The Difference Between Stability and Sameness and Allowing a City to Change

What do you seek from your city? If you were to move across the country and had your pick, what characteristics would you seek out for your new hometown? Good schools? A strong economy? Perhaps exciting nightlife, excellent parks, or good transit? What about constancy? How important is a place’s resistance to change?

I read yet another article today about the astonishing number of people who have and continue to move to Denver. Absent some calamity, it doesn’t seem as if this pattern is going to change any time soon. This brings to question the necessity of growth and our reaction to it as a city. Time and again I’ve read articles and comments suggesting that the growth occurring in Denver is shameful, annoying, bad, or even a conspiracy. People take affront to the change occurring next door.

2016-09-15_stability-or-sameness

The euphemism I’ve heard used to resist the influx of new neighbors into old neighborhoods is “stability.” As in, “if we allow this new, larger building it will be destabilizing to the character of the neighborhood.” Or when a new mixed-use development goes up, “I bought this house thirty years ago. Don’t I have a right to a peaceful, stable neighborhood?” Or even, “without a stable neighborhood our schools will suffer”—a classic “won’t someone think of the children” refrain.

But stability allows for change, even growth. A child grows into a teenager who grows into an adult and remains a stable person. A building grows from a hole in the ground to a scaffolded construction site to a skyscraper and doesn’t fall over. And before our completely zoned and litigious modern times, a neighborhood grew as well—from a collection of homes to a retail corner to some small apartments to a commercial corridor and finally to a dense and vibrant district where all types of living, loving, commerce, salesmanship, and industry occur. Not all at once but piece by piece, every city in the history of mankind has grown in this way. Until today. Until now, with our complaints about traffic and our insistence on parking and our baked-into-the-code resistance to change.

But this resistance doesn’t fight against instability, it fights for sameness. It fights so that a person sees the same thing every day, forever. That home across the street will only ever be a home across the street and never anything different—unless someone tears it down and builds another home just like it. Literally, it’s in the code.

But this isn’t the character of a living city. These are not the actions of a growing metropolis embracing its destiny and welcoming the inevitable change and vital growth that makes a city great. It isn’t a guarantor of stability, it’s an imposition of sameness, a codification of bland, a legal requirement for stagnation. A place which fights the arrival of change is doomed to heartache because, good or bad, change is coming. We as a city need to make the distinction between stability and sameness. We need to allow new growth and new ideas, and welcome new neighbors rather than fight change and appear to be the unwelcoming and selfish people we claim we are not.

Can we accept this change? Can we look to the future and be grateful for our opportunities rather than resentful of our need to adjust? I hope we can.

By | 2017-02-21T13:11:00+00:00 September 15, 2016|Categories: Advocacy, Urban Planning, Walkability, YIMBY Denver, Zoning|Tags: |13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog Denver September 16, 2016 at 7:49 am

    […] A Changing Neighborhood Is Not an Unstable One (DenverUrbanism) […]

  2. Chris Jones September 16, 2016 at 12:06 pm

    This is great.

  3. sporobolus September 16, 2016 at 8:39 pm

    ultimately it’s the quality of the change that makes the difference — we aren’t getting Union Stations built on every corner; the market seems to produce less excellence than it used to, and our society produces fewer citizens who appreciate excellence; the zoning code, and blogs like this, are among several feeble efforts to counter this trend, but the market squirms faster than the code can grasp

  4. Edward Brennan September 17, 2016 at 12:13 pm

    Change is a tool to make cities better, and a problem that makes cities worse. Change often destroys historic buildings and businesses. Change can result in an overbuilt, and under utilized city which accounts for Denver after the bust in the early 80’s. Change can be a mask for gentrification which pushes out the poor and needy- look at the Bay Area. Change can be under the crony capitalism of rent seeking control. Change is as often as not what pushed highways through our city centers and created monstrosities like the Federal Reserve downtown. Change is the sprawl that is also part of the growth of Denver. It is part of the greater loss of property to wildfires in Colorado Springs, for instance. Change is the destruction of natural habit for human use.

    Change is also renovation, it is also infill. It is also public transit systems like light rail. It is new breweries, it is new restaurants. It can also be new jobs.

    Sporobolus is right it is the quality of the change that makes a difference. A lot of the stick built residential buildings with planned but never occupied first floor retail might be part of that problem. It is a city that doesn’t yet define neighborhoods well enough not to have a car which is why the Denver/Boulder restaurant scene is not the Capitol Hill scene, or the Rino scene or the Lodo Scene. These are all areas people go to park as much as neighborhoods people primarily live in. How many people transit to the tech center for work still…

    People who want change, should have a moral obligation to prove that they are increasing the quality of the city, the neighborhood, the block, over just their own pocket book. The quality of city should be more than increased tax revenues.

    Change is good, if it is good change.

  5. Scott Davis September 18, 2016 at 11:37 am

    I find this post a bit ironic. Much of the change going on in Denver right now is serving to drive out diversity and replace it with an overall sameness. This is diversity of architecture (tearing down a variety of older structure to replace with new buildings that pretty much all look the same), diversity of culture ( displacing the artists, musicians, odd balls, pop up latino markets, and other things that make a city quirky and interesting to instead build yet another brew pub), diversity of race (the city is so much more Caucasian than 20 years ago), and diversity of income (the poor and even middle income folks are being pushed out).

    I love urban fabrics because of their diversity. I also support change and of course in-fill (a surface parking lot serves no one). I’m wary of the too-rapid change going in in Denver because of the overall sameness it is creating. In many ways- it’s making downtown feel more “suburban bland”, and less urban interesting.

    • Larry Sykes September 19, 2016 at 8:18 am

      Right on point, Scott. I moved to central Denver after growing up in Denver’s suburbs and going to college in Boulder, party because of Denver’s healthy diversity (for Colorado anyway). It was nice to often not be the only person of color walking down the street. Like a sisyphean Key and Peele sketch, I find myself 10 years later in a Denver that’s much like the Boulder of my college years.

      Mr. Riecke, I see absolutely no benefit in treating urbanism like a religion to which we must remain faithful despite all, dismissing dissenting voices as NIMBYs and conspiracy theorists. Rather, like social science and ethics from which urban planning theory draws, we should engage in constant, critical debate and respond to empirical results as we start to see how theories operate in real-world practice. I’m not sure who wants absolute stability, but I think I know some people who don’t feel comfortable remaining passive and silent in the wake of what looks like a very successful effort at unintended urban eugenics.

      (I also understand the disappointment with the poor quality and mediocre design of so many new buildings; it will take decades for landscaping to cover up those sins in this dry climate.)

      • John R September 20, 2016 at 10:40 am

        This post was written in response to conversations I’ve had and meetings I’ve attended where middle class white people object to any change in the form, density, or parking allowances in their neighborhoods. This mostly comes from single family home owners who have seen their property values rise quickly which has resulted in the displacement of people of limited means. I argue that allowing for neighborhoods to change and evolve is inherently more accommodating to people from all walks of life. As our population grows the only way to keep housing affordable and accessible to all is to build more of it, I don’t think you’d disagree with that. More housing for more people means more opportunity for more to participate in commerce with more variety. I could be wrong and if so I’ll recant, I don’t preach religion, but I don’t think I’m wrong. Of course, givien the in-built resistance to change we also may never have the chance to see.

        • Larry Sykes September 20, 2016 at 5:27 pm

          Thanks for the clarification – middle-class homeowners against any and all change IS obnoxious, I do agree. It does seem that a lot of current battles are as much a matter of gentrification 2.0 vs. the 1st middle-class “pioneers” who bought into urban neighborhoods earlier.

          On the other hand there are situations like Globeville and Elyria-Swansea where displacement of working-class families is currently happening as a result of market interest spurred by planning initiatives. There, I DO understand the vocal resistance to change. Do I think it’s ultimately better that hundreds of middle-class professionals will find housing options there rather in wasteful new subdivisions in Brighton? Yes. Is that trade-off fair to a typical current resident of that area? Not in the least. That’s what I think complicates your “stability or sameness” comparison.

  6. Jon Dwight September 18, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    Excellent read, as always.

  7. Dan September 19, 2016 at 9:20 am

    Thank you for this write up.

    I truly believe success comes from embracing change and working towards finding the opportunities in change. This applies to people’s lives, civilization, as well as cities.
    Denver continues to attract more people and investment and therefore is changing. Change has brought economic growth, diversity of thought, jobs, more entertainment, and more opportunities. It is also creating issues with traffic and other infrastructure, which requires us to embrace change and think differently at our infrastructure, looking for better ways to build public transport, and options for people to complete their journeys.
    It truly saddens me to hear comments against new people moving in and the NIMBY mentality and limited “small town” view. I would much rather live in a city that is growing and becoming attractive to more people as it will naturally attract investment, create economic growth and bring more choices to people than in a city that is experiencing decline where job opportunities are non existent, options scarce, and value being destroyed.
    As a newcomer to Denver 8 years ago, I have seen the incredible growth of Denver in the last few years and the growth of options and alternatives that are now present here that didn’t exist 8 years ago thanks to Denver’s growth. Stagnation is not a good recipe in nature or in anything in life

  8. Jeff September 21, 2016 at 11:01 am

    I enjoy your posts and these thoughtful responses. Thank you

  9. Jon Dwight September 25, 2016 at 8:28 pm

    Excellent read, as always. Very insightful, especially the growth analogy. If we don’t allow for progress, the city will regress. Of course we want stability, but that should not equate to stagnancy.

  10. Anthony Lechuga September 28, 2016 at 2:43 pm

    I think one question we need to be asking within this growth, which I do support, is who it is serving. I see a lot of Denver’s development as seeking to provide housing for young, generally single, white, professionals. The new development doesn’t seem to be serving new families, older populations, or minority groups. The growth is astounding and I think we should build and build, but a quick look at census data in certain areas shows some serious racial displacement. Highland has seen a decrease in total population since 2000 and a serious displacement of Hispanic people. Within all this growth how can limit the future displacement of people from Elyria, Swansea, Globeville, Five Points, while providing new housing for young people, new families, and a growing elder population? True sustainability will come when we can find a good mixture of development to serve all these different demographics.

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