The price of “somewhere”: Gentrification and Equality

The title, as long time readers have already figured out, plays on my favorite geography book – James H. Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape.The book, written in the mid-/late-1990s, is an excellent perspective on the history of the United States’ built landscape, specifically the typical American suburb (of which Z Geography is intimately familiar). The book reads as a eulogy for the “classic” American small-towns of the northeast. The “Main Street” that modern politicians are so fond of recalling. These towns and villages were small, reasonably compact, intimate, and green. In other words, the complete antithesis of the modern suburb.

In this post, we’ll discuss how these “Nowheres” are in transition to becoming “Somewheres” in both cities and suburbs. In highlighting the disparate, but legitimate, interests associated with development as well as its pitfalls, I’m hoping to draw your attention to the importance of these political choices. Beyond politics, there is also room for decency.

As any urban resident will tell you, things are changing. White Americans are returning, following the well-discussed “White Flight” of the 1950s and 1960s, when the racial group left cities for safer, cleaner, newer suburbs. The process of returning and the development associated with it has been coined gentrification. Gentrification involves an increase in home values and better delivery of public goods (e.g. education, transportation, security) – city managers like the increased tax revenue. Young, white families like being in a city while enjoying more effective utilities. Of course, there are already residents living in these cities – black home owners and renters, with decidedly less income, who are eventually “encouraged” out by developers or high property values.

These disparate outcomes increased development while original residents are pushed out have been discussed in some media. Recently, the Washington Post described how large, predominantly black, churches in Washington, DC are attempting to prevent the creation of bike lanes on the streets near the church. As the Post observes:

  • “the packed meeting…highlighted a tension in the rapidly changing District [of Columbia] between longtime, black residents and new, largely white residents.”
  • “These conflicts stem from the change in D.C.’s neighborhoods. Many of D.C.’s churches were built at a time when their neighborhoods, such as Shaw, weren’t as teeming with condos and restaurants,  and parking wasn’t as big of an issue. Additionally, many longtime churchgoers have left the city for the suburbs and now commute to their old churches by car.”

The issue relates to a proposal to establish bike lanes on streets near the church, thus removing parking spaces. While not summarized as such the “conflict” (because that is what it is) is between two distinct social groups (blacks, whites) on how best to use (in this case transportation) a finite, terrestrial resource (land). Again the Post:

  • “This ain’t London, this ain’t Europe. The United States is built on the automobile and we need to respect that,” said Michael Green, a deacon at New Bethel Baptist Church.
  • “Washington Area Bicycle Association, a group that advocates for cycling in the city, argues that bike lanes wouldn’t prevent anyone from going to church.  There are other modes of transportation available to churchgoers, and bike lanes are necessary for the safety of the city’s increasing number of cyclists.”

The conflict, obviously, is ultimately a political question and as the Advisory Neighborhood Commission member notes in the article not everyone is going to be happy with the outcome. The Washington Post article presents both sides of the dispute as legitimate stakeholders with competing interests. Often, it is too easy to characterize (or spin, if you like) these conflicts into easily identifiable “right” and “wrong” positions under a completely different narrative, one for each stakeholder.

Gentrification is not only happening in America’s cities, it is also happening in some of the suburbs as well. Considering that many of suburbs are still more affluent (and house predominantly whites) than the cities they surround, what I’m really referring to is the development or transformation of these communities.

Politico describes the ongoing transformation in a suburb outside Chicago, Evanston, Illinois, which trying to “kill the car” as the title notes. The article is a 5-page look at a new-old concept: transit-oriented development (TOD). New because, Americans (sometime after Europeans) “rediscovered” it. Old because we employed this concept with railroads and streetcars. Evanston’s planning (since 1986) involves mixed-use development (i.e. residential and commercial) close to one another near a transit node (hence transit-oriented development). The theory is to promote walkability within insulated communities – walk from your apartment to the grocery store, bakery, or school. But, if your job is in Chicago, then there is a light rail just down the street. The net effect, of course, is to make cars useless.

Unfortunately, Politico gives decidedly short thrift to the problems of development and gentrification (you have to dig to page 5). According to the article, critics of TOD refer to it as “transit oriented displacement.” There is only a general mention of “affordable housing” as a potential explanation to how TOD, with its rising property values and prices, generates “diverse neighborhoods—diverse in population, retail, entertainment and housing”.

At the moment, according to the 2010 Census, Evanston was more racially and ethnically diverse compared to the rest of Illinois (66% White, 72% White respectively). However, the city is also markedly more affluent based on average income and with median home values of over $350,000 compared to $182,000. There is already a bar to live in this transforming suburb where a car is not as necessary. The unintended consequence, without guaranteed affordable housing, is to permit an elite core of residents the luxury of short commutes, walkability, and liveability, while a much larger group of workers must commute in – probably with cars – because they can’t afford it.

There are no easy solutions to these political problems. How do we as a local electorate balance the desires of newcomers with the desires of long-time residents? Many would argue that these questions should be decided at the ballot box – but that is also a tyranny of the majority. A time may not be far off when your majority becomes a minority – what then will we have built? What precedent would you have set?

Housing Discrimination and Immigration: Singapore

Few things are more amazing to Z Geography than the seeming uptick in xenophobia and racism in much of the world (to include the United States). What is particularly striking is the overt and public outpouring of these sentiments – from signs explaining what language to order in to, apparently, rental listings listing undesirable ethnic groups. To Z Geography, the growth of globalization/glocalization has reinforced nativist and xenophobic attitudes – from Russia, to Singapore, to the United States.

The BBC published a story on owners of rental units in Singapore restricting tenants based on ethnicity, specifically Indians and Chinese (or in the parlance of the internet, Indians/PRCs). One, of course, wonders if the restriction applies to citizens of Taiwan. It probably does, as the article details even persons of Indian or Chinese descent from western countries are viewed with suspicion. To be sure, this is not official discrimination but entirely personal. Of course, this sort of outright racism is not limited to Singapore – last October, an anonymous poster to a social media site in Norfolk, VA posted that black trick-or-treaters (Halloween was upcoming) would not be welcome in a (predominantly, one assumes) neighborhood.

As the BBC reports Singapore’s population is ethnically diverse: 74% Chinese, 13% Malay, 9% Indian, and 3% other. The interesting point though is that in this small southeast Asian state, 90% of people own their homes, which probably makes the population somewhat sensitive to housing prices. And this is the justification for overt racism – no Indians or Chinese because “many don’t clean weekly, and they do heavy cooking… They may use a lot of spices that release smells that people don’t like.” On the other hand, another source related that some owners would be less willingly to lease to Chinese and Indian immigrants because they are viewed as less likely to maintain the property. That sentiment, taken on its own, “less likely to maintain a property” seems reasonable to me – it is the addition of the ethnicity factor that makes the statement preposterous.

Also similar to the United States is Singapore’s separation of the public and private spheres. In both states, racial harmony and multi-identity societies are well-entrenched in public life (at least on the surface). However, the state’s views end at the private door step. There’s an obvious disconnect here between the stated public utopia and the grim reality of the private citizen. In Singapore this was thrown into stark contrast in December when foreign workers from South Asia rioted after a bus accident resulted in the death of an Indian national. Online, the saga sparked condemnation of racism in the country and criticisms of foreign workers.

We should also be rooting these anecdotes into the deepening globalization of society. But not only are foreign workers migrating in larger numbers to new places for employment, they are also sparking a glocalization movement (global-local). This movement, a reaction, is also understood as natvist. The receiving community not only engages the global community, but also reinforces its own sense of local identity. In the context of Singapore, “Singapore” is resisting the influence of immigrant Indian and Chinese communities. Obviously, Singapore isn’t the only country doing this.

Going forward, Z Geography expects to see a combination of growing support for foreign workers in Singapore as well as stiffening resistance to their presence. Whilst this will be primarily discussed within Parliament of Singapore, violent flareups – like last December’s riot – are more than likely.

That Sinking Feeling: Megacities in Decline

Well, not really in decline in the way you’re thinking. Megacities, defined by the United Nations as areas with urban populations in excess of 5 million persons (think Tokyo, New York City, Mumbai), are slowly sinking into the earth – according to research from the Netherlands (and reported by the BBC). Coupled with raising sea levels due to climate change, humanity’s most densely packed population centers at risk of longer and deeper floods.

Sea Level Rise, City Subsidence (via BBC)

Land or the ground sinks into the Earth’s crust naturally, as any geographer will tell you. One method is tectonic plate movement. Depending on the plate, one may be subsumed under another with one being pushed upwards and the other being pushed under. These geologic processes also cause earthquakes and volcanic activity (see: the Pacific Ring of Fire). As the BBC article points out, this geologic activity may be responsible for about 1 mm of subsidence a year. According to the research, a longitudinal study using radar imagery (measuring elevation), concludes that human activity – particularly groundwater extraction – is the primary culprit for city subsidence.

In most cases, a city’s drinking water supply is sourced from local groundwater. As this water is extracted from underground aquifers, one would assume that heavier buildings and infrastructure would press down upon, and compact, the underlying soils. Of course, the relative amount of compaction would be dependent on the local soil (sand, clay, silt, and other factors). While some cities have reduced, if not almost wholly eliminated, municipal subsidence (the article mentions Tokyo and Venice) by halting groundwater extraction – this option isn’t a realistic solution for coastal megacities in less economically advanced countries (Dhaka, Lagos, Jakarta). In these and other “smaller” cities (between 1 and 5 million persons) municipal budgets are already strained coping with a vast informal housing sector (read: slums and shantytowns), a stagnant infrastructure, and poor administration. Adding a requirement for an entirely new source of drinking water for an entire city would be prohibitively expensive.

However, given rising sea levels, municipal subsidence, some 75% of humanity lives on the coast (but not necessarily in a city), and about half of humanity lives in cities (not necessarily on a coast) – we can easily see the scale of the problem. Fortunately, the problem is somewhat long-term, city subsidence and sea level rise occurs at rates of millimeters a year. However, though the number is small the results are disproportionately large. A National Geographic article, published Sep 2013, cited a OSCE report stating that a 20-inch sea level rise would leave 150 million people and $35 trillion dollars (about 9% of global GDP) at risk of coastal flooding. A city sinking 20-inches, an easy analogy, would take 40 years at 5 mm a year.

Of course, this timeline would compress markedly if cities are to contend with both rising sea levels and their own sinking. The timeline is likely to further compress if urban population growth rates remain high as new residents also demand access to water.

Even more long-term, Z Geography wonders if the growth of megacities will lead to their own decline. Could this natural hazard (coastal flooding) combine with other human-made hazards in cities (violent conflict, poverty) and lead to a period of deurbanization in the next 50, or 100, years? One could argue “yes”, in the true spirit of Malthus, but we shall watch for technological and economic innovation – perhaps a cheaper way to reduce our dependence on groundwater?

Unintended Consequences: Migration in Sri Lanka

I came across an interest-piquing article on Colombo (the capital of Sri Lanka) based on the preliminary (at the time) results of that country’s 2012 Census.

According to the article, the Sinhala (presumably Buddhist) population of Colombo comprises 24% of the city (a notable decrease from 50% of the population in 1971). The Tamil population (presumably Hindu) makes up around 33% of the population, an increase from 24.5% in 1971. The surprising statistic is the population of Muslims (alternatively Sri Lankan Moors or Indian Muslims, probably both), whose ratio increased from 19% in 1971 to over 40% in 2012. In terms of absolutes, the population numbers are: over 79 thousand Sinhala, over 106 thousand Tamils, and 126 thousand Muslims.

While the numbers themselves are interesting, Colombo now contains more Muslims than Tamil Hindus or Sinhala Buddhists, they should be understood within current and historical contexts. For instance, the Diplomat reported in September 2013 on the growing violence in Sri Lanka of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists targeting Muslims. As that source points out, Buddhists comprise 70% of the island’s 20 million people. The irony shouldn’t be lost on a world which has (abominably) associated sectarian violence with Islam. For their part, “Buddhists” are often assumed to be one of the more “peaceful” religions. In Sri Lanka, the right-leaning authorities (led by a long-serving President) have turned a “blind eye” to violence unleashed by monks, who are serving as agent provocateurs. In addition to attacking places of worship and business, Sinhala-Buddhist “extremists” (if you would) are calling for a boycott of halal-certified meat.

While sectarian on the surface, the Diplomat also notes an economic undercurrent within the violence. Protesters against halal-certification note that the principle body of Islamic scholars charges a fee to certify meat – and that this fee is passed on to the public. The geographic choices of targets reveals much of a movement’s basis. Places of worship are usually thought of first when considering visible evidence of a minority community and a focal point for anger, they are (after all) focal points for the community. Places of business may often be the real focal points and businesses are often just as visible.

Sri Lanka/Ceylon has witnessed this sectarian-economic violence before. Anthropologist Stanley Tambiah, himself a Sri Lankan, in his book Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist conflicts and collective violence in South Asia provides a discussion of Buddhist riots targeting the growing Tamil-Muslim community in Sri Lanka in the early 1900s. As it was then, so it is now. Economics, as well as sectarian differences, provided the impetus for violence against a minority religious community.

Considering the apparent Buddhist-nationalism gripping Sri Lanka and an equally apparent list of economic grievances against Muslims, further violence against this community is (unfortunately) likely. The violence is also a reminder of the problem of politicizing one particular aspect of a person’s identity and highlights the junction between violence, geography, and political identity.