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One Woman's Quest to Fight Gentrification by Asking Residents How

Cat Goughnour is pushing several cities to give community members more say in urban design.

Portland, Ore.
Cities all over the country are struggling with gentrification, and how to welcome new residents and new development without displacing longtime members of the community.

One housing advocacy group in Portland, Ore., has an idea for a solution: community-led urban design.

With rent hikes that rival those in New York and California, Oregon’s largest city has watched its African-American population shrink in its historically black Albina neighborhood by more than 10,000 residents since 2000. Today, African-Americans account for only 6 percent of Portland’s population.

Known for its liberalism, Portland has already passed measures aimed at maintaining its black population. Through the city’s “Right to Return” program, displaced black Portlanders are offered down-payment assistance, and the city has earmarked $20 million for affordable housing.

But sociologist Cat Goughnour, a native Oregonian and an advocate for affordable housing, thinks more should be done -- and not just in Portland. 

“People are being forced out by economic pressure,” she says. “It really resonates with me that tearing people out of these multigenerational communities has an impact, and there is still very little being done about gentrification."

Goughnour founded the Radix Consulting Group, which is lobbying the city to change its process of urban planning to involve community members upfront, rather than asking for their input toward the end of a project's development. She is also in talks with Detroit and Minneapolis to similarly alter those cities' processes for urban design. 

Goughnour's group has been working with a local architecture firm, the Center for Public Interest Design at Portland State University and the Institute for Policy Studies, to test the idea. Salazar Architects as the architect I hired in phase I of Right2Root. The firm then engaged Center for Public Interest Design through the commission.

What came out of those sessions -- detailed in a report released last month -- were ideas for new urban plazas, community centers, business incubators and commercial spaces that Goughnour, and the community, believe will revitalize the area in a way that helps the black residents who already live there.

“There is something soothing about being in a place where you can be recognized, heard and participate,” she says.

Much of Goughnour’s work in Portland centers around the idea of what social scientists call “root shock,” the trauma endured by being displaced from a neighborhood you've long called home. Root shock, according to research conducted by Columbia University social psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove, contributes to the decline of black political power and a deterioration of black social connections.

The idea of giving citizens a greater voice is not a new concept. In New York City and Oakland, Calif., "service design labs" have turned to the public to better design social services. Some cities even let citizens determine their budget priorities.

Goughnour's proposal follows mounting pushback to gentrification around the country. As more affluent white residents continue to move into urban centers, minority advocates are confronting city leaders about whether concessions made to new arrivals are coming at the expense of lower-income residents of color. Washington, D.C., is being sued for actively trying to attract the so-called “creative class” to the nation’s capital.

In Portland, Goughnour points to a recent case involving a Trader Joe's grocery store as a prime example of the importance of community-led planning. The city had decided to sell a property valued at $2.9 million for only $500,000 to a developer who planned to build a Trader Joe's. 

“That property zone was mixed-use. It was zoned for housing residential, commercial and retail. Why would the city give away the land for $500,000 and not require housing?” says Goughnour, who was among the most vocal opponents of the project.

Residents pushed back, saying that not only would the development fail to provide needed affordable housing to the area, but it would also attract affluent white residents and put more pressure on lower-income black residents to keep up with rising rents.

Trader Joes pulled out of the deal while the city continued to attempted to court the deal. The property was developed with a supermarket and retail and commercial space, but no affordable housing despite the city’s commitment to maximize mixed-use zoning for its highest and best use.

So far, the city of Portland hasn't committed to adopting a community-led urban design process. Ultimately, Goughnour hopes to make sure that black neighborhoods can retain their cultural character despite an influx of new residents into a central city.
“Cities should want to design in a way that leverages the existing social and cultural capital," she says. "The things that make ethnic enclaves attractive will make cities attractive and sustainable in the long term.”

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