Communities in cities around the world continue to struggle with gentrification as a consequence of urban policies, the growth of urban economies, and other urban phenomena. Gentrification’s effect on the housing market is particularly contentious, as it pushes low-income and other racial and ethnic minority groups out of their neighborhoods and further into urban peripheries. In a move to better understand gentrification, a study shows how leadership across American cities is resorting to GIS Mapping to identify areas that are or will undergo gentrification and how to prevent it.

Gentrification in the City

With the growth of the sharing economy in recent years, many have begun to blame hotel-like services such as Airbnb for pushing low-income and other racial and ethnic groups out of their homes. And although services like Airbnb have exacerbated the problem, gentrification can hardly be attributed solely to the rise of the sharing economy.

As real of a challenge as it is, gentrification has become somewhat of a buzzword to sweep a number of urban problems under the same rug. However, that makes it more difficult for urban planners and policymakers to tackle and remedy gentrification as an individual rather than a catch-all urban challenge. Terms like ‘revitalization’ and ‘integration’ have become juxtapositions to gentrification to identify what and how the phenomenon impacts communities in different parts of the city.

Using Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping gives urban planners and policymakers a bird’s eye view of gentrification, making historical comparisons and predictions more precise. Although it is being used primarily to develop more appropriate housing policies, GIS mapping also takes into account a city’s transportation network and development projects underway.

For American cities, GIS mapping divides communities by ZIP Code, meaning the lines used to divide cities are not necessarily reflected on GIS maps, allowing stakeholders to better identify when and how gentrification is taking place.

GIS Mapping in The City of Angels

In 2015, Los Angeles began using GIS mapping to better understand which ZIP Code areas across the city have been experiencing gentrification and to prevent displacement. With support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Innovation Team went out to get a better picture, quite literally, of the city.

After studying the potential impacts of gentrification on the city of Los Angeles, the city published The Los Angeles Index of Neighborhood Change in 2016, which allowed the wider public to inquire into which ZIP Code areas experienced gentrification between the years 2000 and 2014. The City was able to put the map together using data made readily available to the public, mostly from Census and American Community Survey (ACS) databases.

The city-sponsored GIS map identified areas of the city that have or will experience gentrification by looking at six different criteria including education, income, race, rent, and household size. Using these measurements, different index scores were calculated for varying degrees of gentrification. Accordingly, different areas of Los Angeles were scored for gentrification on a scale of Very High, High, Medium, Medium Low, and Low. Some parts of the city were above the income threshold used to calculate the index scores and others were not evaluated.

One of the most intense effects of gentrification is the displacement of a neighborhood’s residents due to rising rent and cost of living as well as availability of affordable housing. And to the misfortune of many, this has been slowly but readily spreading to cities from Oakland and San Francisco to London and Istanbul.

To better understand this aspect of gentrification in Los Angeles, the Innovation Team at the Mayor’s Office sought to put together a map titled The Los Angeles Index of Displacement Pressure. The map aims to help predict which neighborhoods will experience displacement as a result of recent gentrification efforts by looking at transportation development projects, rent-burdened households, and the proximity of neighborhoods to other rapidly changing neighborhoods, among other factors. An attempt to fuse both GIS maps together was made in order to produce a single tool that serves both the wider public and urban planners and policymakers.

GIS mapping

Courtesy of The Los Angeles Index of Displacement Pressure.

In 2016, another initiative, called The Urban Displacement Project, came out of UCLA and UC Berkeley as well as California’s Air Resources Board (ARB). The project was an attempt to look at changes in L.A. neighborhoods as a result of gentrification through GIS mapping.

The map, like the others put together by the City, measured gentrification by looking at the racial and ethnic make-up of neighborhoods, changes in rent, and the economic health of low-income cohorts. The Urban Displacement Project also looked at household income and varying levels of education for all groups measured for the map, which the maps by the City did not do. The map also measured gentrification over two decades, between 1990 and 2000, and 2000 to 2013. When accessing the map today, users can view changes in either decade or both as well as view areas of Los Angeles that weren’t impacted by gentrification at all.

GIS mapping

Courtesy of The Urban Displacement Project.

The Urban Displacement Project found that areas around expanding transit networks were becoming whiter, richer, better educated, and had rising rents. Accordingly, these same areas began losing residents of color, those who were less educated, and less wealthy.

Between both attempts to map the impact of gentrification, the Urban Displacement Project is seen to be more dynamic to the wider public without coming at the expense of influencing urban public policy since it highlights the specific reasons behind the thrust of gentrification in LA.

Same Struggle, Different City

Alongside Los Angeles, cities like San Francisco in California and Portland in Oregon have used GIS mapping to better understand how gentrification impacts neighborhoods in their cities. The struggle for many cities is striking a balance between revitalizing or integrating emerging urban economies and maintaining the social and economic fabric of neighborhoods.

What GIS mapping has done for urban planners, policy makers, and the wider public is help explain how cities can continue to grow without pushing people of lower income, the less-educated, and people of color out of their homes. By looking at how gentrification has continued to act in decades past, urban stakeholders can adjust transportation development as well as large-scale development projects in a way that doesn’t come at the expense of the minority.

Although GIS mapping may be used to slow down or alter the trajectory of gentrification, it is just a tool for understanding how multiple social, economic, and political dynamics in cities can perpetuate, exacerbate, and even cause gentrification. It is up to city leadership to foster urban growth in an inclusive manner.