Designing with Community in Mind: Revitalization vs. Gentrification

By Emma Harries
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017

Developers are beginning to understand the importance of designing with community in mind, yet soaring prices mean the spaces are only available for a select few. As a result, residents are being driven out of their own communities. As luxury boutique developments in “up and coming” neighbourhoods continue to multiply, it is important to differentiate between revitalization and gentrification. While both involve enhancement, community is at the heart of the former, but fundamentally excluded in the latter.

Creating human-centered spaces is vital in today’s age of isolating architecture and design, so Vancouver’s new development on Main and Twentieth offers an optimistic picture of the future of built environments. The 42-unit condo development features an interior courtyard with green space, lounge seating, and natural light – a nod to ancient Roman and Chinese architecture. It is intended as “an area where homeowners can interact more and enjoy a sense of community within the development’s walls.”

Artist’s Rendering of Main & Twentieth Development

While building community within the walls is beneficial for the residents, it serves no advantage for the neighbourhood’s existing community. In addition, the project’s price tag suggests that it is capitalizing on the idea of community, rather than building it. 

Vancouver is known for its remarkably high property prices – which plague the surrounding areas as they seep further and further from the city center into surrounding suburbs. The Main and Twentieth development – located in the vibrant Mount Pleasant – demonstrates just how ubiquitous Vancouver’s housing crisis has become.

An article detailing the new development boasts: “Main Street through Mount Pleasant has already earned a place on the 15-city list of Cool Streets of North America”. This survey, conducted by the New York-based firm Cushman and Wakefield, has identified “bohemian enclaves and focal points for local arts, music or the LGBT community”. However, with one-bedroom lofts starting at $799,900, and two-bedrooms starting at $945,900, the majority of local artists, musicians, and historically marginalized groups are actually being excluded from these new “community” developments.  

“Bohemian enclaves” such as Mount Pleasant were built by creatives. Yet, creatives have been hit particularly hard by Vancouver’s housing affordability crisis. As the price of rent skyrockets, artists are losing their studio spaces and consequently, the city is losing its artists

This is gentrification of vital creative spaces – not their revitalization.

The architectural design concept behind projects like Main and Twentieth are based on good intention; but the prices are all wrong. The intent of having residents of this building become part of a curated community will not be achieved. Rather, residents will be wealthy cohorts separated from the diverse range of individuals who formed the foundational fabric of these neighbourhoods.

Antwan Jones, Assistant Professor of Sociology at George Washington University, explains the critical difference between gentrification and revitalization:  “A gentrifying neighborhood will see new, affluent residents who focus on ‘reinvesting resources for greater returns’ – rehabbing houses, for example.” As property values rise, a demographic shift will follow, “with wealthier white residents replacing poorer minority residents.” Gentrification does not simply equate reinvesting into the neighbourhood. Rather, “it is the process by which higher income households displace significant numbers of lower income residents of a neighborhood, thus changing the essential character and flavor of the neighborhood.”

Sure enough, the social fabric of Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant is changing rapidly. From 2016 to 2017, the assessed property value in the area rose by over 100 percent. And residents can see a clear shift in the neighbourhood’s character. Though immigrant communities have long called East Vancouver home, new census data reveals that the historically multicultural working class area is becoming less diverse. Between 2011 and 2016, the visible minority population in Mount Pleasant shrunk between 15 and 20 percent, while the non-visible-minority population grew by 30 percent. Mount Pleasant is becoming younger and more white. Longstanding businesses like Hudson Plating, Foundation Restaurant, and Hot Art Wet City gallery have been forced to close their doors to make way for trendy bars and eateries that appeal to the new demographics.

Two residents of Mount Pleasant – David Niddrie and Jennifer Okrusko – documented the area’s drastic changes through their photo project “The Disappearing Main Street” in 2011. Seven years later, photos from the project are unrecognizable as many of the buildings and public spaces have been replaced. So, while new developments like Main and Twentieth seem to check all the boxes for community-minded design, it is necessary to question who that ‘community’ really is.

Revitalization means reinvesting in the existing community. It involves reinforcing social networks, neighbourhood services, and local businesses. It involves diversifying, but maintaining the neighbourhood’s character; and ensuring mixed income housing development to avoid displacement. In contrast, in gentrifying neighbourhoods, the community transitions to an exclusive community, inaccessible to those who once called it home.

Indeed, “[Mount Pleasant] might look up and coming on the surface, but that’s because you can’t see the people who are now excluded, something consumers, businesses and governments should keep in mind.”