Feb. 10, 2022
Compared to most recent presidential libraries honoring former American presidents, the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago has witnessed prolonged development and construction delays. The Obamas and the Obama Foundation made the conscious choice to place the presidential library on Chicago's South Side, which was instrumental in shaping the lives and values of the former president and first lady.
They settled on a site in the South Side's Woodlawn neighborhood. But despite the Obama's popularity in their hometown, there was considerable pushback from community residents who feared the institution's entry into the community. There were promises by the Obama Foundation to build an asset that would complement the community, not overwhelm it. A skeptical community, however, believed otherwise.
Why? Gentrification and displacement.
Concerns over these two forces — neighborhood revitalization and subsequent displacement of low-income residents by affluent newcomers, in this case drawn by a new community asset — led many community activists to push for a negotiated community benefits agreement between the Obama Foundation and a coalition of community residents.
When President Obama left office in January 2017, plans for the Obama Center were fully fleshed out and ready to go, but court challenges meant the project endured significant delays. Ultimately, however, the courts rejected the challenges and construction began in August 2021.
A victory for the development status quo? Not exactly. While the challenges were rejected, there's a recognition among activists that investment is necessary to see the community improvements they want, and they did make the Obama Center a better institution in the process. This may represent the next phase of how American cities deal with gentrification.
Time to revisit a critical question: Can revitalization happen without displacement? And can planners spark neighborhood growth without fundamentally altering character?
Changing patterns of gentrification
I posed these questions a couple of years ago and found examples of municipalities doing what they could to promote equitable growth. More of that is happening now as planners and local governments realize that avoiding displacement that destabilizes communities requires mindful action. But much more must be done.
First, consider that the notion of revitalization and inherent displacement is a relatively recent phenomenon in American history. For much of our history, American cities were founded, settled, grew, and expanded outward, with inward areas always being replenished by immigrants who followed the same pattern. As cities developed into metropolitan areas, the process continued. As metropolitan areas grew larger, the process expanded to newer cities and started again. Competition over land in inner portions of cities never really occurred prior to about 1970; the socioeconomic escalator that carried people from inner city neighborhoods to outlying city areas, then to the suburbs, and later to the suburban periphery was augmented by the migration to Sun Belt cities.
The push for equity has gained a renewed sense of urgency. But it's an open question as to whether our society is able — or willing — to address it.
A sweeping look at U.S. Census population counts for the 50 largest cities in 1950 and beyond bears this out. I selected the 1950 census as a starting point for several reasons. It was the first completed after the two tumultuous decades that witnessed the Great Depression and World War II, and the nation had secured its position as the world's preeminent manufacturer. Also, it took place right at the onset of two significant trends: postwar suburban expansion and the rise of southern and western cities. The nation's northeastern and midwestern cities were at or near their peak in population and prestige, but many were at the start of a precipitous decline.
Looking at census counts between 1950 and 2020 can reveal some interesting patterns. The 1950s were not particularly kind to the nation's largest cities. During the decade, 24 of the top 50 cities lost population, including 15 of the top 21. Those cities fared even worse in the 1960s, with 30 out of 50 losing population, including 17 of the top 21. But some places were finding a way to reverse the decline.
New York City was unique in that it posted a population loss between 1950 and 1960 but a population rebound between 1960 and 1970. (Technically, Richmond, Virginia, and Jacksonville, Florida, did this as well, but through expansive annexations or consolidations.) Several other cities (San Francisco; Seattle; Oakland, California; and Portland, Oregon, among others) showed population gains by the 1990 census. Even more cities (Chicago, Boston, Denver, and Atlanta, among others) grew during the 1990s, according to the 2000 census.
True enough, factors like increased immigration played a major role in city population growth at the time. But most who study cities recognize that the tectonic shift in the American economy — from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge-, service-, and technology-based one — can account for much of the population growth of large cities. Particularly in many large, older cities, a growing number of people were choosing to forego a suburban lifestyle and stake a claim in urban neighborhoods.
Of course, this came at a cost. Many of the neighborhoods those early urban pioneers were drawn to were "gateway" neighborhoods: places where urban newcomers could settle cheaply, find good jobs, and get their bearings, all while saving money that would allow them to move out and move up. Homes in gateway neighborhoods became available and in demand because of broader economic trends. Those gateway neighborhoods soon became what they never had been before — less transient, more settled, and more expensive. That pattern set the stage for what we understand today as gentrification.
Three things, however, have occurred since the start of the current decade that dramatically alter the impact of this revitalization and displacement cycle. The COVID-19 pandemic; the protests in the aftermath of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery; and the rapid acceleration of climate change impacts have exposed fissures in our divided society. The push for equity has gained a renewed sense of urgency. But it's an open question as to whether our society is able — or willing — to address it.
The "racial reckoning"
Minneapolis was certainly in the forefront of national debates about racial and economic inequality in 2020. The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin sparked thousands of protests around the world.
Minneapolis and nearby St. Paul have witnessed their fair share of racial inequities, and a report prepared just prior to the murder and subsequent protests highlighted underlying themes in the Twin Cities. That 2019 report, from the University of Minnesota's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, took a quantitative and qualitative approach to examining gentrification in the region.
On the quantitative side, the researchers found significant evidence of gentrification (defined broadly in the report as the upgrading of previously disinvested neighborhoods) in about a third of Minneapolis-St. Paul census tracts that were deemed vulnerable for such activity in 2000. Between 2000 and 2015, gentrifying neighborhoods saw increases in the number of residents with bachelor's degrees, surpassing citywide educational attainment trends. Yet during the same period, both gentrifying and nongentrifying neighborhoods saw a decline in median household income. How so? The researchers found higher levels of inequality in gentrifying neighborhoods, as low-income households saw their incomes decrease at a rate faster than higher-income residents' wages were rising. Rents and home prices in gentrifying neighborhoods generally grew at a rate twice that of nongentrifying areas.
The qualitative analysis, however, illustrated a recognition of the tensions that would later boil over in the aftermath of Floyd's death. While local officials were split on whether displacement was occurring because of increased investment, neighborhood leaders were firm in stating that physical and cultural displacement was disproportionately impacting people of color and people with low incomes. One critical trend identified by neighborhood leaders? The rise of overcriminalization — the expansion of laws and law enforcement activity — in Twin Cities neighborhoods. A quote from the report sums up the debate:
A long-term renter of color expressed a bit of irony as she argued that crime has always been an issue in the area that all families, irrespective of race or class, have expressed concern about over the years. However, this community stakeholder argued that a new level of attention has been given to the conversation in the last few years, signifying to this long-term resident that a new residential demographic has arrived and is using its power to influence the direction of the neighborhood's attention and resources.
This year, the role of police in cities became the proxy debate on gentrification in Minneapolis — and a referendum on gentrification perceptions. Activists who were behind the "defund the police" movement that came out of the George Floyd protests were successful in getting a measure on the ballot that would amend the city's charter to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a public health-oriented Department of Public Safety. But on November 2, Minneapolis voters soundly rejected the measure — perhaps signaling a desire for incremental change from some, rather than a radical one.
Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood sits a few miles inland from the city's gleaming oceanfront condo towers. Much of Miami's growth over the last 50 years has been fueled by oceanfront development and considerable investment from the Caribbean and Latin America. Little Haiti, however, grew as a humble community of Haitian exiles.
Little Haiti does not offer the stunning ocean views that beachfront condos do. But it does offer something the beachfront does not: relative protection from frequent flooding.
Little Haiti is becoming more desirable because it rests on land that is seven to 10 feet above sea level. Oceanfront condos don't enjoy that kind of natural protection from sea level rise driven by climate change. As a result, investors are flooding into the area, driving up home prices and rents and displacing longtime residents and local businesses.
Climate change could cause much more displacement in coastal cities, particularly along the Atlantic and Gulf shores, but also in fire-plagued communities in the West. Recently built subdivisions nestled deep into forested foothills — areas known as the wildland-urban interface — are becoming the targets of recent wildfires, and many of their residents may begin looking for safer locations. Climate change is already altering how and where Americans live.
It's well understood that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted low-income communities, both in terms of economics and health. Working-class residents who work primarily in the service sector were expected to keep the fundamentals of our economy running, working as big-box store clerks and cashiers, workers in food processing plants, delivery drivers, and more.
These essential workers negotiated the risks of working with the public through a pandemic and were initially heaped with thanks for their role in keeping the economy afloat. Yet today, many service jobs go unfilled, as workers are reconsidering their options in the late stages (one hopes) of the pandemic.
If COVID revealed anything, it's that our nation's reliance on a low-paid service class played a key role in the development and spread of the professional class that spurs gentrification and displacement in our cities. In many ways, the service class supports the upper-middle-class lifestyle, with few opportunities for service-class members to enter the middle class. This contributes to the destabilization of neighborhoods that later become the targets for future gentrification and displacement.
Service workers would benefit from a new avenue for upward economic mobility, similar to what Ford Motor Company did in 1914 when it announced that it would more than double the pay of assembly-line workers to five dollars a day. The action validated manufacturing work as legitimate work and increased stability and productivity at the same time. Manufacturing workers were able to develop communities of their own, leading to the growth of the modern American middle class.
Could such a strategy be in the works today, as we strive to enter a post-COVID era?
Displacement by decline
Urban observers are beginning to get a better understanding of the dynamics in cities today, beginning with the notion that, nationwide, urban decline continues to spread faster than urban revitalization. More urban census tracts are sliding further into poverty than climbing out of it. Does this set the stage for future gentrification?
Consider Chicago's south lakefront. The 15-square-mile area just south of the Loop, hugging Lake Michigan, has long been known as a gateway community for Blacks coming to Chicago. Its transition from white to Black began more than a hundred years ago; there had been a small Black community beginning in the 1890s, but by 1920, Blacks constituted 32 percent of the Grand Boulevard area (one of nine designated community areas that make up the south lakefront). Just 10 years later, in 1930, Blacks made up 94 percent of the more than 87,000 people in Grand Boulevard.
There is, perhaps, a sensitivity to the negative impacts of revitalization that we haven't seen since the civil rights movement.
The stifling segregation imposed in Chicago concentrated Black residents in the south lakefront. In 1950, there were nearly 537,000 residents — 36,000 people per square mile, or 56 people per acre — and more than 80 percent of them were Black. The concentration was highest in the Grand Boulevard community, with 114,000 residents — 66,000 people per square mile, or 104 people per acre — 99 percent of whom were Black. It was a self-contained, vibrant community.
But its high density — paired with a lack of private investment in housing and commercial development, plus a lack of public investment in schools, parks, and other public services — also served as a reminder that Blacks did not enjoy the same opportunities as whites in Chicago. As new neighborhoods opened up to Black residents, the exodus began in earnest.
The south lakefront was virtually emptied. The area lost nearly 250,000 residents by 1980, falling below 290,000. Another 90,000 residents left by 2010. After six consecutive decennial cycles of population loss, the south lakefront had less than 40 percent of the residents it did at its 1950 peak.
This movement was quite different from the displacement we discuss today, but it was — and is — displacement nonetheless. Residents who could afford it left a resource-starved area for neighborhoods with more amenities and opportunities. The people who remained were the ones without the resources to do the same, accelerating a cycle of decline. And as formerly white neighborhoods become new segregated Black neighborhoods, the cycle repeats.
The 2020 census, however, illustrated a turnaround for Chicago's south lakefront. New development, largely concentrated in the Near South Side neighborhood closest to the Loop but still scattered throughout much of the area, pushed the south lakefront's population up by nearly 10 percent.
South lakefront communities have become more diverse, with white, Latinx, and Asian residents. They've also become more educated as people with college degrees move in. Importantly, the same is also true for the increasing number of Black residents who moved in. But displacement by decline, characterized by generations of neglect creating conditions of near abandonment and followed by a spark of revitalization, exacts a heavy toll on people and the cities they inhabit. It's a recognizable pattern in many cities. And at its heart, its core, is Black avoidance.
Can development become more equitable?
What if the onus to confront gentrification and displacement wasn't placed on the residents fearing change, but on the developers creating it? What if developers were incentivized to build inclusive projects in the same way they're incentivized to build environmentally sustainable ones?
That's the thrust behind the LEEP Initiative (Leadership in Engineering Equitable Participation). It represents one possible solution. It's an initiative emerging from the West Coast, a region associated with perhaps the most contentious debates on gentrification and displacement.
The Urban Land Institute's fall meeting in Chicago last October provided insight on the initiative with a presentation from two key players: Ana McPhail, PhD, executive director of the emerging nonprofit behind LEEP, and Alan Dones, the developer of two projects in Oakland, California, that are serving as test cases for LEEP principles and standards.
In a nutshell, LEEP aims to address many issues that are challenging to confront, or rarely even considered, in the development process. By integrating solutions into developments for issues like employment and career development, workforce housing and affordability, environmental justice, small-business support, ownership and wealth creation, and general physical and mental well-being, developers would be able to gain certification for inclusively developed projects in the same way LEED does for environmentally sustainable ones.
Dones's proposed Mandela Station, a mixed-use, transit-oriented development in West Oakland, embodies the goals of LEEP. Designed to serve the needs of West Oakland's current and future residents, the development plans to offer 760 residential units, 300,000 square feet of office and life sciences space, 53,000 square feet of ground-level retail, and 1.7 acres of open space — all on a 5.5-acre site.
Dones is clear about his approach to development and how he envisions equity going forward: "It is time for the built environment to embrace equality in the same way it has embraced environmental sustainability."
The bottom line? There is, perhaps, a sensitivity to the negative impacts of revitalization that we haven't seen since the civil rights movement. Local governments and institutions are more openly acknowledging those impacts and becoming more intentional about creating tools that mitigate them. On the other side, community activists are growing more informed and savvy and have learned to negotiate with development, rather than push to stop it.
So now, new questions arise: What role will planners play? And can we put what we've learned into viable solutions for cities?