What Does “Radical Neighborhood Change” Look Like?

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“No neighborhood should be exempt from change. No neighborhood should be subjected to radical change.”

This is a principle that I and other Strong Towns writers have invoked repeatedly over several years in talking about development, growth, and local regulation.

A quotable, memorable rule is always a useful thing—but not if it becomes a hardened dogma. A shorthand soundbite is powerful if you use it with an understanding of when, and more importantly why, the idea is relevant. Otherwise you simply have a rhetorical cudgel to be wielded in service of whatever you already wanted to support or oppose. People will see that for what it is, and you will sound insincere and be ineffective.

An article published here in December, “Legalize the Village” by Charles Montgomery, calls for the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, to permit six-story apartment buildings on residential lots citywide. (The article is an account of an ambitious experiment in developing a cohousing community; it’s inspiring and I strongly recommend you read it.) At some point, a Strong Towns reader asked me if we weren’t being philosophically inconsistent by running the piece. “Don’t six-story buildings next to small houses count as radical change?”

It’s a good, valid question. The truth is, I don’t think that’s something you can answer on sight. Fundamentally, the notion of “radical change” we’re trying to get at is not a statement about the built environment at all. It’s not defined by the height of buildings, the density, the aesthetics, or how many new ones there are. It’s about the human community that exists within a physical place.

Neighborhoods Can Change “Radically” With or Without Development

In the case of Montgomery’s “village,” the crucial context is the recognition that Vancouver has one of the most acute housing affordability crises in the world. As of 2021 the region had a staggering price-to-income ratio of 7.4. You would need to make $230,000 to afford the average house.

In this context, the project is explicitly designed to maximize affordability and provide a viable home for a broader spectrum of Vancouverites than most new construction is able to achieve. Both its six-story height and its cohousing design (which economizes on private space in favor of shared space) are in service of this goal: They reduce the per-capita consumption of staggeringly expensive Vancouver land.

And so this project, which might appear “radical” in its physical form, needs to be understood in the context of a city which is already radically changing as a deliberate attempt to mitigate that change.

You can have radical neighborhood change in the complete absence of new construction. In the book Generation Priced Out, Randy Shaw observes that San Francisco is full of neighborhoods that gentrified beyond recognition in the late 20th century as scarcity and high demand led to buyers bidding up existing homes. One of these is Haight-Ashbury, the famous epicenter of the hippie movement and 1967’s Summer of Love. In 1973, a duplex in the neighborhood cost the equivalent of $176,000 in today’s dollars. Now, that same house is over $2 million. The young and countercultural types that put the place on the national map would have no hope of getting a toehold in Haight-Ashbury today.

For every neighborhood in a high-cost “superstar city” where gentrification is accompanied by dramatic new construction and buildings totally out of scale to their older surroundings (think Shaw, in Washington, DC), there’s at least one other where the process takes place quietly behind the unchanged facades of existing buildings. Consider Crown Heights in Brooklyn, where Census data in these tables reveal that the median household income has jumped from $45,000 to $75,000 from 2010 to 2020. There has been some new construction in Crown Heights, but not much of it is out of scale with what was already there. For the most part, you can pick a random street in the neighborhood and it looks in 2021 about like it looked in 2011.

None of this is to say that buildings can’t ever be the direct source of radical change that is disruptive to the people in a community. Nor that land-use policy and regulation can’t directly bring about such change. Of course they can, and often do: From urban renewal to contemporary redevelopment schemes, the public sector has a long history of acting as handmaiden to the forces of cataclysmic money.

As community builders, or planners, or advocates, though, the thing we need to set our sights on is the effect of development on people. That, not newer or taller buildings themselves, is the actual “radical change” that our two-part prescription is meant to address.

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