Why you should care

Because cities are living creatures, and their health may mirror the nation’s.

Benjamin Spoer is a PhD student at NYU’s Global Institute of Public Health.

On its surface, urban renewal seems like an effective, if drastic, way to improve a city. When a neighborhood becomes dangerously impoverished, we renovate, adding businesses and infrastructure in order to revitalize the place. The idea is that by breaking down and rebuilding the dangerous parts of town, residents will be safer, the area will be nicer and hopefully the whole city will be healthier and wealthier. Unfortunately, there is a darker side to urban renewal that may undermine its positive effects.

Moving can, of course, be a new and exciting adventure. Forcible relocation, however, puts a different spin on the idea of a new home. Research has found that people who get displaced by urban renewal — or, frankly, gentrification — experience a host of psychological stressors, including things like “loss of attachment” to the places where they lived, “loss of familiarity” and “loss of identity derived from place.” If these don’t sound familiar, think about your last big move. You had to figure out where the grocery store was, find a new favorite park or restaurant and, if you moved far enough, deal with a pretty fundamental shift in your identity. New Yorkers know how different it is to be from Queens versus Brooklyn, and those are neighboring boroughs. Leaving the city altogether for, say, the ’burbs of Missouri could be an incredible head trip.

The public-health ramifications are grim. Stress can be blamed for pretty much any health problem you can conjure, from poor sleep and smoking to heart disease. You might have guessed that, but chances are you didn’t know that stress can even change your genetic material — and not for the better. These negative health outcomes might explain why much of the evidence about the socioeconomic and health effects of urban renewal is mixed, with a slight negative lean.

It’s not all bad news: There is some evidence that moving people to new, safer neighborhoods is better for their health, especially for young boys. The problem here is that these findings are not specifically about urban renewal, but instead about the hell of living in public housing in impoverished neighborhoods. It’s not like anyone in public health would argue that living in poverty is good for you. But urban-renewal campaigns don’t discriminate between neighborhoods that have become dangerous because they are impoverished and neighborhoods that are thriving in spite of their poverty.

Recognizing this distinction is part of what made Jane Jacobs’ book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the foundation of modern urbanism, or the study of how urban spaces affect health. Residents may not be rich, but they know they can trust the butcher to chase away a bad guy, or get their upstairs neighbor to babysit in a pinch. These crucial comforts of community go out the window for those who are forced to relocate. When they are moved, people lose the vital relationships and familiarity that had helped them successfully navigate their circumstances.

This, then, is the major problem at the heart of urban renewal and gentrification. While it correctly recognizes poverty as an issue, it treats poverty indiscriminately, ignoring the fact that neighborhoods can be worthwhile in spite of being shabby or at the low end of the economic spectrum. In these instances, the cure — uprooting people from their homes and lives — can be worse than the disease. There’s a reason Jacobs called urban renewal “Cataclysmic Money” — this is actually a disaster for the people involved. Why not use that money to create jobs and help communities build on the strengths they have cultivated through living together? And let them keep living together.

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