From street to street, Gentrification bewilders cities with one undeniable pattern of change – what once was, is nevermore the same.
So goes the conversation in coffee shops and convenience stores…gentrification, we assume, concerns the so-called built environment; but rarely discussed is the un-built environment, the outdoors. With its penchant for all things lumberjack and expensive, Gentrification has seized upon facets of the outdoor community to accelerate homogeneity at-large (wealthy, white, male). During the course of American history, the very idea of nature has waxed from hideous wasteland to sylvan idyll. Therefore, the gentrification of the outdoors is dangerous not because it represents change, but for the change it brings. It is, by definition, exclusionary.
Whereas urban areas gentrify when low-cost, long-term residents are financially exiled, outdoor gentrification affects a less stationary community. Still, the effect is equally pernicious, particularly over the course of a generation. The hallmarks of outdoor gentrification are threefold. First, empty symbolism; second, excess paraphernalia; third, self-centered action.
• • •
Central to Gentrification is no preconceived notion, but rather, preconsumed emotion. This is especially true in the outdoor community. Retailing standard-bearer REI explicitly encourages its customers to buy the Outdoor Lifestyle. Floorspace is now devoted to the Hoody of Mountain Climbing, the Pants of Yoga, or the Coffee Mug of Camping. VF Corporation, the owner of ‘aspirational’ brands such as North Face, Timberland, and Smartwool, notes that three-quarters of its 2017 revenue will come from lifestyle products. But buying an entire lifestyle – especially the Outdoor Lifestyle – ultimately becomes an empty enterprise, founded more in the appeal of advertising than a life truly lived. It’s notable that, for many, the Lifestyle vastly supersedes the Outdoor. Patagonia’s 2012 ad campaign “Don’t Buy This Jacket” spurred many to, predictably, buy that jacket! And so products become an important representation of the activity – the paraphernalia as notable as the activity. Form (a Lifestyle) becomes the lens through which function (goin’ out and doin’ stuff) is understood.
Until the beginning of this decade, it was generally assumed that jogging was an exercise break from eating and drinking. Now, Homo Athleticus carries a waterbottle in one hand, a snack at the hip, and a headphone in each ear. These newly ‘necessary’ products do not merely raise the bar to entry (after all, a runner doesn’t even need shoes), they fundamentally re-focus the purpose of the outdoors. When every bike ride is a lifestyle test, with more points for lingo and deductions for un-hipness, the outdoors become an experience in being seen, not a scene to be experienced. This litmus test of lifestyle is branding, a search for Authenticity. To create Authentic experiences, other confounding factors – the modern satellite dish in a Bedouin tent – must be ignored, if not removed. It’s to say that an existing community that doesn’t match a Lifestyle becomes less valuable. Outdoor gentrification is not selfish, but it does invert the paradigm: you do not serve the community, the community serves you.
In its final state, Gentrification is always the same: exclusiveness damages the originally attractive resource, so the community is either artificially resurrected at extreme cost, or, it vanishes. Today, San Francisco’s Fillmore district is not so jazzy, and its Mission, not so Hispanic. Its un-built environment is equally changed. Newcomers dress like a catalog, go where the reviewers highlight, and move to the beat of social media. Alone, none of these behaviors is cause for concern; together, they merely constitute a community. It’s the not-so-implicit eviction of one community by another that is named gentrification. Look to the mountains: ski-resorts corporatize, ticket prices rise, and all amenities become luxury-priced. And the outdoors move further towards an exclusive domain of lifestyle before accessibility.
• • •
Should the outdoors be evolving with greater exclusivity than ever before, a concerted approach to resolve the issue is imperative, if only to ensure that all taxpayers can actually benefit from their tax dollars. The easiest (and yet most complicated) resolution is to actively promote frequent outdoors exposure. Repeated experiences outdoors demonstrate that no one Lifestyle is necessary, that no one Outdoor is best. That is, from street to street, and trail to trail, diverse experience is more than possible, it’s beneficial to everyone! Too often, humankind finds a paradise, then destroys it by recreating the familiar doldrums it is fleeing. Nature need not be the stepchild to urban divisiveness. Greater familiarity will breed the acceptance of all-comers if children receive more frequent outdoor time, if communities are more frequently involved, if government more frequently educates park visitors. No one is specifically to blame for gentrification; everyone is particularly needed for its remediation.
[Photo: “Resting Lionness”, Reeva Harrison, reevaharrison.com]