Suburban design remains the dominant ideological and practical force in the political economy of place making. Stripped to its essentials suburbanism is the placement of new developments far outside of dense urban cores. Houses are usually sprawling and arrayed in big monocrop fields with thousands of others. Streets are ridiculously wide, and the automobile rules over all. Population density is low. Strip malls, big box stores, and shopping centers are built in and around suburban tracts providing infusions of tax dollars fueling further expansion into the hinterland. All of this works to the detriment of those left in the inner city as state, municipal, and private resources pour out.
Gentrification is design and development within the city that unabashedly provides housing and infrastructure for a young, wealthy, and mostly white population—the bored sons and daughters of the suburbs who have come back to the city in search of what their parents fled. Although it is often portrayed as an unplanned market process whereby “ghettos” are settled by more affluent households and finally made into nice places to live, the role of big business and government in gentrification is well known. Virtually all successful attempts to gentrify an area must gain needed subsidies and support from city and/or federal government. Equally, this relies on the work of architects and planners in the service of the powerful.
Gentrification is the darkest side of the suburb. Although it allows city colonizers a lifestyle more ecologically sustainable than the suburbs, it displaces the poor and mostly non-white communities long abandoned by the consumer class (more commonly called the middle class). It causes particular harm to the elderly poor. Right now highly paid place makers are hard at work trying to seize inner city areas in order to convert them into high-rise condos, lofts, corporate offices, and trendy business districts.
The third major paradigm of elite dominated place shaping, new urbanism, is neither suburban nor crassly gentrifying. New urbanism is a school of thought that touts the positive effects of dense housing, urban life, and mixed-use or mixed-income neighborhoods. It praises the idea of integrating different socio-economic classes and racial or ethic groups into the same places. Its vision of community is a dense cluster of housing, greenspace, sidewalk, and businesses that are well proportioned, centralized, easily accessible, and safe.
However, it largely fails at these goals because, like suburban-styled development and overt gentrification, it is bound completely by the process of planning from the top down. Designs flow from planners, technocrats, politicians, and financiers at the top. Furthermore, it only redevelops these “mixed-income” communities on top of formerly poor and non-white communities. New urbanist place makers displace these groups in their quest to create supposedly diverse and healthy communities. Never before have they demolished upper-income areas to build “mixed-income” communities. The degree to which they actually succeed in bringing different social classes together in living is questionable, to say nothing of other schisms... [N]ew urbanism’s solutions to problems that are fundamentally about poverty boils down to more tried and untrue solutions that fetishize aesthetic and spatial fixes to problems grounded in social inequality.
-- Darwin BondGraham
This is taken from an article called "Anarchitecture: A Manifesto for Rebuilding Place and Community" in the September 2006 issue of Z Magazine. Online subscribers of the magazine can read the article here. It goes on to talk about different approaches to what the author describes as "anarchatecture," or the production of urban space from below rather than from above.