Neighborhood Change

Charles Buki's picture

It is often - and very inaccurately - said that people hate change.  When people get married - they are overjoyed.  When they hold the winning lottery ticket, or have children or get a raise or a promotion or a new car, they are thrilled.  These are forms of change that illustrate the point that change is not what people hate; what people have trouble with is certain forms of change.  This becomes especially relevant to planners and designers and community developers who are part of processes - shaping, facilitating, leading, participating in, or otherwise advocating for one form of change or another.

When the subject is neighborhood change, it can be very hard for residents who have only seen change affect them negatively shift gears and look forward to a future filled with uncertainty, fraught as it must be - if past is any prologue - with only some kind of a downside.

For people who are looking at the future with fear, facts become both doubly important, and are ironically rarely referenced in a knowing way.  Sales trends can show that property values while increasing are increasing more slowly that the rest of the city, and so their neighborhood is falling further behind.  Yet residents who are experiencing a growing gap between their incomes and what housing costs are, understandably, disinclined to see the bigger picture.

Struggling neighborhoods - especially in older urban settings - are almost places where there are disproportionate concentrations of poverty.  This is the evil from which every other problem, from segregated schools to low wealth to job shortages to retail leakage, flows.  Yet suggest to an all Black and nearly all poor community that economic integration is a worthy goal, and the capacity to "see" goes right out the window, as what residents "hear" is "some form of change is coming and it is not good for me."

Planners must not cloak these legitimate concerns in faux facilitated conversations framed in design or planner speak, putting on flip charts worries that people have as if the "capture" of concerns on paper somehow legitimizes a process that residents often see through.  Often the pressure cooker of community meetings in really struggling communities creates high levels of tension around what kind of a future is being talked about.  Is it a future that includes "me"?  Will I be displaced?  

Community developers must not succumb to this pressure with false promises of a future where there is no loss, no displacement, no shift in norms. These are exactly the goals we must work towards because the status quo is the real enemy.  And the status quo is concentrated poverty.

Adaptation is - rightly- required of residents in poor communities.  It is likewise appropriate that community developers adapt as well, and honor real fear not by caving in an soothsaying, but by being candid about the casualties of the process of revitalization and that moving from concentrated poverty to economic integration entails gain as well as loss.  Moreover, adaptation from the planning profession and from city councils should be de rigueur, for ultimately if there is insufficient inclusion of low income families in strong neighborhoods, concentrated poverty is inevitable.



Charles Buki is principal of czb, a Virginia-based neighborhood planning firm specializing in deep dive analysis, strategy development, and implementation of revitalization plans.


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