Gentrification: Our Communities, Our Responsibility

Maybelle Bennett, former commissioner and chair for the Zoning Commission of the District of Columbia and current director of the Howard University Community Association

Understanding what’s happening in our communities, and the impact we can have on them, is pivotal to our success as an industry. As a B Corp, we’re committed to using our business as a force for goodtaking the same passion that drives us to be a leader in sustainability and transportation to movements like the B Corp Inclusion Challenge 

As part of this challenge, we are committed to ongoing education for our staff, bringing in diverse perspectives and voices so that we can better grasp the bigger picture of what our communities are facing.   

Our Washington, D.C. office recently had the privilege of hosting Maybelle Bennett, former commissioner and chair for the Zoning Commission of the District of Columbia and current director of the Howard University Community Association, to speak about the impact of gentrification in some of the D.C. neighborhoods. She came with two insightful perspectives, one that comes from her professional background in planning and the other from her own personal background and experiences.  

As in cities all over the country, D.C.’s lack of affordable housing has been known to displace low- and moderate-income families from their communities. It’s an issue that many cities are addressing  how to keep the historical, cultural and socio-economic integrity of communities intact. 

According to Ms. Bennettthe D.C. area experiences gentrification in waves. Every four years, an entire population moves out as another moves in, making it hard to find stability within the housing market. There is a constant churning of people and cultures, and long-time residents can often feel overlooked during the process 

Placemaking is personal. It impacts people and the place they call home. Thinking about the impact of our work on the lives of people and communities is a responsibility that we have as architects, planners and designers and should not be taken lightly. That’s why we strive to start every project by asking communities what they need to feel safe and valued.  

As architects and designers, we are first and foremost problem solvers. But, we can’t fix a problem if we’re too uncomfortable to talk about it. We must communicate with the communities in which we serve. By having an open dialogue, we are able to better understand that community’s needs and allow their voice to be heard. 

Our dynamic discussion with Ms. Bennett served as an important reminder that: 

  1. Our work impacts the cohesion of communities, the strength of families and the lives of people. 
  2. We are not designing for today, but for tomorrow. What we do and the decisions we make on a daily basis have implications for years to come.

  3. We, as a profession, need to strengthen our understanding of the communities, social structures and relationships in the neighborhoods in which we work.    

There are a myriad of ways design impacts a community, from quality housing and public facilities to safe streetscapes and varied public spaces, multiple transit options and strong connectivity. We are a multi-disciplinary design firm and have the skills to address each and every one of these components. Ms. Bennett left us feeling inspired and fired up to leverage our voices to create change. 

If you too would like to get involved with affordable housing initiatives in D.C., here are a few organizations to help get you started: