What to do about gentrification?

The question of how to manage gentrification has pre-occupied me for some time. On the one hand, it’s beginnings enhance the amenity of a district. On the other, the seemingly unstoppable process inevitably destroys that amenity.

The rise of new small and independent businesses — cafes, restaurants, bookstores, and my favourite, record stores — in neighbourhoods usually once considered ethnic ghettos is very appealing. These businesses cater to the influx of usually young people, brought there by cheap rents. The cultural regeneration and integration that occurs when the old and traditional sit side by side makes for an interesting and diverse place to live and spend time. Neither has complete control over the character of their area.

This lack of supreme control may be the amorphous ‘X’ factor; the key to the code of why these areas are what they are. No one can have everything the way they would like it.

This golden period only lasts so long. As sure as night follows day, every idyllic hamlet that transforms itself into a unique and desirable destination is overtaken by the human and fiscal tidal wave of new residents and investors wanting a slice of the life (and profits) contained in the area.

Property prices and rents in these once undesirable locales rise with the demand, pushing out the traditional residents until all that is left are the shinning, design-led buildings and inner-urban middle-class amenity that seems so perfect until actually lived in.

Jonathan Raban wrote eloquently about the effect of supposed ‘ideal paradise’ back in 2008. He was referring to the South Lake Union area of Seattle — a city I’m currently on route to — where a developer-led rejuvenation program gutted a once vibrant and diverse community and began the process of creating an urban planners ideal suburb for “white, twenty-something computer programers”.

On the surface there’s much to like about this idyll. But, as Raban points out, it lacks even a light shading of diversity. It’s diversity that makes cities and urban enclaves great: “the essential element of variety and surprise.”

In thinking about it, I can’t help but come back to the idea of no one entity having ultimate control over an area.

Roban’s piece was written in June of 2008, mere months before the credit markets collapsed in paroxysms and developers found the credit rivers of gold dried up almost overnight. I’m curious to see what has become of South Lake Union while I’m in Seattle this week. Will it have marched on to its monochromatic planning utopia, or will the GFC have necessitated a change of plans and slackening of grip around the urban master plan?

I am constantly thinking about this question of gentrification in relation to my life in Melbourne, and in particular Sydney Road. I like good coffee, I want interesting boutiques to browse, I appreciate an architecturally designed restaurant, and I need a record store that feels like an extension of my lounge room. But I also want a green grocers run by an Italian family, the Mediterranean wholesalers, cheap but exquisite Lebanese food, and a no nonsense place that sells $40 jeans.

It’s tricky.

If lack of complete control is essential to the initial creation of these desirable post codes then it might offer a possible solution: regulate the amount of land that any one person or entity can control. It’s much the same idea as the the media ownership laws we have in Australia (Convergence Review pending) — a single company can only own a limited number of media properties in each market.

I’m well aware of the impracticability of the idea, but I’ve been preoccupied with it during my last 20 hours of flights and stopovers. No one developer could own all the property along a shopping strip, stopping the development of malls. Equally, the construction of gated communities would be prohibited if developers were unable to purchase all the houses in a residential block. This would not prohibit all development — a disastrous idea. It would simply encourage owners interested in preserving the individual (and this is the important part), diverse nature of a neighbourhood. Developers interested in shopping malls and gated residential developments would focus their intentions on other areas more interested in this kind of development.

This of course does nothing to address the inevitable issue of increased rents and rising land prices, but it might go some way to preserving one of the elements destroyed by the onslaught of gentrification.

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