Saturday, September 30, 2017

Three Senses of Neighborhood Character

"Neighborhood character" is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in planning and development debates.  Usually it is used like this:

"This development threatens the character of our neighborhood."

This is really effective rhetoric.  The word "character" has lots of positive connotations, after all.  Let's dig a bit deeper.  I think there are three ways we can think about neighborhood character:
  1. Physical Character - The type of buildings and the relationship of those buildings to public spaces.
  2. Moral Character - The degree to which a community acts in ways that are ethical.
  3. Neighborhood Characters - The people who inhabit a neighborhood.
Anti-development rhetoric at its most literal is trying to protect physical character.  But in a city like Greater Los Angeles, if we freeze a neighborhood's physical character, we will often harm our own moral character and displace neighborhood characters.

Our city is largely a suburban place, with a predominance of detached houses and strip malls, yet jobs and people keep moving in.  People should have a chance to live close to their jobs, which in many places implies that there has to be a higher density of development.  Houses have to give way to townhomes and apartments, gradually, when individual property owners are willing to do so.  By freezing the neighborhood's physical character, we prevent this from happening.  People are forced to live on the outskirts of the city, where housing is cheaper, and endure long commutes that are bad for their health, their happiness, the environment and regional traffic congestion.  Alternatively, people are forced to overcrowd into the close-in housing that does exist, reducing their quality of life.  Ironically, this is an increase in population density, just without the housing to accommodate it properly.

Part of having good moral character means supporting racial integration.  Currently in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim Metropolitan Statistical Area 51.5% of the white population lives in detached houses whereas only 37.2% of the black population lives in detached houses (2016 American Community Survey, 1-Year Estimates, Tables 25032A & 25032B).  If we ban multifamily housing, we aren't exactly banning people of color, but we are making it less likely that they will be in a neighborhood, which is disturbing given America's long and troubled history of racial injustice.

Finally, think about neighborhood characters.  The children who grow up in a neighborhood may find out when they become adults that their neighborhood is not affordable to them.  This is the case with the neighborhood I grew up in, and that is despite the fact that my wife and I both have master's degrees and solid incomes.  Our only way in would be inheriting property and that's about luck, which some people are more likely to have than others.  Whether I would want to live there is not the point.  The point is we're gentrifying our own children out of our own neighborhoods, which is pretty shocking if you stop to think about it.  This disrupts the ability of families to take care of each other across generations, as middle-aged people juggle the demands of caring for their own children and their aging parents.  Access to opportunity should not be about inherited wealth.  It should be about hard work.  Also, a neighborhood isn't really made up of buildings; it's made up of people.  The buildings are just a means to an end.

So next time somebody throws "neighborhood character" at you, challenge them to think deeply about what freezing physical character could mean for our moral character and the neighborhood characters not fortunate enough to have affordable housing where they need it.

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