Cities, Gentrification, and Inequality

14 May 2011


I’ve fallen a little behind on blogging, cause I’ve been a busy, busy, boy.  So I’m posting both an entry about last week’s topic,  Cities, Gentrification, and Inequality, and this weeks topic.  

Throughout history, cities have been major centers of commerce, creativity, and culture.  They have been places where classes and races mingle and mix, places where the young go to make their dream and expand their horizons.   But beginning apparently as early as the 1920’s, but certainly accelerating to a feverish pace during the social turmoil of the 60’s, many once great American cities began to empty out, as the middle class, especially,  fled for the comfort and security of the sprawling suburbs.  

This middle class flight from our cities often left dwindling tax bases, decaying infrastructure, dysfunctional schools, and an isolated urban underclass in its wake. But  in recent decades, some American cities have comeback through the process of re-gentrification.   In this episode, we’ll look at the phenomenon of re-gentrification through the lens of philosophy, as we ask whether re-gentrification is,  on balance, a morally and socially good thing or a morally and socially bad thing.

It seems to me that this is very much a two-sided issue – so a perfect issue for us here on Philosophy Talk.  On the one hand, there’s certainly something to be said in favor of gentrification.  It helps make cities vibrant again.  It means increased property values,  greater economic diversity, safer neighborhoods,  better schools.  Who couldn’t want that?

But the problem is that gentrification too often happens on the backs of the less well off, especially when free reign is given to developers to do things like turn affordable rental properties into unaffordable condos.   That doesn’t increase economic diversity, it just displaces the less well off in favor of the more will off.

Obviously, there are many competing interests at stake in the process governing gentrification.   It would surely involve a delicate balancing act to manage gentrification in a just way that is also economically, socially, and democratically sustainable.   Though I haven’t done a survey,  I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if in most cities, the process of gentrification was heavily weighted toward the interests of developers, on the supply side, and toward the tastes and needs of  well to do consumers, on the demand side.  I doubt the interests and needs of the less well off play much of a role in determining what gets built where.  

Of course, as philosophers ,  John and I are  more interested in the normative question of how gentrification ought to work, rather than in the empirical question of how it does work.  And that means  asking questions like:  Should the free market alone determine what gets built where in our urban landscapes?   Or should urban development be subject to political control? 

Of course, it probably needs to be a both-and rather than an either-or.   If you let the free market reign, then our cities would be filled with the well-to-do and establishments that cater to them.  Those would make nice places to visit, but many people could not afford to live in them.   On the other hand, if you ignore the demands of the markets,  you’ll get landlords who don’t see any return in investing in their properties, and you’ll get more and more urban decay.  That might make cities more affordable for the less well-off, but it would make them places that the well-off want to avoid. 

How exactly this delicate balancing act ought to be  managed,  is the question we pursue in this episode.   And to help us pursue it, we turned to someone who has thought long and hard about the history and future of cities.   That would be our guest, Frederic Stout,   Professor of the Urban Studies Program at Stanford University and editor of The City Reader.

Photo by Miguel A. Amutio on Unsplash

Comments (2)

Guest's picture


Saturday, May 14, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

FIFTY/FIFTY PROBLEMS Philosophy seeks answers t

Philosophy seeks answers to the most difficult questions. Among them are 1. The impossible to answer (such as, is there anything other than my own consciousness?, and does God exist?), and 2. Fifty/Fifty propositions (akin to Which came first, the radio or the radio station?).
Another Fifty/Fifty problem came up in the "Inequality" show. America is a capitalist egalitarian democracy. In America, should wealth confer advantages, and if so, what advantages?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, May 14, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

If we were to set aside normative questions for a

If we were to set aside normative questions for a moment, we might consider what economists, political scientists and others have said about the matter under consideration. For years (decades actually),we have heard the term 'systemic' used to describe inequality/inequity; to explain ways in which discrimination is perpetrated against racial and cultural cohorts of society; and to justify in the minds of some the divisions of wealth and poverty (there are richer people and poorer people, this is how it has always been---it is all part of the system...)*
I love Al Gore for one reason only. He coined the term: an inconvenient truth. Systemic inequality, as illustrated by gentrification and/or re-gentrification, is an inconvenient truth. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote a bit about WILL. Here is the ticket, as I see it: there is no will to improve the lot of poorer folks. Poorer folks do not contribute big dollars to the campaigns of elected officials. In terms of systemics, they are irrelevant. We OUGHT to be embarassed. But, on balance, India should also be so chagrined. They are not so much. Their 'caste system' is being eroded by WILL and an inexorable human spirit. Evolution happens, albeit slowly. I won't care so much---just passing through.
Great blog, gentlemen. (PS: the Chinese are buying yachts? Who knew?)
(*this seems to tie into your post regarding wild beliefs, although, 'wildness' might be relative.)