Media Mouse—a blog covering left-wing campaign issues as they related to Grand Rapids—takes recent developments in downtown Grand Rapids to task for their favouring of wealthy residents of the City. They fear that changes in the demographics of the downtown area may potentially lead to draconian measures such as the criminalising of homelessness, as well as the usual forced movement of poorer people which so often follows in the wake of gentrification.
In many ways, I share the writers’ fears and have been rather disturbed to hear of the tax breaks being granted to downtown developments such as the new Marriott Hotel and those purchasing many of the new condominiums. But the analysis offered by Media Mouse fails to provide a holistic analysis of issues facing the downtown area, and could leave readers unfamiliar with the area with the wrongful impression that the conversion of the old YMCA into expensive condos is simply the destruction of a community centre, rather than a response to the fact that the YMCA has recently moved to another downtown location.
Like many North American cities over the past few decades Grand Rapids has seen significant numbers of its wealthier residents move progressively further away from city centre, leading to a considerably increased reliance on cars, lower tax revenues for investment in education and other services, and the continuing blight of urban sprawl. The vacancy has left downtown spaces open to developments such as the proposed nude bar which Media Mouse has led campaigns against, and is a key source of environmental degradation.
The increasing spread of North American cities makes it considerably harder to grow vibrant economies with opportunities for a wide range of people. By leading people to move further from their places of work and making it harder to provide effective public transport, it increases reliance on expensive private transport; by encouraging development of “single use” areas it leads to a build up in “out of town” shopping arrangements which favours large corporations with the deep pockets needed to build superstores and little interest in investing locally. The only viable solution to those issues is to encourage regeneration and “inward development” back into the denser urban areas that have been deserted.
That transition is going to be painful for a lot of people, and we definitely need to do more than simply appeal to a sense that the benefits of development may “trickle down” to the poor communities that currently occupy inner cities. But incentives will be needed to draw people used to the space and perceived safety of the suburbs (I, like many others, believe dense urban environments to be as safe or safer than suburbs, but there is still a perception that suburbs are safer) back into the city, and those incentives will need to be targetted at those who have the means to live where they wish.
It is vital that those who are interested in urban renewal for reasons of equity and environmental protection speak up with constructive criticism of plans where they aren’t appropriately inclusive. But where there is such potential for significant improvements, it would be a shame to merely focus on the negative.