Posted September 9th 2014 at 9:41 am by
in People Matter: The Human Impacts of Planned Redevelopment

Re-examining the Purpose of Redevelopment

We in the planning field, now look back at the human impacts of Boston’s West End neighborhood redevelopment project with disfavor. The planning decision to create a ‘type of place’ vastly overshadowed building a ‘place for its people.’ Marc Fried’s “Grieving for a Lost Home,” highlighted an alternative critical framework of the social, physical, and health impacts of redevelopment on communities and families.

While it is now clear that planning and its stakeholders better consider the human costs in our process and outcomes, we have yet to reconsider our conceptualization of redevelopment. Good planning practices now demand that we talk about the human impacts. Communities organize, advocate and campaign for projects that better serve people.

However in the US, and largely worldwide, our conceptualization of redevelopment is rooted in the needs and demands of the private market. New residential developments, business complexes, stadiums, and entertainment districts dominate as the drivers for development. We have, in a sense, replaced the place-only government led visions for redevelopment with similarly misaligned profit-driven private market visions for redevelopment.

This shift has done little to remedy the overall human impact concerns raised by Marc Fried. The human impacts of displacement are now attributed to the “forces of the market” which are beyond government influence. Meanwhile, local governments, which continue to play a central role in certifying and often funding redevelopment projects, claim the positive outcomes while abdicating any responsibility for the negative impacts.

In New York City, an estimated 40 percent of the City was rezoned during the Bloomberg administration between 2002 and 2013. In it’s reports and press releases of redevelopment and/or rezoning initiatives the City cites the dollars of investment, the number of jobs, the number of new residential units, commercial space, retail space, and hotel rooms created. However, the City cannot say and it does not track the number of residents or business displaced and the financial, social, physical, or health costs of any displacement.

Governmental entities fulfill the process of including community voices through community meetings, town halls, or charettes. The human impacts of redevelopment are now given voice through community engagement processes. Yet these impacts are largely deemed beyond the government’s control because they are brought on by ‘forces of the market.’ This leaves communities without policies or measure that capture the true human impacts of redevelopment.

We may have put in place practices and processes to incorporate the concerns of the human impacts of redevelopment without adequately reexamining the purpose of redevelopment. The battle in redevelopment is now mitigating the negative impacts on residents, not setting and achieving positive outcomes.

The questions of how to better understand the impacts of redevelopment and ultimately how to reform redevelopment are critical. But what can we attain for our communities without revisiting a better conceptualization of redevelopment?

Will the purpose of redevelopment continue to largely be private-market led interests, placing human impacts consideration secondary if at all? Or will planners and its stakeholders be able to repurpose redevelopment to achieve the best local human impacts while incorporating and balancing broader city, region, or state needs?

Barika X Williams is Deputy Director at the Association for Neighborhood Housing Development in New York City where she researches and develops affordable housing, equitable economic development, and community development policies in New York City.

This post is part of a series reflecting on re/development practices worldwide. See the other posts in the series here.

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