Earlier this month, there was an Op-Ed piece in The Denver Post about the Ink! Coffee posting a sign outside their Denver store. The sign read, “Nothing says gentrification like being able to order a cortado,” on one side of the placard, and the other side read, “Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014.” Because there’s nothing inherently happy about gentrification for many people, some local residents of the area protested and called for a boycott of the store.
The perspective in The Denver Post, written by Mr. Vincent Carroll, claims that this “abuse” is an “embarrassment” to Denver. Mr. Carroll points to the dynamic nature of cities as an argument against protesting change. He also states that Denver is lucky to have economic development, and that citizens shouldn’t penalize a business for investing in their neighborhood. Mr. Carroll does admit that the sign was “tasteless mistake.”
Rather than blaming Ink! and their advertising agency for ignorance, the problem of gentrification requires more than pointing fingers at fancy coffee houses. In her book Responsibility for Justice, the political philosopher, Iris Young, encourages us to be forward looking in our solutions of social problems. Additionally, in a recent talk on our Regis University campus, anti-racism activist, Tim Wise, urges us not to just blame bigots like David Duke for our country’s racist attitudes, because those attitudes go much deeper than single individuals, and they are a direct result of slavery.
In his perspective piece, Mr. Carroll acknowledges that there are “losers” in gentrification and writes, “Their displacement rightly evokes our sympathy and discussion of what policies might be justified to help them.” But, towards the end of his article, he claims that gentrification is essentially unstoppable. He argues, “No wonder every alleged fix for displacement trotted out for adoption – more subsidized housing, job training, property tax assistance, and so on – sounds positively puny compared to the surge of folks willing to pay what is necessary to move into neighborhoods they like.”
Once again referring to Iris Young, she states that we all have a collective responsibility to work towards justice. High rents that people cannot afford in the neighborhoods where they have grown up is not just a “cultural catastrophe,” as Mr. Carroll dismisses, it’s simply unjust. One idea that Mr. Carroll did not mention is the idea of regenerative development.
As I understand it, regenerative development draws on ecosystem health and maintaining that health as development takes place. As an ecologist, I study the interaction of plants and animals with each other and with their environment. The literature in ecology generally shows that ecosystems become more resilient with greater diversity. The ecological concept of resilience here refers to the ability to recover after a disturbance, such as fire. Thus, a more resilient ecosystem would recover faster than a less resilient ecosystem.
Given the increasing disturbances our globe sees, from super storms to hurricanes, to unprecedented fires, it would behoove us all to maintain diversity of ecosystems.
The idea that diversity fosters resilience shouldn’t come as a surprise because the same is true of economics – where we are meant to maintain a diverse portfolio. I also believe neighborhoods are more able to bounce back from a perturbation when they are diverse. For example, if everyone works at one factory in a given neighborhood, when that factory closes, then everyone loses their jobs, and the neighborhood declines. Likewise, if everyone is young and working all the time to make ends meet, how will residents find time to build community or participate in the political process of their neighborhood? Both of these examples provide evidence how a diversity of jobs and ages are good for a neighborhood.
As Americans, too, we ought to understand the value of diverse neighborhoods because that is one of the founding principles of our country. If we can agree that diversity provides more resilience for a neighborhood, and we consider that Iris Young calls on a collective, political, solution to problems for which we all bear responsibility, then the question becomes how can regenerative development facilitate this goal.
Some might argue that regenerative development is just a greenwashing of gentrification. That is, increasing green spaces, walkability, livability, and quality of life in an area will naturally gentrify it. This is an entirely unjust concept. Everyone deserves green space and walkable neighborhoods. However, such regenerative development cannot be planned in a vacuum.
Part of the issue with the Ink! incident stems from the owners not understanding the personality of the neighborhood where they were operating. When they applied for a permit, I wonder if they were given informational materials about gentrification or if they received any training from the city about being a different sort of business in the neighborhood or if they ever went to a neighborhood meeting.
Our culture believes progress happens through economics, but regenerative development can provide an alternative. Green spaces and pleasant neighborhoods can be created without Ink! coffee shops, but neighbors’ opinions and desires have to be sought. It’s not enough for the city to determine that an area needs urban renewal and then get to work renewing. The kinds of renewal that manifests may not be what residents want or need. So, as we look to make our ecosystems and neighborhoods more resilient, we should be fostering diversity however we can. But, we need to ask diverse peoples in those neighborhoods how best to do that, which is something Ink! clearly forgot.
(Photos above courtesy of Pixabay)
About the Author
Catherine Kleier, Ph.D., Professor
Department of Biology
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Read her next blog The Importance of Connections and Redundancy in Ecosystems.