level changes. The policies that cause cities to gentrify are crafted in the offices of real estate moguls and in the halls of city government. The coffee shop is the tip of the iceberg.

When we think of gentrification as some mysterious process, we accept its consequences: the displacement of countless thousands of families, the destruction of cultures, the decreased affordability of life for everyone…

[But gentrification happens] not because of the wishes of a million gentrifiers but because of the wishes of just a few hundred public intellectuals, politicians, planners, and heads of corporations.

This grouo includes the professional communities of planning, development, urban design and architecture — of which this author is a self-critical member — forming  what we might think of as the “architectural-industrial complex”.   Our professions might have very good intentions, but the question is whether our “solutions” are actually perpetrating the same systemic dynamics, rewarding us financially and culturally, while we delude ourselves with simplistic but ineffective solution and other-blaming.

But Moskowitz argues that effective solutions are available:

I hope to make clear that gentrification is not inevitable, that it is perhaps even stoppable, or at the very least manageable.

Moskowitz concludes his book with six positive recommendations:

Expand, protect and make accessible public lands. Rising private land prices are a big part of the affordability problem, and leaving them subject to the forces of markets and speculation will likely have predictable results. More work is needed on sites that are already public (including wasted low-density sites, rights of way and other properties) and more land is needed in public and non-profit trusts.

Give people an actual say in what happens in their city. This isn’t an invitation to “NIMBYism,” but to a real civic engagement, and a conversation to find win-win strategies. The answer is not to deny people their democratic voice, or to shout down opponents, but to engage in a healthier process of civic problem-solving.

Heavily regulate housing. When we treat housing as a speculative commodity with limited regulations, we can expect speculative surges in prices. A number of promising steps have been taken recently to tamp down speculative increases, including the foreign investment tax in Vancouver, B.C.

Implement a new New Deal. Find creative new sources of revenue to provide basic rights — among them shelter.  Be strategic about funding, not simply “buying time” with temporary subsidies and other protections that will soon expire, causing only a delayed surge in prices.

End protectionism, and add infrastructure.  It’s true that more supply is needed to meet demand — but that supply needs to be in diverse locations, accessible by good-quality infrastructure.  At present, protectionism rewards expensive centrally-located developments, expertly developed by companies that have learned to become insiders in the complex process of entitlement and spot zoning.  This “gaming the system” only fuels gentrification and more expensive (and more profitable) projects.

Raise taxes, raise wages, and spend on the poor.  This is not a matter of wasting taxpayer money, but of finding cost-effective returns on investments.  Do we want to pay more for policing and prisons?  Do we want to live in a degraded, even stagnating city?  That is ultimately what is at stake.  A more equitable, more diversified city is not only a matter of justice — in the end it’s also good for everyone’s bottom line.

Gentrification, displacement, loss of affordability, homeless,  and related urban ills, are complex and dynamic processes, signaling deep dysfunctions in our urban systems.  But they are not beyond our ability to manage.  Indeed, they have arisen precisely as the result of management choices made by those acting in their own short-term benefit — and very much for the long-term detriment of all, whether intended or not.  The question is whether we will be clear-eyed and willing to work together to find the effective strategic responses that are needed — or whether we will descend into bitter acrimony and divisiveness, touting simplistic solutions that don’t work, while the city grows ever more expensive, degraded, and unsustainable.