Improving an inner-city neighborhood without setting it up for gentrification could be as simple as placing a few wooden seats on the sidewalk. Or at least that's the premise of architect Steve Cancian's Outdoor Living Rooms, a project featured in SPUR's new show at the Urban Center, DIY Urbanism: Testing the grounds for social change (opening today! -- get your tickets here).
The project began as an exploration of the problem of gentrification in low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Cancian knew that many of these areas drastically needed improvement, but doing so often resulted in overdevelopment, and subsequent displacement of the current residents. The usual solutions for revitalizing these areas, such as lining the streets with trees, only made the neighborhoods more attractive to potential gentrifiers. Was it possible to improve these areas without the side effect of gentrification?
What constitutes neighborhood improvement for inner-city residents is often different than what constitutes improvement in wealthier areas. In Cancian's case, the residents of the neighborhoods he catered to wanted a livelier street and a better place to socialize. Cancian found that this street culture had the effect of preventing gentrification. Places like West Oakland, where ocean views and Victorian houses made it a prime target for gentrification, had not yet become gentrified because the vibrant street culture tended to repel developers who favored quieter streets. In preserving this street culture, Cancian hoped gentrification would be discouraged. "We want to celebrate what the neighborhood is," says Cancian in an interview with LA Weekly. "For anyone whose goal is to change the neighborhood into something that excludes the current residents, we hope that living rooms will actually be a deterrent to them moving in."
The solution, then, was simple. Create an outdoor living room by putting unembellished, inexpensive outdoor furniture on inner-city streets. This would facilitate community development and improve the area in a way the residents wanted, but also maintain an active street culture that prevents these vibrant areas from turning into homogenized middle-class neighborhoods."¨
"Living rooms" are straightforward enough that a community can agree on their look and location, they can be built almost immediately, and they are inexpensive enough for a low-income neighborhood to afford. "What has kept them expanding is communities without resources," Cancian said in a New York Times interview. "A simple pocket park takes a half-million dollars and two to three years to build, while a living room takes as little as a month and between $5,000 and $15,000."
And so far, the living rooms seem to be serving their purpose. Not only have they slowed gentrification and sparked street life, but they have also helped to make the areas around them cleaner and less crime ridden. Residents of low-income neighborhoods are embracing them, pleased with the positive changes they've seen. As one resident of South L.A. says about her local outdoor living room "There was nothing before, just a lot of trash right here. It makes it look a little bit decent."