Why ethical redevelopment is just an idea — for now - Generocity Philly

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Oct. 7, 2016 12:41 pm

Why ethical redevelopment is just an idea — for now

The real challenge is figuring out how it can actually work in historically marginalized urban communities.

Tayyib Smith (left), Lindsey Scannapieco, Akeem Dixon, Jennifer Mahar, Keir Johnston and Ernel Martinez discuss ethical redevelopment.

(Photo by Tony Abraham)

“Social impact real estate” sounds like a really great idea.

The idea of “ethical redevelopment” — the vague concept of building with a community rather than in or for a community — is being put into practice in neighborhoods like Germantown and Kensington.

It’s a cool, inclusive and progressive notion. But some folks in Philadelphia aren’t quite convinced that ethical development is anything more than a cool, inclusive and progressive notion — yet.

“Personally, I think it’s still a question mark yet to be answered anywhere in the country,” said Tayyib Smith, founder of creative agency Little Giant Creative and the Knight-funded Institute of Hip Hop Entrepreneurship.

Needless to say, Smith is a skeptic. Nobody he’s asked in the space has been able to give a good example of actual ethical development, he said at a panel on the topic hosted by Urban Consulate and Chicago’s PlaceLab. Most people, he said, either dance around the question or allude to a news story.

Historically oppressed and marginalized communities have reason to be wary of development.

Historically oppressed and marginalized communities, most frequently those of color, have reason to be wary of development of any sort in their neighborhoods. People of color have notably been promised opportunities that have resulted in displacement, he said, citing policies like the G.I. Bill and the Highway Act that have displaced people of color.

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“When you’re going into an underserved community, how you frame your engagement is important,” Smith said. “They have so many reasons not to trust [you].”

That’s why it’s important that people from the community being developed are stakeholders in the process, said AMBER Art & Design‘s Keir Johnston. AMBER is a collective that uses art and storytelling to reimagine public space and preserve community history in Port Richmond.

“How many people are directly from the community, the board, the funding sources,” Johnston asked. “Get the community into a more intimate setting. Anyone can have a town hall, but a lot of times the voices of the people get lost in translation.”

That includes being “blunt and transparent,” said Akeem Dixon, who left The Enterprise Center to head up economic development at New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) this past July.

“[Ethical redevelopment] starts with an engaged community to act as gatekeeper and hold people accountable,” he said. Part of Dixon’s new gig, he said, is getting the River Ward communities engaged. “My goal is to help people learn how to fish instead of fishing for them. Things last a lot longer if you’re doing it with somebody instead of to or for them.”

"My goal is to help people learn how to fish instead of fishing for them."
Akeem Dixon

AMBER, said cofounder Ernel Martinez, said the collective provides space for those conversations to exist. In many ways, he said, they see themselves as “guards” in the ethical redevelopment process.

Lindsey Scannapieco, managing partner at development firm Scout, and Jennifer Mahar, director of civic initiatives at Fairmount Park Conservancy, both admitted they are still learning how to do ethical redevelopment the right way at Edward Bok Technical High School and in Strawberry Mansion, respectively.

“We’re so new in the process, but I think we’re changing and trying to change the questions around parks,” said Mahar. That means placing priority on what the community needs from a park above anything else. Scannapieco shared a similar thought process through her experience with the controversial South Philly school building.

“We’re looking at the infrastructure and value that exists in the property and thinking about how it can be reimagined for a different use,” she said. “It’s about being considerate of the neighborhood around us but also being a richly diverse and varied building.”

Scannapieco said Scout is experimenting with new ways to engage the community around Bok, like distributing a community newspaper. Town hall-style meetings have attracted longtime German and Irish residents and millennials — a “small population of the neighborhood.”

All panelists are experimenting with new methods for engaging communities in new development. All are interested in ethical redevelopment, but until efficiency is proven, ethical redevelopment will remain a neat idea.

That also means mistakes need to be made.

Smith said it himself: “The greatest learnings come from making mistakes.”

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