Phu Duong

Phu Duong

Principal, NBBJ, @UrbanMorphology
Phu is an urban designer based in New York engaged in international work. He also teaches at Columbia University. To go local, he is a board member of his community board in Brooklyn. When he is not at any of these places you’ll find him running in Central Park, which often prompts his wife to ask, “Phu, what are you running from?” Follow him on Twitter at @urbanmorphology.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Gentrification

It’s Time to Get Specific When Discussing Urban Change

June 11, 2014

Principal, NBBJ


As cities lift themselves out of the Great Recession more and more articles touch on the phenomenon of gentrification, it bewilders me that everyone speaks as though it is understood widely. But I don’t think it is. When urban change is talked about, the word “gentrification” drops in like an unwelcomed neighbor. It bulldozes over the sensitivity needed for a productive conversation about neighborhood redevelopment. All too often, it stirs up emotions and a contested battle between “us” and “them” begins.

As a Housing Committee co-chair eloquently noted at my recent Community Board meeting, “If you say gentrification, then you are implying that our neighborhood was once a slum.” For many, the word implies marginalization. It suggests long-term residents and culture displaced from neighborhoods like Fort Greene in Brooklyn.

When we talk about gentrification, we deserve to be more honest about what we really mean. What is actually happening, and how do the circumstances differ from place to place? We cannot continue speaking about it divorced from its intrinsic forces — where it comes from, who or what it displaces, where it happens, and when.

Are we thinking of displacement based on income level? Higher rents and cost of living increases? If so, then we should talk about new and renovated construction, which can mean a lot more than modernized buildings — it can result in more affordable housing opportunity.

Crown Heights West Rezoning (Courtesy

Crown Heights West Rezoning (Courtesy

Are we talking about industrial and manufacturing decline, which decreases the number of well-paying jobs and alters the livability of the city? We should be talking about the land use changes that are recommended by our own public agencies and elected officials. Cities must fight to remain competitive in a global economy, but as they reinvent themselves, now more than ever, many community businesses find that celebrating localness gives them an edge. The key is economic diversity.

Are we talking about parking and public transit? When a single-car parking spot is voluntarily exchanged for a bike corral in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is this an act of gentrification, as some residents have claimed? We should be talking about transportation access. When we want greener transportation alternatives, sometimes we can confuse the matter with a sign of gentrification.

Are we talking about architectural styles? If a property owner wishes to upgrade and renovate using a modern architectural language in a historic district, is this a sign of gentrification? We should encourage signs of new investment, and we should celebrate the human instincts of thinking and making. This is healthy and necessary for people in the city.

So when we talk about gentrification, we must consider that cities constantly change. We need to remember that both new and old residents, both “us” and “them,” care about the environments in which they live and work, and that both sides have wisdom and lessons to teach the other.

Some places do witness change at a different pace than others, but what we really need to think about is how and why the city needs to change. How will we as a society navigate demographic trends, economic opportunities, freedom of enterprise, and our own creative individual expression, capacities and desires? We need to separate these issues and stop calling it “gentrification.” We can start by talking about what we mean.

Banner image courtesy of Flickr.

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Street Defense

Finally, the Public Is Reclaiming the Street

March 17, 2014

Principal, NBBJ


If you’ve walked around New York City in the past few years you may have noticed a change in the urban street experience. It doesn’t feel any less crowded and perhaps not much cleaner either. But there is something more hospitable about it. More space. More places where people are welcome to sit and stay a while. More lanes and wider sidewalks catering to bicycles and people.

Some would credit this realization to the aspirations of a powerful mayor. But I think it is more than that — because it is happening in other American cities as well. A global movement is reclaiming the public uses and renewed capacities of the city street. They are not just utilitarian spaces to move volumes of traffic, people, and goods to and fro; they are an elemental part of the social fabric of the city.

It is more than aesthetics and visual appeal. It is even more than accommodating pedestrian versus driver comfort or convenience. It is about affording opportunistic use patterns for everyday civic spaces. When you walk, bike or even see these new public spaces from the seat of a car, you are looking at a small representation of the rejuvenated public realm. It is civic in nature for how it makes the activities and interactions of people visible: on a street bench, at a plaza bistro table, in a parklet next to a cafe, or lending a hand to a neighbor at a bike-share station.

“Right-sizing” is the strategic thinking behind making contiguous, multiple margins of transportation space. This consolidates acute-angled intersections, medians and even parking stalls to repurpose them into something else. The movement goes far deeper than filling these accumulations of space with vegetation and uses for people. You might think this is fundamental and maybe mundane. But as a pattern, when the public sector takes responsibility and re-invests amidst a recovering economy, it is quite profound.

It hasn’t been without controversy, as the shameful, years-long saga of the Prospect Park West bike lane attests. Even former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose administration pioneered many of these efforts, once called closing parts of Broadway to cars “the stupidest idea I’d ever heard.”


A pedestrian plaza and bike path in Midtown, New York.

Yet as we know, Bloomberg came around. It was not always a clean and prescribed conventional process. In New York, the clawback of private space dedicated to personal vehicles was initiated by public leadership through city agencies and sometimes in partnership with commerce. But that was only the start. As these public streets and plazas sustain active use and grow in appreciation, another part of the body public, community support, takes over and fuels the culture of the most provocative part of the project: the broader enterprise of a rejuvenated and modernizing public realm.

This public realm all too often has been scrutinized by urbanists when subject to privatization or private enterprise. Its expansion, however, represents a reassuring and strengthening condition of a more agile contemporary public sphere, in terms both of public process and of the reappearance of city “wealth” through daily use.

So when drivers complain about the reduction of traffic lanes, they don’t realize the fight is largely over. Urban dwellers have taken to the expanded public space and, increasingly, come to expect it. Popular success stories keep this transportation-oriented placemaking movement socially and economically viable. The collective success of expanded public space around the world may be just enough to imbue a kind of social-security for streetscapes.

We’ve had a taste of the public life. And we aren’t going back.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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