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Summary of Findings 9/18/15: Economic & Cultural Strategies

September 18, 2015

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Researching strategies to keep a place’s vibe, culture and soul alive has been a side hobby-project for me the past year.  My day job in food and farming continues, and yet  – whether I want to or not – I’m continually reminded of the ever-growing gentrification around us and lured to somehow address it.

Gentrification hasn’t always been inherently wrong or bad.  In many cases, it’s the byproduct of economic (re)vitalization efforts that have been wonderfully successful.  Sometimes, they’re neighborhoods that were derelict or ghost towns that are given a new lease on life, becoming clean, safe, thriving business districts with bustling shops, restaurants or nightlife.  Or, they may be small, sleepy towns that become too popular as a bucolic escape from a nearby city.  Or, remote villages here and abroad that used to be poor, and now have an influx of tourism fueling their development and modernization.  So, what goes wrong, or what is the tipping point where growth and prosperity go “too far?”

There isn’t an official metric of “too much gentrification.”  Talking with friends of different income levels, there is a wide threshold of what’s acceptable or not.  Not everyone notices or cares about historic architecture or culture.  Not everyone notices or values economic or ethnic diversity.  Not many understand what it means when service staff that make minimum wage commute 45 minutes to get there.

Looking up the word gentrification in the dictionary, it says “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.”

In addition to displacing lower income residents (“lower” can sometimes mean upper-middle class!), gentrification is typically associated with a decrease in many things our society values: a strong local economy, locally-owned businesses, local artists and musicians, ethnic diversity, historic architecture, idiosyncratic “funkiness of place” (new official term ;)), free public spaces, and more…

SDMC 3So, what is being done?  From what I’ve seen, there are two types of strategies (not mutually exclusive):

Economic strategies

  • Affordable housing, housing vouchers, and other tenant rights to minimize displacement of lower income artists, teachers, and other service workers.
  • Tax incentives and other incentives for home owners and property owners to not “sell out” or be forced out.
  • Innovative approval processes for commercial and residential development.
  • Restrictions or regulations on commercial development to restrict formula chain stores, and prioritize locally-owned businesses and smart building/urban planning.
  • Innovative ownership structures of commercial property.
  • Capacity-building and training for small business owners, startups, and lower-income and ethnic residents.

Cultural strategies

  • Designated historic buildings and districts to preserve architecture and historically significant landmarks.
  • Community grants for art, music, sports, and spiritual programs.
  • Community-driven surveys and initiatives to identify and preserve what the people value in their town or neighborhood (e.g., open space, green/sustainability programs, historic structures, arts scene, quiet from car noise, bicycle and pedestrian access, public spaces, funky vibe, anything!).
  • Strategic planning and placement of public spaces to increase face-to-face interaction and decrease car culture.

So, there are some tried-and-true tools that a town or neighborhood can use.  But, do towns and neighborhoods know they exist?  If they do, are they putting them to use quickly enough?  Unfortunately, I think the answers are No and No…at least right now.

Something SpecialThere are a few “islands” of funky coolness in various parts of the States and abroad, but they too are changing fast.  Fairfax, CA, where we live, is one.  It has a pertinacious Green Party government that is determined to “keep Fairfax weird” (one reason why I moved here).  And yet, residents are cautiously observing our neighboring towns slowly attract more and more affluent people from the city, and the look and feel change.  Venice Beach, CA, is another one.  I hardly recognize it from when I went to school in LA a few decades ago, but it still has remnants of its original artsy hippie funkiness.  With Google setting up shop there, the housing prices skyrocketing, and its new sobriquet “Silicon Beach,” will it maintain its coolness over time?

Change is inevitable.  The question is how to accommodate change while still maintaining the vibe, culture, and soul of a place that attracted folks to move there in the first place.

Ultimately, I think it’s a matter of individuals in each community stepping up and organizing before current residents are displaced, or commercial properties are snatched up by formula stores or singularly profit-driven developers.  From this blog, you can probably tell I’m a big fan of the Main Streets Approach.  But, recently, I also learned more about the Heart & Soul approach for community-based surveying to inform local policy and priorities.  It complements the Main Streets framework and could be a great, easier first step to get a community engaged and onboard to protect the things it loves.

I’m curious what other easy-to-implement strategies and tools there are, and how – realistically – to get a community engaged and involved in the process.  It’s incredible how quickly a single new business in an area can accelerate gentrification.  The trick is to get systems set up ahead of time so that necessary changes may happen, but not at the cost of the values and wishes of the community.  To be continued!

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