Finding The Real Reason Cities Change

“Gentrification, as it is commonly understood, is about more than rising housing prices. It’s about neighborhoods changing from lower-income, predominantly black or Latino neighborhoods to high-income, predominantly white neighborhoods. Demographers and sociologists have identified neighborhoods where this kind of displacement has occurred. Wicker Park in Chicago, Harlem and Chelsea in Manhattan, Williamsburg in Brooklyn—these places really did gentrify. Sociologists and demographers captured these changes in case studies and ethnographies. But starting a decade ago, economists began to ask more nuanced questions about the displacement the other social sciences were documenting. Simply documenting that low-income people were being forced out of a neighborhood whose housing prices were rising didn’t mean in and of itself that gentrification was causing displacement, they noted. Poor people often move away from nongentrifying neighborhoods, too. Indeed, low-income people move frequently for a variety of reasons. The real question was whether low-income residents moved away from “gentrifying” neighborhoods at a higher rate than they did from nongentrifying neighborhoods.


The other reason we continue to talk about gentrification probably has more to do with middle-class fears. Housing prices in America’s most expensive coastal cities have risen sharply since the end of the Great Depression. Expressing concern about “gentrification” in those cities may simply be another way of expressing concern about rising housing prices. But in fact, different types of cities have very different kinds of affordability problems. In coastal cities, the cost of housing is often far higher than the cost of construction. That is primarily because supply is constrained. Builders in Washington can’t turn Adams Morgan’s row houses into a high-rise apartment district, so row house prices rise. High demand plays a role too, of course. Some of that demand reflects a preference for older, close-in housing stock. The fact that global cities deliver high wages to the most skilled workers is almost certainly more important though. Gentrification isn’t the cause of these cities’ affordable housing problem. It’s a symptom.”

From Gentrification is a myth


Strong Towns

Strong towns principles:

  • Relies on small, incremental investments (little bets) instead of large, transformative projects,
  • Emphasizes resiliency of result over efficiency of execution,
  • Is designed to adapt to feedback,
  • Is inspired by bottom-up action (chaotic but smart) and not top-down systems (orderly but dumb),
  • Seeks to conduct as much of life as possible at a personal scale, and
  • Is obsessive about accounting for its revenues, expenses, assets and long term liabilities (do the math).

Incrementally small changes, and an economic viewpoint (Poor Neighbourhoods make the Best Investments):

“In these poor neighborhoods, we’re not talking about taking $50,000 homes and making them into $250,000 homes. Those kind of projects are hit-and-miss risky and not really scalable anyway. What we’re really talking about is taking a neighborhood of $50,000 homes and making them $55,000 homes. That’s a solid 10% increase in the tax base. It’s wealth that is shared throughout the neighborhood. It’s a real gain — not an illusion — that is more likely to persist than some kind of one-off project. And it’s repeatable. We can nurture 3-5% annual returns out of these depressed neighborhoods for a long, long time. (And, by the way, one quick diversion from dollars and cents….this is also how you avoid displacement and ensure that the gains in wealth actually go to the poor who are responsible for it.)”

“Finally, the type of investments that these neighborhoods need in order to experience consistent 3-5% returns over time are very small and low risk.We’re talking about things like putting in street trees, painting crosswalks, patching sidewalks, and making changes to zoning regulations to provide more flexibility for neighborhood businesses, accessory apartments and parking. If we try some things and they don’t work, we don’t lose much because they don’t cost much. We learn from our small failures and try something else.

Definitions of city development from Sprawl is Not the Problem:


The approach to growth and development that has become dominant in North America during the 20th Century. There are two distinguishing characteristics of this approach that differentiate it from the Traditional Development Pattern. They are: (1) New growth happens at a large scale; and (2) Construction is done to a finished state; there is no further growth anticipated after the initial construction.


The approach to growth and development that humans used for thousands of years across different cultures, continents and latitudes. There are two distinguishing characteristics of this pattern that differentiate it from the Suburban Experiment. They are: (1) Growth happens incrementally over time; and (2) All neighborhoods are on a continuum of improvement.

“And to circle back to my prior post on smart growth: we won’t fix the dysfunctional byproduct of centralized, collective action with more centralized, collective action. Our cities need organic, incremental, citizen-led responses to our current set of problems.