It is rare in the media to hear the words “public space” without also hearing the word “gentrification.” At PPS, we have discussed the relationship between public space, development, and gentrification time and time again, specifically in regards to a frequent, but often misdirected, criticism of Placemaking.
By common definition, gentrification refers to the social, cultural, and economic “upgrading” of a neighborhood, and the displacement of existing residents and businesses as a result. In contrast to the neighborhood process of gentrification that most often comes to mind (think new artisan coffee shops alongside immigrant family-owned bodegas and laundromats), the process now occurs on such a large scale that it no longer affects just neighborhoods, or low-income neighborhoods in particular, but entire regions within cities (think new-build, skyscraper, or condominium developments complete with corporate retail and over-designed “public space.”) Often, it affects entire cities themselves, as major global cities like San Francisco, New York, and London are witnessing the increasing displacement of residents from a range of income levels.
Within this complex process, it is difficult to deny the relationship between the improvement or development of an area’s public spaces and increasing value of the surrounding environment as a result. Because this “value” appeals to capital investment, and to people looking to move into areas with such “value,” it seems as though any development of public space somehow contributes to gentrification, regardless of intention, and regardless of who actually implements it.
The problem we have as public space advocates is that today’s cities are in need of better, and more, public space--and there is a demand for these spaces. At the same time, we understand that when public spaces are more appealing to people in terms of the use, function, and overall health of a neighborhood, they also have the potential to make an entire area more valuable – in the same way that historic housing stock, or good public schools do.
While Placemaking can be a vital part of economic development, these criticisms call into question whether this process is helping communities to develop their local economies, or merely accelerating the process of gentrification in formerly-maligned urban core neighborhoods.
But while gentrification and “public space” continue to be used simultaneously in media, development, and planning language, the suggestion that investment in (or enhancement of) public spaces ultimately leads to a process of displacement overlooks the real social and economic forces that drive the gentrification process in urban neighborhoods. Gentrification is not triggered by a single factor, but rather, it develops from a complex set of factors, as a result of the complex and often hidden movement of capital, as well as the uneven production and consumption of urban space. Public space development and improvement does not directly cause gentrification, and should not suffer the blame for forces that are much greater than a few small-scale updates that can add considerably to the overall health and vitality of a neighborhood. In other words, Placemaking is not a gentrification culprit.
Facing the Ongoing "Problem" between Gentrification and Public Space
A main source of controversy within the gentrification debate is the issue of displacement, and rightfully so. Displacement occurs when existing residents can no longer afford their housing or neighborhood amenities due to the area’s increasing affluence. They may be driven out, they may be pushed out by various city/landlord/developer’s eviction tactics (in Europe this is often called “winkling”), or, they may choose to leave because the area’s local character and amenities have changed so much that they no longer represent their needs or values. In any stage of the process, residents, tenants, and businesses alike can be victims of gentrification, and they are often forced to look elsewhere for housing and basic services.
Neighborhoods gentrify in many ways, for many reasons - including factors like housing stock, neighborhood amenities, transport links, public schools, and a relationship to other physical features and public spaces such as parks, waterfronts, squares, markets, and so on. This becomes even more complicated with earlier-stage gentrification, when the issue isn’t necessarily whether a place has one or more of these factors, but rather if it has the potential to have one or more of these factors. This is where people often make the connection between public space and gentrification, since the development or investment in public space results in more investment potential for an area, while simultaneously creating more exclusive and segregated communities.
One thing is clear: gentrification is not going anywhere anytime soon. As long as people are looking for more affordable housing, close to city centers, with neighborhood amenities, the process will continue. So how do we manage its persistence?
Gentrification not only affects people and their communities, but it affects the physical and cultural landscape of a place. This can also be greatly impacted by poor public space design. Gentrification can destroy an area’s “sense of place” by turning it into a homogenous or corporate zone, especially when the process develops into its more mature stages (as some have witnessed with the development of property around Brooklyn Bridge Park, or Williamsburg). In general, the more mature the gentrification in a given area, the more the area is subjected to privatization and socio-spatial exclusion – and this can change the feel of a neighborhood entirely.
Therefore when public spaces are “developed” in this way, or when places and amenities are “installed” in a community without genuine community input and a recognition of the specific needs and desires of that community, this kind of “placelessness” will inevitably result. This is not Placemaking. We’ve said it before: These physical attributes are important, but they are the means, not the end. “If you’re not building social capital in the community where you’re working, you’re not Placemaking; you’re just reorganizing the furniture.”
Placemaking as a Solution
Good public places cannot be built or installed, as they often are in many privately-led gentrification processes - public spaces need to be inspired and cultivated by the community that uses them. Whether an old timer or a newcomer, everyone can, and should, play a role in shaping their community’s public spaces.
“When local officials, developers, or any other siloed group prescribe improvements to a place without working with the community, no matter how noble those groups’ intentions may be, it often alienates locals, provokes fears of gentrification, and increases the feeling and experience of exclusion. This kind of project-led or design-led development ignores the primary function of Placemaking–human connection.” – Project for Public Spaces
Instead of top-down, privatized, “public space making,” Placemaking has a focus on empowering communities to create public spaces that support their own needs, interests, and values. Placemaking is a tool that connects community members to physical changes within their neighborhood, as well as to each other; it can help tackle the divisive, top-down, neighborhood change that is often associated with gentrification.
Given this knowledge, does a fear of gentrification mean that we should not fight for making public places, streets, and parks better? No. This knowledge only highlights the importance of community members’ involvement in tackling neighborhood change. This knowledge also emphasizes the importance of creating places that benefit everyone - places that connect existing residents, instead of dividing, alienating, or displacing them, and places that enhance the existing character of a neighborhood, instead of erasing it.
The question then is not whether we should create and improve public spaces, but instead, how can cities and neighborhoods facilitate growth while also maintaining the culture and values of the community itself? How can planning policies accommodate the forces of change while also respecting and including local communities?
“We do not work for better public spaces so that people will have somewhere to sit and eat gelato; we do it so that they will have somewhere to sit and talk with their neighbors. Whether or not that conversation is about art (or politics, or food, or education, or sports…) is beside the point.” – Project for Public Spaces
Rather than watching passively as non-local or private developers consume neighborhood public spaces, we can use Placemaking to enable citizens to create their own public spaces, to highlight the unique strengths of their neighborhoods, and to address its specific challenges. While gentrification can divide communities and build upon exclusivity, Placemaking is about inclusion and shared community ownership. It is about increasing “quality of life,” not removing public life. It is the process by which a community defines its own priorities, not someone else’s. And it should be used to take ownership of public spaces, beating gentrification to the punch.