As part of my process to revise my concentration to drive it towards a thesis, I’ve dramatically altered my framing concentration questions, in order to better reflect my current interest in gentrification. As you can see in the table below, I’ve incorporated more direct questions about understanding and interpreting gentrification, particularly in my descriptive and explanatory questions. While the title and summary of my concentration had clearly morphed to address the relationship between transit and gentrification, I hadn’t systematically updated my questions following revisions in ENVS 220. I also changed my evaluative and instrumental questions to better reflect the potential contradiction between “green” urbanism and social justice which I posited in the most recent revision of my summary.
, Before, After,
Descriptive,What effects does transportation infrastructure have on communities? What development patterns are associated with various transportation forms? What local resistance to new highways or rail lines has arisen?,What is the geography of gentrification? Where has recent development been concentrated in cities? What is the relationship between transit and gentrification?,
Explanatory,How have cities decided where to place transportation infrastructure? How do agencies decide on what form(s) of transportation to invest in? To what extent is this process subject to quantification? Why does local resistance to new transportation infrastructure emerge?,Why have certain neighborhoods gentrified? How have cities decided where and how to invest in transit? Why does local resistance to new transportation infrastructure and development emerge?,
Evaluative,What are the positive and negative social effects of transportation investment? To what extent does transportation infrastructure contribute to development and gentrification? How does investment in highways or transit lines affect people’s transportation mode choices?,To what extent does transit enable greater mobility and/or contribute to gentrification? To what degree does gentrification equate to displacement? How does transit investment affect people’s transportation mode choices and the overall energy/carbon intensity of cities?,
Instrumental,How should local constituencies be involved in the transportation planning process? What types of transportation investment should agencies prioritize given limited funding? Where should cities concentrate development in relation to their transportation infrastructures?,What can be done to create denser and transit-oriented communities without displacing current residents? How should local constituencies be involved in the transportation planning and development processes? Where should cities concentrate development in relation to their transportation infrastructures?
Of course, one of the goals of ENVS 330 is to move my concentration from these essentially unanswerable questions towards a focused, concrete nucleus for my thesis. To this end, I’ve created some tentative research questions, situated in Seattle, which I intend to answer over the course of this semester. This research for 330 will be in conjunction with my independent study into related issues in Portland. The questions are:
- Descriptive: What changes in household income, racial demographics, and educational attainment have occurred in Seattle by census tract over the past twenty years? What changes (in density and the markers of gentrification) have occurred near light rail stations in the Seattle area since the system opened in 2009? How do these changes compare to those seen in neighboring census tracts? Which neighborhoods were redlined through the 1960s? Is there a relationship between transit investment and real estate development in Seattle?
- Explanatory: How well does the rent gap theory explain the gentrification seen in the Central District and Columbia City, among other historically disinvested and redlined neighborhoods with sizable minority/disadvantaged populations? How do Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan for growth and its policy of concentrating development in urban villages shape gentrification in relation to transit?
- Evaluative: How do the rates of displacement compare between rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods and “control” neighborhoods? How do existing residents, both inside and outside designate urban villages, view development and gentrification? Are there noted, concrete negative cultural impacts of gentrification in Seattle neighborhoods?
- Instrumental: How effective has incentive zoning been at providing affordable housing and maintaining socioeconomic diversity within gentrifying neighborhoods? How effective is increasing housing supply in terms of maintaining affordability and minimizing displacement?
I initiated a literature review of gentrification in Seattle, finding a masters thesis classifying and mapping gentrification in Seattle by census-block from 1980-2000 (White 2012), two analyses of historical change in the Central District (Morrill 2013, McGee 2007), and a report from a non-profit group on transit-oriented-development, gentrification, and racial equity in the Rainier Valley (Puget Sound Sage 2012). I also found several interesting reports summarizing the exact policies and results of incentive zoning and the housing levy in Seattle and investigating their effectiveness, including via an economic analysis.
This literature review was helpful in giving me information about the municipal policies Seattle uses to provide some affordable housing and tentative answers to the instrumental questions posed above. There is a widely recognized affordable housing crisis in Seattle, though the relationship of transit to this crisis is ill-defined. The PSS report switches between two competing narratives about transit investment and affordability (transit investment makes the poor better off by enabling greater mobility and it makes them worse off by making neighborhoods more desirable/expensive), with little in the way of theory unifying this double-movement.
In the face of this affordability crisis, the City of Seattle has pursued a variety of policies to directly provide subsidized units and influence the housing market. These policies have included a combination of a housing levy on all properties, used to assist households with rent and construct/rehabilitate affordable units in conjunction with non-profit organizations, private developers, and the Seattle Housing Authority; upzoning within urban villages/along transit corridors to increase housing supply; and incentive zoning to allow developers to build taller structures, so long as they set aside a certain number of those units as affordable or pay a fee “in-lieu.” These in-lieu fees are bundled with housing levy and federal funds to provide housing units. The city has also recently implemented a linkage fee system in which commercial development within central neighborhood is taxed, with the funds used to pay for providing affordable housing. The city is also pursuing a contentious Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which proposed relaxing zoning restrictions in single-family zones and expanding the boundaries of urban villages, though it encountered significant political pushback and its final state is yet to be determined. Overall, the city’s policies have created about 6,000 affordable units (compared to about 280,000 total units in the city) from 2001 to 2014.
Quantitatively-backed discussions of transit’s relation to gentrification were notably lacking from the scholarly research on Seattle. The PSS report, “Transit Oriented Development that’s Healthy, Green & Just,” drew a link between the recent construction of light rail through the Rainier Valley and gentrification based on resident’s perceptions of neighborhood change and empirical studies of transit in other cities. While that provides a welcome starting place, there is certainly room for original empirical investigation of gentrification in relation to transit in Seattle.
Additionally, I was surprised at the lack of discussion of the influence of the City of Seattle’s various “urban village” designations (outlined in the “Urban Village Element” document, as part of the broader Comprehensive Growth Plan). These were essentially a formalization of pre-existing neighborhood centers (usually historically formed around streetcar junctions and nodes) in the 1990s. These urban villages are characterized by relative density, mixed-uses, and frequent transit, and are where the city intends to focus the vast majority of projected growth. A brief comparison of proposed and permitted projects in Seattle with the boundaries of designated urban centers and villages reveals a close spatial connection between the designation and current development. I’m very interested in scrutinizing both the exact definition and function of these various categorizations and the factors which played a role in their categorization in the 1990s.
The geography of these urban centers seems somewhat distinct from Portland’s dizzying system of regional centers, town centers, neighborhood centers, station communities, main streets, and corridors. While both plans are explicitly directed at focusing development near transit, Seattle’s designated centers cover far more of the areas facing intense gentrification. Whereas Portland has restricted development in Inner Eastside neighborhoods to a couple of areas adjacent to light rail and in one block corridors around major arterials, Seattle includes relatively large swathes of land surrounding traditional commercial centers in its urban village system. Over this semester and reaching towards my thesis, I intend to do a deeper comparative analysis of these transit and development politics in light of the gentrification both cities face.