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Gentrification Through the Lens of Different Publics

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Kenyatta Lovett
July 14, 2015

Of all the values associated with public administration, equity has the greatest potential to dilute or strengthen any policy. The most salient topic for many localities is gentrification. Gentrification, as a policy problem, affects everyone, every entity, and nearly every public service within an urban area. In many cities across America, a socioeconomic movement to rebuild previously neglected communities is underway. However, if not properly managed, gentrification can severely compromise a city’s policy framework for equity. In the city of Nashville, I have found one potential approach to gentrification that shows promise to maintaining as much equity as possible, executed through three unique publics.

To clarify my position on gentrification, I see more positives than negatives to reinvestment in urban areas, when done properly. However, I have witnessed implementations of gentrification that raise many concerns. Washington D.C. is a prime example. A city once saturated with diversity now resembles a movie set for the affluent and upwardly mobile. A quick review of their gentrification map reveals very little connection with the economic and educational characteristics of the average American, which was not the case when I lived there in the early 1990s. Nashville, which cannot be compared to the circumstances of Washington, D.C., has taken an approach to the urban revitalization that could be potentially applicable to other metropolitan areas in this country.

Nashville’s approach to gentrification has not gone without criticism. Many have been very vocal about the potential of exclusivity becoming dominant in the city. But a closer look through the lens of policy reveals a city being proactive about equity concerns for the economic activity flooding the city. The strategy includes three channels of inclusion for citizens to advocate for accountability and equity: city planning, regional development and local activism. These channels provide opportunities for equity and integrated public planning, public development implementation and citizen feedback.

PUBLIC PLANNING – NashvilleNext

Nashville Planning Commission has been collaborative in their approach to accommodating the needs of citizens and urban developers. Straying away from the term gentrification, the commission refers to the fast-changing urban landscape as equitable development. A report was developed by the commission’s citizen engagement arm, known as NashvilleNext. This report serves as the city’s strategic plan to urban development. The development approach thus far for Nashville has gone beyond a focus on affordable housing to incorporate plans for complimentary public services. This approach to planning has created a transparent means for citizens and developers to merge values for affordable housing and urban renewal.

PUBLIC DEVELOPMENT EXECUTION – Metropolitan Development Housing Authority

The vision set by the Nashville Planning Commission ends with just that – a plan. The plans set by NashvilleNext are complimented by aligning public funds to support improvements across the city. The city’s housing authority provides different funding and investment opportunities for citizens and neighborhoods to make aesthetical upgrades. The strategy also aligns with the city’s plans for urban renewal by developing modern housing communities that mirror the amenities and environment preferred by the more affluent transplants.

CITIZEN FEEDBACK: Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH) 

Gentrification has been a stagnant public policy issue because it is the packaged manifestation of many policy decisions – housing, safety, etc. Citizens rarely have a valued voice because of this and are often invisible in conversations with bankers, developers and investors who bring positive change to a city from the tax revenue perspective.

A coalition has emerged in Nashville comprised of faith-based organizations, community coalitions and labor unions. This group has converged on several policy issues central to matters surrounding gentrification. NOAH, as a result of the activists it has assembled, serves as a useful feedback mechanism on the citizen perspective on gentrification. Where it would be difficult to build a viable coalition solely focused on gentrification, it is not so difficult to construct a comprehensive policy argument for criminal justice, affordable housing and economic equity. The diversity of the group and the focus on multiple policy issues give promise of a sustained citizen voice on gentrification.

The different public perspectives for Nashville’s approach to gentrification are a combination of deliberate public action on equity, fortunate economic circumstances to enact change and cooperative citizen action on accountability. Not all cities across this nation are fortunate to experience all three. For Nashville, the promise of a successful outcome from urban renewal is not guaranteed because of these three public perspectives. Rather, the framework offers the opportunity to implement a public outcome much better than other cities that are now less inclusive and less diverse.


Author: Kenyatta Lovett, Ph.D. serves as an adjunct professor at Tennessee State University in the College of Public Service and Urban Affairs. He teaches courses in public finance and organizational leadership. 

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