Engineering new cities - is gentrification always bad?

We commonly associate the term ‘gentrification’ with a white-washing of culture. The takeover of local enclaves, the bulldozing of traditionally ethnic neighbourhoods and the cleaning-up of lower socio-economic districts.

If you ask a young person, gentrification is killing what little local culture large cities have left. If you ask an older person, it’s creating a desirable retirement in a once-avoided area of town. Swap out the run-down dive bar for an all-pressed juice bar; replace the charity shop for an antiques and vintage shop; and move-out the local hand-manufactured clothes shop for high-end designer wear.

However, according to studies, gentrification is far less-often associated with displacement than it is accused of. Despite the negative connotations of the word, gentrification can actually have a positive impact on those it is said to be driving away.

How gentrification can financially benefit low-income earners

According to a study from NYU’s Furman Institute, low-income earners in gentrifying areas earned substantially more – on average – than residents in non-gentrifying low-income neighbourhoods.  In addition to this increase in wages, these residents also experienced less violent crime, and children had access to better public schools where they performed at a higher average rate.

Villanova University’s urban economics professor, David Fiorenza, says low-income earners across gentrifying neighbourhoods can benefit from their changing landscape through an increase in jobs and decrease in crime rate.

As new residents move into pockets of cities, they bring with them a new economy – new jobs, new cash-flow and new opportunities. Original property owners of these areas can even benefit from the rise in property prices once the so-called hipsters move in, says CNN Money.

The rise of urban engineering and development

Gentrification is one of the most controversial topics in the field of urban development. The industry is at a peak across major cities where gentrification is said to be taking place.

Urban planning expert, Stuart Butler of the Brookings Institution, argues that this type of development in inner-city areas can increase quality of life for the original inhabitants of a neighbourhood. He discusses how in many cities across the US, zoning laws in newly-developing neighbourhoods force urban developers to build subsidised housing for the original inhabitants, alongside the high-end dwellings for the wealthy newcomers.

This ultimately means that, instead of driving the original residents out, a rise in house prices can help to create more subsidised housing, not less.

These mixed-income communities are seeing thriving development off the back of what Hazel Edwards, former professor of planning at Catholic University in the US, calls new-wave urban revitalisation.

The role of the urban planner

If you look across any major city in the developed world, you will see a skyline of cranes and new buildings taking shape. These new engineering projects and developments show us that the role of the urban planner is continually being reshaped.

According to John Norquist, President, Congress for New Urbanism, the reward doesn’t come without risk.

“As we learn more about the impact of gentrification and urban planning on our society, it is beholden on those entrusted with shaping our cities to have a more comprehensive understanding of the full effects of their plans and proposals.”

Professor Edwards agrees, stating “the key to revitalization … is bringing residents and the community to the table often and at the beginning.”

“Cities have to form diverse, inclusive partnerships, foster openness, and collaborate on goals and outcomes,” she claims.

Engineering our way into the future

While the notion of gentrification can cause public debate, anxiety among original neighbourhood residents about their changing landscape, and an increase in lifestyle expense, the positive impacts are often ignored.

It has never been a more exciting time to be an engineer or urban planner; the development of new housing, new marketplaces and ‘revitalised’ communities will increase the longevity of a city’s core, while expanding its emerging peripheral.

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