Building Magazine


Hipsters may save us

It’s fun listening to the linguistic acrobatics those involved in improving the built environment often go through when discussing strategies for city building. Too often the language is muddled with buzzwords and corporate-speak – if I don’t see the word ‘placemaking,’ ‘vibrancy’ or the term ‘create a new narrative’ in my inbox again for a while, I won’t mind – and while words like ‘re-urbanization’ and ‘re-vitalization’ have their place, I sometimes get the impression that much of the time what they are really trying to do is avoid uttering “gentrification.”

Urban gentrification is a phenomenon that comes loaded with many meanings to many people. They often start in the popular imagination as pre-hipster neighbourhoods of working-class ethnic groups, drug dealers and violence and characterized by post-industrial vacancies of boarded-up factories, weed-choked lots, and fractured train tracks. Then come the artists, followed closely by the cafés and galleries that serve them. We all know what happens next: the conversion of these older districts — where lower-income households and new immigrants could traditionally find affordable rental housing — into neighbourhoods geared towards middle-income and high-income households.

For many people, “gentrification” is a dirty word. It raises images of an older, eclectic neighbourhood being uprooted by wealthier, more homogeneous locals, more Starbucks chains and less culture. But in fact, gentrification is a key driver in the rapid and, in some cases astonishing, transformation of the contemporary Canadian urban landscape, and often represents the enhancement and renewal of communities that would otherwise be in a period of decline, such as smaller cities like Saint John, N.B., as detailed in this issue’s feature by Cyndi Rottenberg-Walker and Mark Reid from Urban Strategies.

This is not to say that it is a seamless evolution. People like Tim Jones, president and CEO of Artscape, are quick to point out how gentrification has often displaced artists and cultural groups, which are frequently the reasons the neighbourhood was attractive in the first place. A principled approach, he believes, would include ways to keep these residents and businesses in the neighbourhood, while also allowing for changes that come with gentrification. One oft-cited tactic is to incorporate housing geared to low- and middle-income individuals and families, while still having a neighbourhood that will attract higher-income residents, workers and consumers. Examples like the rebuilding of Regent Park in downtown Toronto show that it is possible to build elegant and interesting social housing that can be part of neighbourhood gentrification, and can allow residents from different social, cultural and economic backgrounds to be part of these new communities.

Taking this ethos one step further, positive gentrification of moribund neighbourhoods could also represent an exciting maturation of public/private partnerships. Downtown revivals such as those envisioned for Saint John necessitates planning and zoning that is more flexible and allows for a variety of market uses that could come to the site. Because if this was the case, private developers – who we know tend to be risk-adverse — could become more entrepreneurial and creative, and be a bit more willing to take risks in purchasing land and beginning development projects in those areas, even if the municipality itself hasn’t ponied up for public improvements before the private sector starts construction.

Across Canada rates of urbanization are increasing, with 80 per cent of us already living in cities today. Add to that the fact that by 2030, net immigration will account for most if not all of Canada’s future growth. “Cities that are successful in attracting people will be successful in attracting future investment,” says Rottenberg-Walker, and those cities that work with the private sector to groom formerly faded precincts for smart growth will be well-situated to mine the rewards of those investments.

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