More communities than ever are choosing to ignore the reality that, due to need to limit climate change and energy descent, the economic party as we knew it is over. Instead, many cities are turning ever more to cargo cult of “design” to reverse their fortunes. (See my previous post about this here.) In simple terms, the belief is that by having designers create cool places, a city can capture the hipster class and all they potential economic benefits they might bring. This leads to an artificial environment, however, and one that is particularly damaging to socially and economically disadvantaged people. Is this gamble on gentrification and stratification really the best that our brightest minds can do for our cities?
Below are two brief critiques of the results of such thinking. The first discusses the economic and social impact of the High Line in NYC. The 1.5 mile project cost over $150m! (or $100 million a mile.) The second exposes the fallacy of the entire “Creative Class as economic development” theory.
Poverty Below the High Line
by Sahra Mirbabaee
Originally posted at the Polis blog
Of all the factors that contribute to urban livability — including public health, education and infrastructure — policy is often focused disproportionately on economic growth. In pursuit of this assumed prerequisite for prosperity, municipal governments around the world are investing in urban design. At the same time, this investment is fueling inequality and displacement. The allocation of public funds to places of high economic potential favors the rich, creating an unfair playing field for all tax-payers. One of the most striking examples of this trend is the High Line in New York City.
Built on an elevated former railway, the High Line park runs 1.45 miles along Manhattan’s West Side. Since the 1990s, the surrounding neighborhoods have changed from a downtrodden post-industrial area to a hot spot in the city’s social and cultural scenes. They’re now home to many bars, galleries, restaurants and shops like Barneys, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney. Past neglect created the conditions for profitable redevelopment, as evident in “Alphabet City” and many other Manhattan districts over the past 20 years.
Since its opening in 2009, the High Line has been hailed as an inspiring use of architecture for urban renewal. It has a large fan-base, including the municipal government. In fact, the High Line has thrived “within the confines of the community of money” because of strong government support. The first two installments cost a reported $152.3 million, and the third is projected to cost $86.2 million. Funding sources comprise $112 million from the city government, $20.3 million from the federal government, $400,000 from the state and $44 million from private donations. Operating costs are estimated at $2-4 million per year. With over half the High Line’s budget coming from public funds, concerns over the return on this investment are more than justified.
Government investment in the High Line has created problems for longtime residents who can’t afford the increasing cost of living. According to the American Community Survey (ACS) conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 15,000-25,000 people living in poverty in the neighborhoods around the abandoned railway in 2005. More recent census data shows that the poverty rate in New York City rose for the third straight year in 2011, representing 20.9 percent of the total population. For a single person, this means earning less than $11,500 a year; for a family, less than $23,021. These numbers are especially alarming because the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment around the High Line when it opened was already over $1,200 a month. It’s possible that poverty rates have dropped since then as low-income residents are priced out of the neighborhoods. This raises important questions as to who is actually benefiting from the city’s investment.
The High Line has been a catalyst for gentrification that, according to Neil Smith, “is no longer about a narrow and quixotic oddity in the housing market but has become the leading residential edge of a much larger endeavor: the class remake of the central urban landscape.” The project exudes a “cool” image of feigned neglect, despite the troubling irony in this aesthetic. Commodifying ostensibly lower-class spaces for supposedly higher classes is both patronizing and divisive. Liz Diller, one of the lead architects for the High Line, joked that “the great success [of the project] has been introducing New Yorkers to doing nothing.” This comment rests on a key oversight: Not everyone earns enough from their work to afford even a few hours of “doing nothing” at the High Line. And would crowds of people without disposable income be welcome in a neighborhood increasingly structured around spending money? Some experience a sense of not belonging there, as one visitor remarked: “I felt like I was in the home of a neatnik with expensive tastes, afraid I would soil the furnishings.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the High Line’s most steadfast supporters, proposed cutting $170 million in funding from childcare services in the city. This would make life much harder for low-income parents who rely on these programs to get by. In weighing the value of playgrounds for well-off New Yorkers and tourists versus assistance for people struggling to afford food and rent, the mayor appears to favor of the former.
As disproportionate public investment in real estate development becomes the norm, low-income residents are finding it more and more difficult to escape poverty. Reversing this misappropriation of funds would allow us all to build more vibrant neighborhoods than the High Line’s designers could ever have imagined.
Sahra Mirbabaee is a student in the Urban Studies Program at U.C. Berkeley.
Kiante Campbell, an 18-year-old Oakland resident, was killed in the shadow of new condominiums, gourmet food trucks, and buffed art galleries selling oil paintings that cost more than a few months’ rent in the ’hood. The festival, Art Murmur, shuts down much of Oakland’s downtown on the first Friday of each month, drawing 20,000 people, including tourists from both San Francisco and the surrounding suburbs. Now its future was called into question.
The shooting highlighted a stark reality: The creative class is remaking Oakland in its own image, but the “urban renaissance” isn’t benefitting everyone. The neighborhood where Campbell was killed has new condos and galleries — and a median household income of less than $22,000.
By the urbanist creative-class metric, Oakland is winning. It’s a top city for urban farmers, local organic gourmet food snobs (love you, food snobs!), cyclists, and art-lovers. It’s home to a growing number of imported young makers, tech start-ups, and rising artists, in large part because of its close proximity to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. At the same time, about 13 percent of Oakland residents are unemployed, and the city still has one of the highest murder rates in the nation, especially for teens.
For years, Richard Florida and other urban life pundits have espoused the creative class as the secret to city success. When the creative class wins, their logic goes, we all win. Gentrification has essentially become America’s favored urban redevelopment strategy.
Florida has acknowledged that the rise of the creative class can exacerbate urban class divides, but his new research highlights just how big those divides can be.
For a recent piece at Atlantic Cities, Florida and others researched metro populations, wages, and amenities and compared how cities coped with their respective creative classes. The result, Florida wrote:
On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits. Its benefits flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional, and creative workers whose higher wages and salaries are more than sufficient to cover more expensive housing in these locations. While less-skilled service and blue-collar workers also earn more money in knowledge-based metros, those gains disappear once their higher housing costs are taken into account.
Those gains disappear. I couldn’t believe it the first time I read it. In his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida said that the creative class would lead economic growth over the next decade, creating millions of jobs and promoting a new kind of “street level culture” around loafy café and art gallery life. Florida still stands by this argument, but acknowledges that it comes with a downside. “The knowledge economy powers growth and generates class and geographic inequality at the same time,” he wrote in an email.
Florida’s solution to this problem is to create political pressure on companies to raise wages for service jobs. That sounds nice, but it’s kind of a fantasy. In Oakland, a “living wage” for a single adult would be $11.51, closer to $20 if you have kids, but service jobs in Oakland typically pay around $9-10. When Oakland tried to create this kind of pressure with living wage regulations, a chain grocery store that had planned to open in the city’s west district “food desert” just scrapped its plans, and those jobs, altogether.
Other urbanists acknowledge that the urban renaissance can exacerbate class divides. Here’s Kaid Benfield at the NRDC’s Switchboard blog:
[G]entrification — the movement of more affluent residents into previously poor neighborhoods — doesn’t have to be all bad. Some neighborhoods benefit from it, as do municipal tax rolls. But the issue gets much more dicey if a community loses all its affordable housing and displaces longtime residents who had achieved a degree of stability.
Dicey indeed — particularly in the age of climate change. The stable, resilient, connected neighborhoods that make up our social infrastructure are arguably as important as actual infrastructure for surviving crises of all kinds — you know, like the ones we’re probably going to see many more of in the near future. Here’s sociologist Eric Klinenberg talking to NPR last month:
We always talk about the physical engineering that we need to protect cities, and systems and people during crises. We have failed to recognize the significance of our social infrastructure, the way in which communications matters, the way in which our relationships with neighbors, and family and friends matters; the way in which our neighborhood can protect or imperil us, depending on where we are. … [W]hen a real disaster strikes, it’s the social stuff that might make the difference between life and death.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it was the local, grassroots social infrastructure that dug much of New York City out of disaster while FEMA, the Red Cross, and other large operations scrambled.
Likewise, in Oakland, the community banded together when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake sent an elevated freeway crumbling to the ground, killing 42 people. Local residents pulled the injured from the wreckage and supported one another in the aftermath.
Today, the West Oakland neighborhood where the freeway collapsed is dense with artist lofts, condo construction, and empty, foreclosed homes of the people who couldn’t keep up. Many of those homes have been bought up by investors who either rent them out at inflated prices, or leave them empty, waiting for the real estate market to make it worth their while to rehab and resell.
Despite, and to some degree because of, the rise of the creative class, West Oakland’s social infrastructure is likely as damaged now as its concrete was in 1989. This is not a recipe for success.
“If you want to live in this city, then you have to help us deal with this dilemma,” writes local blogger Lukas Brekke-Miesner of Oakland’s safety problems. “You can’t ignore this away. You can’t gentrify it away.”
The so-called “urban renaissance” brings some great sandwiches and microbrews, and I love bike lanes as much as anyone, but the creative class is not a solution for creating community in the face of crisis.