IMPROVING LIVABILITY, CONTROLING DISPLACEMENT: Can You Upgrade a Neighborhood Without Destroying it’s Community?

A new effort has begun to bring improved transit and bicycle facilities to Roxbury, the base of Boston’s African-American community. (Full disclosure: On behalf of LivableStreets Alliance, I’m involved.) While most local people welcome the idea of more efficient bus routes, more comfortable bus stops, and protected bike lanes there has also been some opposition based on the fear that this invites gentrification.  It is similar to concerns about the larger impact of any improvement in a low-income area, from better parks to better food in local stores to better schools.

It feels like a no-win situation.  Public sector, taxpayer-funded investment is an essential foundation for livability in every neighborhood.  As much as anyone else, low-income people deserve good parks, lighting, schools, transit, roads, sidewalks, bicycle accommodations, and other public amenities.  But any significant improvements in a low-income neighborhood’s facilities, or investment in Smart Growth initiatives and Transit Oriented Design development, make the place more attractive to higher-income “pioneers” and then even higher-income “settlers.”  Rents and home prices increase.  The retail mix gets hipper and moves up-scale.  Even before any facility upgrading, the process may start with an influx of “transitional populations” – students, artists, gays – but it’s the public investment that preps the area for sale.  And then gentrification pushes out long-time families: think Jamaica Plain, Davis Square, Cambridge’s Area IV.

No wonder communities sometimes sound paranoid in opposing things that seem like no-brainers. While race and racism are always compounding factors, fear of displacement or simply of demographic change is not restricted to low-income or African-American communities – it underlies some of the nervousness about transit and bicycle improvements in middle-class white areas of Charlestown, Medford, and Arlington as well.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Improvements to the built and service environment can be balanced by policies and programs that preserve affordable and stable residential patterns.  It’s not that change won’t happen, but it can be tempered and guided in productive ways.  


In previous decades, urban power brokers sought to rejuvenate working class and low-income neighborhoods with blanket bombing actions like highway construction, urban renewal (often part of a larger strategy of what used to be described as “Negro Removal”), and other drastic interventions.  Citizen push-back has made those kinds of weapons of mass destruction harder to deploy these days, at least domestically.

A few neighborhoods are so poor and run down or isolated that they remain undesirable and avoid gentrification no matter what is done to them.  More typically, there is a complicated interaction between government action and deeper forces:  demographic, economic, and cultural dynamics.  Housing and real estate markets are constantly churning as people and businesses seek to adjust living conditions or maximize gain.  Cultural patterns, such as the return of empty nesters to the downtown and the preference of Millennials and young professionals for urban life, bring people into previously scorned areas.  Warehouse districts that offer artists large studio space at low-rents evolve into expensively chic addresses.  Down-trodden commercial areas that incubate successful start-up businesses soon attract deeper-pocket tenants or more established firms.  Local stores turn into bank branches.  Through it all, neighborhoods constantly change, and so do their inhabitants.

Public action can trigger neighborhood transformation, even if only by focusing attention on an area, but only if those larger forces are poised to move. In fact, public sector action often simply confirms and consolidates the changes that have already begun.  Still, government interventions of various kinds do play a role and, as public actions, are subject to some level of public debate and decision-making – should they be encouraged or not?


To some extent, demographic succession, like the ecological succession that transforms meadows into forests, is inevitable, necessary, and can be good for the overall society – even for a meaningful percentage of the original residents.  Because of the extremely low level of redistributive regulation of our market economy, the benefits of this process are regressively distributed in proportion to wealth and influence.  At the same time, the reality is that poor neighborhoods desperately need physical and service improvements, whose maintenance and upgrading have been typically neglected for decades both as a result and then as a reinforcement of the area’s poverty and powerlessness.

And despite the disruption, changing from a low-income lost island to a mixed income community is not a totally bad thing.  Communities are more than a location.  The essence of community is social connection.  There are some circumstances where shared extreme poverty brings people together.  But long-term deprivation is more likely to lead to survival-focused desperation, social isolation, civic disorganization, and political powerlessness – which lead to further environmental and economic disparities.  A more diverse population and a more active economy can be a real improvement for everyone. Science magazine recently published a study following over 4,000 poverty-level families (average income below $20,000) in five cities.  Those who were able to use a federal program to move into higher-income areas tremendously improved their overall wellbeing, including their physical and mental health, raising their perceived life happiness to a level equivalent to that of people with incomes nearly $13,000 higher – even though their own incomes did not increase.

Making a community more livable, healthier, attractive, and clean is good – as is demographic diversity.  (Which also means that inclusionary zoning and other policies should be as strongly enforced in wealthy communities as upgrading is done in less affluent areas!) So perhaps the problem in working class and low-income neighborhoods is not that change starts, but that it goes too far and results in too many people being priced out of the area.  Maybe the trick is to begin transformation, but find ways to protect significant numbers of original residents from suffering the effects of real estate (and other) market changes.  It isn’t the bus stop or T station or bike lanes (or cycle tracks!) that drive out people; it’s the cost of living there.  The problem isn’t the public improvements but the pervasive private efforts to capture the value of those improvements for personal (or corporate) gain through increased prices and profits.

This means that public investment in poor neighborhoods should remain – or become – a high priority for city leaders.  And while parallel private investment should be encouraged it should be controlled and tempered with programs to counter the damaging impact of unregulated markets on local housing and commerce.


Of all the transportation-related improvements government can do, pedestrian and bicycling facilities may be a special case.  Making it easier and safer for children and adults to walk or cycle around an area provides significant improvements in the quality of life, but are seldom enough to precipitate demographic change.   In particular, bicycles provide a low-cost and health-promoting transportation option that is of particular value to low-income communities, and because of its extremely low mode share is unlikely to significantly influence demographic patterns.  In addition, despite the attitude among some African-Americans that “bikes are a white thing,” national surveys show whites and blacks with the same percentage of trips taken by bike; Hispanics have an even higher cycling mode share! The perceived difference  may result from the greater level of organized activity within the white cycling community, as well as their willingness to wear funny clothes.  In addition, most cycling in African-American communities is done by kids, which renders it less visible to community leaders (the opposite of what’s happening in white communities where the number of child-age cyclists continues to decline in proportion to adult riders).  So improving bicycling facilities in non-white communities through protected bike lanes and cycle tracks is primarily a way of protecting kids from harm.


Preserving communities does not mean freezing them in their current configuration.  It does mean ensuring that current residents have the opportunity to either affordably stay or to move on to places that better meet their aspirations and needs.  The most important neighborhood-stabilization strategy is to provide non-market rate home ownership to current low-income and mid-income residents using methods to lock-in long-term affordability.  The sub-prime loan disaster shows how NOT to do this, but there are many successful and sustainable models such as mixed-income non-profit Community Development Corporations (CDC) using a limited equity or land trust structure.  (Long-term, income-based property tax relief is another essential component of this approach.)  For those unable to afford homes, family-appropriate scattered site public housing programs can also work if well designed and well run even though the failure of old-style mega-sized public housing and the conservative hatred of safety net programs has made it difficult to rationally discuss this approach.  Rent subsidy programs, Section 8 and others, are the next tier of support.   And, for those who can’t or choose not to stay, regional affordable housing inclusion regulations and non-discrimination laws have to be strengthened and enforced.

Housing is not the only area needing attention, although stable living arrangements are the foundation for a range of next steps.  .  Food and social services, cultural and social activity, safety and transportation are also important.  But in all these areas, success at welcoming needed improvements while avoiding total gentrification is ultimately based on community organization and political mobilization.  If newcomers and long-term residents can unite around a common vision of a vibrant, diverse, and safe neighborhood, the programs needed to influence the housing and retail market can be implemented.  It is a long-term and evolving effort – equity is a more of a process than an outcome.

Still, the reality is that the more powerful the larger forces shaping a neighborhood’s demographics the more difficult they are to resist.  Some neighborhoods will evolve slowly and gracefully.  But others will experience disruption and general displacement.  Change is always risky; but stagnation is worse – both for eco-systems and neighborhoods.

So bring on the bike and bus lanes, the playground lighting and the cleaned-up parks, new stores and school buildings.  And, at the same time, bring on the local community organizing that is the key to protecting people from destructive profiteering.  It is possible – as well as desirable – to both improve the neighborhood and preserve community.


Thanks to Pete Stidman, of the Boston Cyclist Union, for his feedback to an earlier draft of this posting!


Related previous postings:

AVOIDING “NIMBY” – Navigating Between Fear and Greed

ZONING REFORM: Unlocking Investment in Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

OPEN STREETS & CYCLOVIAS: Creating Space For Urban Transformation

OUR NEW EXTENDED FAMILIES: How the Built Environment and Public Services Shape Social Relationships and Democratic Government

REFRAMING ISSUES TO UNITE US: A Transportation Platform for Local Use


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