Gentrification is a divisive term that can make communities either shudder or jump for joy. The phrase was coined by Ruth Glass in 1964 while studying the movement of people in Islington, London. She described how many urban areas of London had changed, as ordinary run-down mews and terraced housing were turned into housing for the rich. A key part of her findings was noting that “once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed”.
It was these final points that were repeated in later definitions and became key indicators that successfully generalised the broad process of gentrification – original resident displacement and loss of an area’s culture. A modern definition (2009) from the Dictionary of Human Geography does not include these indicators, simply describing gentrification as “middle class settlement in renovated or redeveloped properties in older, inner-city districts formally occupied by a lower-income population” (pg 273-274).
Fast forward to 2018 and gentrification is seen by many, especially in the public domain, as a wholly negative process. This is due to its association with the undesirable consequences (mentioned above) of displacing residents originally associated with the area that is gentrifying and in doing so destroying the community culture built by those residents. While there is much evidence to suggest that these negative effects do occur (a recent example of this that attracted large quantities of media attention was the displacement of residents from the Heygate Estate, Elephant and Castle, during its regeneration), I do not believe it represents the whole story. Planning is all about balancing competing interests, and therefore while there are negative aspects of gentrification, it also can be, has been, and is a force for good – it’s about ensuring the positive aspects are understood by the community and decision-makers.
Urban regeneration on the other hand is the attempt to address industrial and manufacturing decline by both improving the physical structure, and, more importantly and elusively, the economy of those areas. When comparing gentrification to the process of regeneration one realises how closely related they are. Broadly speaking, gentrification differs due to its association with the displacement of people, but they both attempt to make areas better, whether that is physically, socially, educationally…the list could go on!
Gentrification is like regeneration’s forgotten older brother, the word has been tainted and instead, regeneration has been the buzz word of politicians and professionals in the property and construction industries in more recent years.
Because of this shift, it might be assumed that gentrification is a type of regeneration when in fact I would argue that it’s the other way around. The negative connotations associated with gentrification stem from the widely accepted viewpoint that it is a niche process.
Too many times gentrification is labelled as having occurred only when ‘creatives’ move to affordable but unattractive areas, slowly attracting ‘hipsters’ who in turn open new amenities in the area which in themselves attract wider attention, until eventually the area is in a state of increasing property prices, which then attracts developers. The middle classes come to buy and rent, compounding the now unaffordable property and rental prices, leading to the original community (including the creatives) being forced to move out and a potential loss of culture occurring. While this is somewhat a caricature of the process, many believe this to be what gentrification is, when in fact it is simply only one facet.
I would debate that there are at least three main types of gentrification:
Singular residential displacement – this process is the most similar to what is described above. It is often seen to be the most natural type of process. However, at the start of the process, residential displacement could be minimal because incoming migrants to the area may be occupying buildings and property that previously lay vacant and therefore no displacement occurs.
State-led gentrification – Occurs with help from Government in kick-starting gentrification in a chosen area, building or entity and it is often promoted under the banner of regeneration. Types of initiatives within this group consist of the regeneration of universities, government buildings, hospitals, infrastructure and/or housing estates. These schemes almost always consist of partnerships or joint ventures between public bodies and private entities.
Industrial regeneration – the replacement of industry and jobs with redevelopment – usually for residential use and development.
While it is clear that regeneration and gentrification are similar, I believe that a change in mind-set is needed, in order for the latter to be seen more kindly and for the positives it produces to become more widely realised and discussed.
It is inevitable that gentrification will always look to start afresh, moving from one area to the next, which is why it is not a process that we should be resisting. Like regeneration, it should be encouraged (with better solutions found for its negative consequences) as simply being just one process in the ever-evolving city.
To finish, and as noted by the Mayor in his foreword to the Draft London Plan 2017, over many decades, London has evolved to create the built environment we see today.
Love it or hate it, gentrification has had a profound impact on how and where we live, work, study and socialise with one another; and I for one hope it continues.
Image credit: Christopher Hilton / Geograph Project