Modern community development is a balancing act
For most of the history of urban development, community input was rare. Top down design and planning prescriptions, like those of “urban renewal” were how communities were made. These days, planners and developers need to be far more agile and responsive to create communities. Working in tandem with the local community is an absolute necessity.
What residents want
Gentrification has become a loaded term, and rightly so. But it is a common misconception that existing residents of gentrifying neighborhoods do not understand or want the myriad benefits that come with rising economic tides. They want their communities to grow, and flourish- but they want to be able to enjoy the benefits of that renaissance, and not be displaced. Most people welcome newcomers, but they want to feel that newcomers respect the area and that new commercial businesses and housing developments serve all the people in that community.
Developers need to balance the needs and wants of locals with the march of progress. They have a financial responsibility to attract new residents who wish to join those communities, but sustainable development means targeting more than one social and economic strata. Instead of markedly altering the character of the community, developers should work to integrate their projects into the fabric of that community on its terms.
Include treasured local businesses
A community’s character does not only come from residents. Commercial spaces and businesses like restaurants, barbershops, local watering holes, and many other establishments define an area just as much as the people that live in the neighborhood.
Developers should make efforts to ensure that treasured local businesses are allowed to continue operations. A popular option for this route is to offer them below-market rent for a specified period. This will keep the best features of the neighborhood in place, building a sense of community and goodwill between neighborhood anchors and new tenants and developments.
Studies have consistently shown that mixed-income neighborhoods offer a plethora of social, economic and educational benefits. But it takes work to maintain that mix. In certain communities, people live on fixed or limited incomes. If these residents are unable to share in the collective progress of the neighborhood, they will likely oppose any new development. One way to do well and do right is to set aside a certain percentage of units in up and coming neighborhoods for low-income residents, or to explore bottom-up financing options like equity crowdfunding, which allow residents to invest direct in community projects.
The choices developers make have a real impact on the daily lives of neighborhood residents. The most successful developers in the social impact space find a healthy balance between generating returns and ensuring that all residents benefit from a rising tide.
Image of building in River Terrace, DC, courtesy of Small Change.