Washington, D.C. - Expensive, but not Taxing: 6. Postscript/Gentrification
We’ve all heard the cliché’s before, “You reap what you sow” or “You get what you pay for” or “nothing in life worth having comes free”. Perhaps one reason why these phrases are so common is because they are absolutely true. In this country, in this world, and in this life, if you want something of quality it will cost you and you will pay for it by one and/or two ways: time and money. Cities are no exception. The more resources you have the more likely you will have access to whatever's considered “quality living”. Indeed there are many definitions of “quality living”. Some are right and some are wrong. Some are extravagantly vain and others environmentally destructive. From the previous five posts in this essay series, you should be able to intuit what my version of that definition is: sustainable, walkable, contextual, and people centered places. This is the paradigm that I advocate and that I will consider to be objective in this short essay.
An interesting contemporary observation is that these "green" traits – sustainability, walk-ability, contextual-ism, and humanism – have been a part of urban city life for thousands of years. Only recently (the last 150 years or so) has society strayed from the principles of basic urbanism that were developed over many centuries and so intrinsic to the character of a city. The “Super Rich”, or the "Nobility" as they were once called, lived in lavishly expansive palaces and castles where they indulged in the finest things life had to offer. It was the common populous that lived in cities, which were no doubt much dirtier, grittier, and filthier. Nonetheless, the framework of these cities was always comprised of walkable distances, the utilization of local things and systems, and reusing things after their initial use.
The impoverished people of these cities had no choice. Sustainability was a means of survival. Now it has become a choice. Now it has become a trend. Now it has become popular. People of the upper-middle class and beyond, are realizing the benefits of living in walkable places and the “Green” trend has taken the globe by storm. In the 21st century if you want access to sustainable, walk-able, transit oriented, healthy, people focused, mixed use neighborhoods chances are it will come with a relatively hefty price tag attached to it. The standards of "quality" are being heightened in the right direction but becoming out of reach for the general populous; a demographic these city traits have served for generations. So in a way, It's almost counter-intuitive to be "sustainable" and "green" if the majority of humans don't have affordable access to it.
It’s worth mentioning that statisticians predict the global population to be somewhere around 9.2 billion by the year 2050. That's an almost 150% increase from 2000's 6.2 billion total. Of that 9.2 billion, 75% or 6.9 billion will live in an urban area. Why? Because these are where the jobs will be. Jobs attract people like, Kanye West attracts media attention. With that being said it’s imperative for us as a human race to be more aware of how we occupy this world; for our sake, for our children’s sake, and for our planet’s sake. We need our cities to unconsciously advocate human health and well-being. We need our cities to promote interaction and exchange between other humans and their ideas. We need our cities to operate with the environment and not against it. We need our cities to not waste our time but to afford us opportunities to use that time more productively. We need our cities to have culture, history, and prestige. And the most controversial requirement of all, we will need our cities to be affordable to all peoples and to all social classes if we are all to successfully inhabit this world together and reduce our negative impact.
For low income persons and families, there are substantial savings to be had living in a less “taxing” city as opposed to living in a car-centered, sprawling, unsustainable city. In theory, in these cities there are more opportunities to save money and time as well as the environment, foster relationships, and cultivate healthy lifestyles. The most important of these is certainly money and time, two things I’m sure every American holds at high-esteem. But in many cases financial, even with all the “savings”, it remains tough for many Americans to live in well-designed walkable cites – cities of quality. In the 21st century, the shift has been made. “Green” is now trending. Principles that are traditionally for the masses now come at a premium market rate.The "nobles" now live in cities and the people live outside of it, or in areas that lack what I would define as quality. We have come to call this gentrification.
No matter how less 'taxing' well-functioning, sustainable, walkable, environmentally friendly, bike-able, profitable, dense and mixed use cities like Washington D.C. are, they are still too expensive for a great deal of Americans. I conclude this entire series with these questions: How do we make urban quality more affordable? How do we make them more accessible? How do we lessen the effects of inevitable gentrification? I am not sure. Washington,D.C. currently holds the label as America's "greenest city". Whether that's true or not can be debated but it is certainly in the top tier. Among its many sustainable practices, D.C. is the first city to adopt into law the IGCC (International Green Building Code) mandating architects and developers to build to a minimum level of energy efficiency and environmental responsibility.
As a complement to D.C. zoning laws, Inclusionary Zoning (IZ Zoning) is another lawful tactic the city (and others, recently Cali) is using to try and address these issues of affordability within the city limits. IZ requires developers to offer a certain percentage of their units to the public at “affordable” prices. These units must not be concentrated, as a means to keep the poor people away from the people with more money. They must be integrated within the mix of market rate units and have similar finishes. As an architect in the city, I think the move is very admirable and successful in many ways. But it needs to continue to develop as a policy. Ultimately, it comes down to the developers and clients of projects. They must hold themselves to higher standard of morality, not widening the gap between social classes but finding ways to bridge them.This mode of thinking goes against the typical rules of development based solely on profitability. But there is a difference between profitability and extortion.
But in all honestly, the answer lies outside of the territory of this essay, nay, outside the scope of the design profession as a whole. Architecture and urban design are but a small, yet very attractive, piece to the puzzle. There is a much more social variable to this complex equation. Even still, there are politcal, economic, and educational questions that need to be addressed on this problem. No one entity can solve this on its on. It will take collective effort from various professions brainstorming for solutions, together. It's exactly what STUDI GROUP is all about. Realizing that we all need each other, and that with each other we all have a better chance to succeed and enjoy a quality life.
One thing that I know for certain, is everyone should have access to the fundamental aspects of good urbanism no matter what your social status is. For me, well-designed, sustainable, people centered cities are as analogous to freedom as the Bill of Rights; freedoms no one can deny. As we begin to make our cities walkable and sustainable, and undo mistakes made in the 20th century, perhaps we can move from an ideology of “Expensive, and ‘taxing’” to “Affordable, and not ‘taxing’”. Washington, D.C. and cites like it, are somewhere in the middle of those two polar extremes.