Gentrification. For many, simply saying the word evokes powerful emotions of anger, resentment, despair and, at times, powerlessness. Such responses are often rooted in experiences of state-sponsored or market-led community expulsion, during which minority communities are supplanted by racially dominant populations. The displacement of residents and businesses is nearly always characterized by tensions between racially- and socioeconomically-defined classes with distinct and contrasting cultural mores. One need only scan recent media headlines to verify the term’s popular understanding: “The Bronx sheds image of urban blight, becomes latest target of New York City’s relentless gentrification”; “Some Charlotte [North Carolina] residents feeling pressured to move by gentrification”; “Gentrification has destroyed our unique ‘Bo-Kaap heritage'” in Cape Town, South Africa; and “Vulnerable residents forced out by the gentrification of West Auckland.”
To be sure, gentrification is a politically charged set of spatial and temporal processes involving complex negotiations between governments, markets, local businesses, national and international companies, social and cultural ideologies, racial and ethnic minorities and majorities from varying social classes, and a host of other influential entities. The inclusion of built heritage conservation in this already highly variable mix further complicates the processes of neighborhood change. Given that underserved or undervalued historic areas are choice neighborhoods for revitalization due to their siting, accessibility, quality of building construction, and architectural attributes, the relationship between gentrification and conservation deserves closer examination.
Urban conservation as a standard of care, and as a form of building maintenance employs an ethos that values history, cultural identities, and a sense of place. While conservation today is far more than a purely material architectural endeavor and is now employed as an approach to neighborhood revitalization and sustainable development, the visual impacts of physical conservation remain the most readily recognizable at street level: upgraded buildings, streetscapes, and landscapes that often lead to an improved “sense of place,” among other difficult to define but easy to experience urban concepts. Further, a vast and growing body of literature addresses conservation’s nuanced social and economic impacts, which often include increased property values, community cohesion and stabilization, and social and financial investment. Despite these seemingly positive outcomes, the question of “for whom?” remains—who benefits from a revitalized economy, decreased crime, and stronger sense of community? As a consequence of the variability in responses to such questions, direct causal relationships between urban conservation and the negative effects of conservation are easily, if inaccurately, assumed.
The common perception of urban conservation as a precursor to gentrification has been voiced by Neil Smith who contended that “[h]istoric preservation generally leads to gentrification that in turn displaces many low-income households.” In an interesting twist on the historical associations of conservation as a disciplining form of elite curatorial connoisseurship, economist Ed Glaeser even further projected the outcome when he asserted the link between urban conservation, the loss of affordable housing, and the bland neutralization of the physical built environment.
[a]s if it weren’t enough that large historic districts are associated with a reduction in housing supply, higher prices, and increasingly elite residents, there’s also an aesthetic reason to be skeptical about them: they protect an abundance of uninteresting buildings that are less attractive and exciting than new structures that could replace them.
There is undeniably great room for improvement for a more politically engaged conservation practice, and for the development of practical policy tools that address the constituent economic and social practice realities of built heritage. Nevertheless, facile assertions of direct causal relationships do a great disservice to the evolving values and concerns of conservation and to the resident communities who otherwise seek to improve their circumstances. Failure to question the actual factors that contribute to urban decay…
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