How Land Trusts Can Counter New Urbanism's Gentrifying Tendencies

The principles of New Urbanism, which include walkability, mixed-use neighborhoods, and human-scale design, hold a lot of promise for fostering healthy communities. But there are serious downsides to New Urbanism — the most pressing of which is the displacement of historic communities that get priced out of their own neighborhoods as New Urbanism moves in.

In the article "Urbanism at a Crossroads," Aaron Bartley, co-founder of People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) in Buffalo, N.Y., argues that community land trusts and land banks are great ways to create permanently affordable housing and “emphasize the stewardship of land and property in ways that preserve space and generate wealth for low-income people.”

Shareable connected with Bartley to learn more about his vision for affordable housing, how New Urbanism can truly revitalize communities, how land trusts can transform deindustrialized cities, and the relationship between affordable housing and sustainable communities.

Shareable: There are some exciting aspects to New Urbanism but there are downsides as well, including the displacement of lower-income people as new urbanism moves into an area. What do you think the biggest challenges to planners are as this movement grows and what do you see as the bright spots of the movement?

Aaron Bartley: The basic tenets of New Urbanism—walkable communities, building to the street, form-based zoning codes, human-scaled design—are, in my view, good for communities up and down the class ladder. Everybody should be able to live without being car-dependent. Everybody should be able to walk to get groceries. Everybody should be able to take a bus or walk to work. The challenge is that while New Urbanism may, in theory, be class and race neutral, cities and real estate markets are anything but class and race neutral. The party with more resources wins in a real estate bidding war. That's a fact.

Combine that with the reality that the middle and upper-middle-classes have a newly acquired taste for New Urban lifestyles across the country and they're abandoning the suburbs of their youth at a record rate and you get gentrification, sometimes on a grand scale. You can't live the New Urban lifestyle in Levittown. You need Brooklyn. So the bright spot of New Urbanism is that one big segment of America is abandoning the wasteful, energy-hogging, alienating suburban landscape in favor of walkable neighborhoods in once-struggling cities, bringing some new tax revenue with them. The downside is millions of people, primarily people of color who've been living in core neighborhoods for decades, are getting displaced in the process, which destabilizes culturally and economically.

This community garden, farmed by 27 families in Buffalo, is on one parcel of the Community Land Bank in the heart of the Green Development Zone.

It's a good sign that, while there’s widespread embrace of new urban planning with its focus on creating bike-friendly, pedestrian-friendly cities, there’s also an acknowledgement that the migration of people back into cities is creating problems for people who have lived in these places for decades. Where do you see this conversation going? What are some of the subtleties of it that need to be further explored?

From a tactical perspective, the most productive thing leaders in working-class and low-income neighborhoods facing the prospect of gentrification can do is to gain control of as much property as possible and fight to preserve affordable housing where it already exists. In many cities, you can see examples of neighborhoods that have gentrified but have preserved space for working people because community leaders fought for it in the early days. Boston's South End is a archetype of gentrification but it's got some affordable housing in the middle of it, which wouldn't exist without Mel King and the movements in the ‘70s. Same is true for Bushwick, Brooklyn and Roxbury, Ma. Community movements can preserve space for working people in highly desirable neighborhoods despite the market pressures, but they've got to beat the market.

I think one of the subtleties that needs more discussion is what kind of income mix are we looking for and who gets to determine that outcome? Should formerly disinvested neighborhoods now under market pressure preserve one-third of the housing for low-income people, one-third for moderate income and leave one-third to the market? Or is some other ratio ideal? How do we create the community-engaged planning processes and the development institutions to reach that outcome? In Rust Belt cities like Buffalo, city governments are a big piece of this picture because they own so much land in neighborhoods that are heating up. What they do with that land will determine what these neighborhoods become.

For us at PUSH, development decisions are a chance to build our membership. We've got a big vacant school in the middle of our Green Development Zone. That's a chance to experiment with participatory democracy and see what people really want to have happen there. That process of engagement builds deeper ties with our members. But then we've got to have the capacity to implement our plans, which is a whole different challenge.

In Urbanism at a Crossroads, you propose the idea that community land trusts and land banks are a great way to keep a lid on housing markets and ensure that cities have affordable housing options. What is it about these solutions that could prove to be so transformative to communities?

Land trusts and land banks are both ways of insulating some property parcels from market swings and getting them into a more democratic, community-driven forum. But the devil is always in the details. Both land trusts and land banks have to remain mission-oriented and community-controlled, with a strong focus on affordability, or they can just become proxies for the big players in the market. At PUSH, we call our holdings a community land bank. It is subject to the community planning processes that we've adopted. Its function is to serve the needs of people in the neighborhood. If you cut those ties and land banks float in a more distant space controlled by electeds and developers, they lose their potential to challenge the class and race-segregated ways that most Americans live.

You mention that Rust Belt cities including Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo, are nicely positioned to strategically acquire affordable land right now because of their depressed economies. Could doing so catalyze the re-emergence of these cities? How do community land trusts and land banks contribute to the overall well-being of communities?

Building strong neighborhoods can absolutely catalyze the re-emergence of Rust Belt cities. At their best, land trusts and land banks are vehicles for people to dream big and build the kinds of neighborhoods they want to live in, with quality housing, local independent business, green infrastructure, public transit and vibrant public spaces. They are the best hope we have for making the development process more democratic, and thus—if you believe in the promise of participatory democracy—better both culturally, economically and from a design perspective. We developed a park last year through a community-engaged design process and there's no doubt in my mind it's a better park because of all the input we got from people living in the vicinity. Writ large, that's what Rust Belt cities could be doing with the vast amounts of property under public control: launching community planning processes in neighborhoods poised for rebirth and then building the capacity needed to make those plans real.

At the same time, it's important to be sober about the huge structural problems that the Rust Belt still faces because of decades of de-industrialization. Buffalo lost more than 150,000 good union jobs in a twenty-five year period. That's at the root of all the poverty we see in our streets. Community planning and strong neighborhoods are ways we can start gaining control over our destiny. They're pieces of the participatory democracy we need to build. But ultimately we need much more community control over the other parts of the economy that are bringing us down. That's why phenomenon like the rise of the co-op movement in all its forms and the community finance movement, what we call economic democracy, is so critical. One area where community land banks and land trusts can be on the leading edge is energy democracy. The prospect of reducing our energy burden through intense building retrofits and getting renewables to scale is real. Another is food democracy. We're finally realizing that all of these vacant lots that surround us are assets! If you're lucky and they're not contaminated, you can grow in them.

In the big picture, all of this community planning has to help build our base, build the voice of our members to be active not just on what we should do with a vacant lot, but also what kind of energy system we should have, what kind of banking system.

Building the NetZero house in the middle of the Green Development Zone.

What about cities such as San Francisco and New York City that are booming with sky-high land and housing rates? How can these areas integrate community land trusts and land banks?

I think it's a much tougher task at this point in time. Those markets are just so out of control. They're the quintessential World Cities and they're both at the pinnacle of the niche market serving the global elite. That flood of big capital distorts the pricing of everything else in its vicinity. I'm no expert, but I imagine the best you can do from a community-controlled standpoint is work in a neighborhood like East New York that's starting to heat up and focus your efforts block by block. But the acquisition numbers even in a neighborhood like that are just so big.

To preserve any semblance of affordability and diversity in big coastal cities, you need a major commitment from government and foundation partners and a goal like the one [Mayor] DeBlasio is floating. Even then, it's hard to find the land.

The whole Brooklyn saga is something worth contemplating. It's one of the crucibles of global culture, of hip-hop and everything that preceded it, and the displacement of people who created that culture in places like Fort Greene and Bed-Stuy is happening lightning-fast. People like Spike Lee are sounding alarm bells but it's too late. It's not just the market itself, it's the ideology the market creates.

I just watched a video of the actor Michael Rapaport, who fancies himself an expert and exponent of urban culture, and he's just totally clueless about what's happening in his city. He's been getting into a war with Spike about it. He and much of mainstream America subscribe to this idea that "neighborhoods are always changing and that's natural, there's nothing you can do about it and it's a beautiful thing." That's a fallacy that's taught about the economy as a whole. It's a natural thing that changes in ways we can't control. It's totally true that neighborhoods are always changing, but that's because someone is changing them. That someone is usually big developers in conjunction with finance. Sometimes it's realtor associations, but it doesn't have to be only them. There are some great examples like Dudley Street where people themselves have changed their neighborhoods, they've taken control of their future. That's the tradition I hope PUSH is following.

Installation of geothermal system on vacant lot next to the NetZero home. Lot was acquired by PUSH for $500 as part of the Community Land Bank.

You note that PUSH has assembled a trust of 100 parcels on the edge of a gentrifying district to preserve affordability over time. In addition to providing affordable housing, this projects also aims to demonstrate that low-income neighborhoods can lead the fight against climate change and create green jobs. How does PUSH plan to do this and how do affordable housing and green cities intersect?

There are so many ways that community-controlled development and sustainability can intersect. One of the good things about working in neighborhoods where 20 percent of the houses have been demolished—which is a lot of neighborhoods in the Rust Belt—is that there's a lot of land to experiment with. Of those 100 parcels PUSH has, about fifteen are currently put to agricultural use; sometimes in partnership with our ally the Massachusetts Avenue Project, other times through community-farmed plots. Fifteen other parcels are used for water management purposes, meaning we're soaking up water with them before its gets into the storm drain, so it doesn't push the raw sewage out into the lake. Another one of our vacant lots is a geothermal heating field for our NetZero house. One of the biggest things we can do is to retrofit every building in our community to promote energy efficiency. In addition to the housing PUSH has built, we've also retrofitted 80 other existing houses in our Green Development Zone, which typically cuts energy use by 30 to 40 percent.

All of this digging, planting and retrofitting creates green jobs. This year we've got 20 residents working full-time at a living wage on a range of housing and vacant land sustainability projects.

Detroit’s land bank is slated to take title to 50,000 vacant parcels. What kind of effect do you see something of this scale having on the community in both the short- and long-term?

I think it all depends on what kind of processes they implement to plan for the development of land and what kind of capacity neighborhoods have to step up to the plate. They could give all 50,000 parcels to Dan Gilbert and see what he does with them. Or they could partner with 10 community-controlled, community rooted non-profit developers to build Green Development Zones, with job training pathways into green construction, energy retrofits, green infrastructure and food. Moving Detroit forward will probably involve both tracks. We've been working with some great groups from Detroit and some of them are already putting parcels to use as farms, as affordable housing and as water management sites.

Capacity is a big limiting factor for communities. Having the capital to engage communities on a daily, ongoing basis, not just when there's a project, is not easy. Then you have architecture, holding costs, environmental costs, compliance. That's complicated stuff. It's taken PUSH years to develop that capacity.

Members of the PUSH Blue Team, who have built water management systems on twenty parcels in the Community Land Bank to combat Combined Sewer Overflow

What’s your big-picture vision for affordable housing in cities around the world? What would you most like to see?

At PUSH, we see community development as a springboard for a new kind of democracy. I'm most in tune with the possibilities in cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit. If communities learn to take back the development process, to plan for housing, food and energy at the local level, what's stopping them from planning their financial systems, through credit unions and CDFIs, and their industrial futures? It's no accident that groups like the Democracy Collaborative are making progress in building a co-op economy in Cleveland. The networks are tight, the overhead costs are relatively low, and land is cheap, at least for now.

So, at PUSH, when we're planning for the future of a vacant school, as we are right now, we think about the full picture. Affordable housing is paramount, but so is utilizing the land surrounding the school, which can be put to use for food and renewable energy. And then the challenge is organizing to ensure that state policy incentives for housing, energy, food and finance are such that communities across the state can create their own Green Development Zones. That's why it ultimately all comes down to organizing, building a base, developing leaders, and engaging them in campaigns to gain community control over land, energy production and capital.

Anything you’d like to add?

Don't mourn, organize! And as you do it, remember that communities can win tangible victories. Land banks and land trusts are one practical way to make those victories concrete, to transform the development process from one of imposition to one of autonomy.

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Top photo: Detroit skyline. Photo by Stephen Pierzchala. Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter

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