The ReSET - Gentrification: A Zero Sum Game?


Newt Fowler

Does gentrification – the economic reinvention of a community – inevitably result in displacing its poor residents? According to Jennifer Vey of the Brookings Institution, not necessarily. Vey, an expert on innovation districts – an increasingly popular strategy for reinventing urban centers – is always asked this question. Does economic success have to come at a cost to those most in need of change?

Flip the Script. “Sometimes it feels like an accusation, underpinned by a somewhat paradoxical assumption that innovative economic growth in cities will inevitably have a destructive impact on poor residents.” In a simple but profoundly complex paradigm shift – she suggests that efforts around innovative growth should focus not on who is getting “squeezed out” but on how the greatest number of residents can “connect in”. This isn’t some ephemeral academic exercise – it’s playing out in real time just north of us in Baltimore. Vey is studying Philadelphia’s ongoing efforts around what is being called University City, anchored by the University of Pennsylvania.

Concentrated Poverty. Veyis focusing on the dynamics of concentrated poverty around Philadelphia’s evolving district. Vey acknowledges the tension that the benefits of such economic growth likely go to the well-educated, privileged few and that this drives the gentrification question. Her view is that “it is not gentrification that is widening the gap between the people and communities who are succeeding in the economy and those who are not: it’s the rise in concentrated poverty. In Philadelphia, with the success of their University City district has come increased poverty in surrounding neighborhoods. As she cautions, “while development in the innovation district [in Philadelphia] might not yet be driving gentrification, it is not yielding many spillover benefits either.”

Jobs Gap. As Vey notes, the irony in Philadelphia, and with most such efforts, including in Baltimore, is that a majority of jobs being created in these innovation districts do not require a college degree. They are sufficiently well paying that they would enable meaningful improvement in the lives of those neighborhood families most in need. As Vey suggests, the question isn’t whether gentrification displaces our poor; but whether we are willing to focus on how to ensure the communities most in need gain access to the jobs being created. Accessible jobs are being created; the question is whether we’re ready to do what is takes to connect our neighbors to them.

With more than 30 years’ experience in law and business, Newt Fowler, a partner in Womble Carlyle’s business practice advises many investors, entrepreneurs and technology companies, guiding them through all aspects of business planning, financing transactions, technology commercialization and M&A. He chairs the Board of TEDCO and serves on the Board of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore. Newt can be reached at

It's on us. Share your news here.

Submit your stories and articles to citybizlist today.