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Does gentrification help or harm low income communities? Discuss with reference to a specific city in the UK, the US or elsewhere.
The urban phenomenon of gentrification is a process that encourages debate from all parts of society and all sides of the political spectrum. Such debate is encouraged by the effects that gentrification brings to low income communities and their neighbourhoods. A simple definition of the complex issue is: the process of wealthier residents moving into poorer neighbourhoods “in a sufficiently large number that the unique social fabric of the neighbourhood is changed” (Kennedy and Leonard, 2001, pp. 5-6). Gentrification is a process that thrives off the conditions in low income communities such as, surplus housing, years of disinvestment and an inner city location. Proponents of gentrification emphasize how the process is one of improvement. Conversely, many argue the damage of gentrification to those pre-existing residents such as displacement and a loss of sense of place is much more damaging. This essay aims to examine whether gentrification is truly rewarding for low income communities or not.
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An area of focus for the gentrification process is London, a megacity with a reputation for having many gentrified neighbourhoods. Fortunately “gentriﬁcation of much of inner London over the last 40 years is well documented.” (Hamnett, 2009, p.301). London is not only a laboratory to observe the effects of gentrification, but it is also the place where the term gentrification was first coined by Ruth Glass who noticed changes in Islington due to the influx of middle classes (Glass, 1964).
Why Does Gentrification Occur?
It would be hard to understand the direct negative and positive effects of gentrification without understanding of how gentrification occurs. Academic theory goes back as far as the 1930s with Homer Hoyt’s “land value valley” theory in Chicago where the inner city land value was low encouraging investment (Hoyt, 1933). Much of the key academic debate around gentrification has been formed around David Ley and Neil Smith. Smith drew upon the idea of Hoyt and described the idea as the rent gap theory where inner city areas are exploited due to economic opportunity. He explains it as “not that gentrification occurs in some deterministic fashion where housing costs are lowest, ….. but that it is most likely to occur in areas experiencing a sufficiently large gap between actual and potential land values” (Smith, 1987, p. 464). This rent gap is a feature driven by disinvestment in the inner city and uneven city development. Ley was the proponent of another theory which considered the importance of culture and consumer preference changing the area. Ley described there being “no accident that the early stages of gentrification may be associated with countercultural life-styles” as these areas can be redefined by new residents (Ley, 1986, p. 524). Regarding London, Hamnett simplified the gentrification theory of London suggesting that gentrification was not all down to the rent gap theory. Instead he suggested that as the class structure changed and the middle classes grew they have naturally replaced working classes in inner city areas (Hamnett, 2003, p. 2406). Overall, the main obvious reason for gentrification is city centre economics, and the ability to produce capital. Although ultimately Atkinson is correct when he states that gentrification needs to be redefined as an issue less about theory and more about a people relevant response (Atkinson, 2003, p. 2349), which is what I aim to do for the rest of this essay.
The most well-known negative effect of gentrification is that of displacement. Displacement is when residents are forced out of their areas when it becomes gentrified. Displacement can have very harmful effects with it being a shattering experience for those residents it effects. Glass in 1964 was one of the first to describe the damage and process of displacement, in Islington, London. “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” (Glass, 1964, pp. 22-23). Glass is describing here the damage that can be done as more affluent users force the older residents out of the area as it becomes too expensive or unpleasant for them to live in.
Displacement is not always obvious or a direct result, with a lag time often attached to a delay in rent increase. Overall it is very difficult to measure displacement with a figure, which it makes it harder for those to exhibit its damage to low income communities. It has even been described as “measuring the invisible” (Atkinson, 2000, p. 163) which lead many academics to suggest it was negligible. Displacement is still though thought to occur, although its difficulty to measure does make it easy for proponents of gentrification to suggest there are no harmful effects.
There is quite a clear injustice in displacement, in an immediate sense it can force people out of their homes. Furthermore as the area gentrifies it makes it harder for residents to live there and they may be forced to move which also has its difficulties. Slater suggests that gentrification needs to regain its image as a dirty word. He describes “rent increases, landlord harassment and working class displacement” that are the reality rather than “trendy bars and cafes” (Slater, 2006, p. 738). The initial displacement is not the only issue, as the displaced then have to try to re-enter the housing market somewhere else in the inner city. This is notoriously difficult on the small budgets and what they find is normally more expensive and of inferior quality. This seems extremely unjust as often the people living in the area prior to gentrification do so as it is all they can get to call home.
If displacement does occur then why is there so little evidence? Slater suggests that it is because most displacement occurs just prior to gentrification. This displacement is due to the high rent gap closed by landlords in anticipation of gentrification (Slater, 2010, p. 305). Freeman did in his 2016 study find elevated mobility in his London sample for a gentrifying neighbourhood showing displacement in London (Freeman, 2016).
Overall, displacement is not easily detectable but it certainly makes sense for it to happen. Much quantitative research has found little evidence of it. On the contrary qualitative research has found the more harrowing effects of it and how it truly effects people as evidenced in (Newman and Wyly, 2006). Ultimately the question is would you feel comfortable being pushed out of your community by more affluent outsiders.
In its simplest from gentrification improves the quality of the area although whether it benefits those who were in the neighbourhood before gentrification is a different question. In recent years gentrification has lost its negative image in the public eye. It is now something that areas aim to encourage in some circumstances and governments often try to encourage gentrification to occur in areas of poverty. This is obvious in London Docklands where the council relaxed many rules and gave grants to help regenerate the waterfront and surrounding area. It was a successful project in economic terms but still had classic gentrification hallmarks “of displacement and the inward migration of a replacement population” (Butler, 2007, p. 777).
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Those in favour of gentrification can rightfully point to the positives it harbours. “Crime decreases, house values rise, public and private investment increases, the retail sector grows, and municipal services such as police protection and street maintenance improve” (Sullivan, 2007, p. 583). The resulting social mix from gentrification is another positive as the middle class add to “the tax base, rub-off work ethic, and political effectiveness …. and in the process improves the quality of life for all of a community’s residents” (Duany, 2001, p. 37). This supports the idea that middle class in movers can encourage aspirationalism. Arguably in movers can also bring the benefit of being highly skilled and educated with Freeman finding 64% of in movers to gentrifying neighbourhoods in London had university degrees (Freeman, 2016, p. 2811).
The gentrified areas become cleaner, sleeker and safer places to live evidenced by families moving into these neighbourhoods over the suburbs. It is also widely thought that due to the improvements in their area many of the older residents like to stay in their area despite higher rent and make an effort to stay in the improving area. Sullivan found nearly 62% of respondents felt their neighbourhood had gotten better over the last 5 years and concluded residents of gentrifying neighbourhoods make an effort to stay (Sullivan, 2007, pp. 586-587). The improvements of the area has been referenced as the reason for negligible signs of displacement.
The whole process of gentrification is one of improvement and in many ways it improves the area and often the lives of those in low income communities evidenced by them making an effort to remain in the gentrified area. Although, whether or not low income communities would agree the changes were worth sacrificing much of the old character of their community will be examined in the next section.
Class transition and a loss of sense of place
Despite some of the benefits that gentrification can bring to low income communities the drastic change can come as a shock for long-time residents who can be victims of a loss of sense of place. Sense of place refers to the knowledge and comfort a resident may have in an area they have lived in for a long time. Many gentrified areas are described as being “pacified” by gentrification with new residents wanting a place that is cleaner and sleeker to live in. An example of this cleansing process is artwashing where the character of the area is smoothed over with pieces of art. Property developer LondoNewcastle cover neighbourhoods with street art and have their own art gallery in Whitechapel, London (Pritchard, 2017). The art, supposed to promote luxury and matchlessness to clients, truly changes social character and atmosphere of the area.
Ley talks about the commodification of gentrification and how the idea has been sold to the middle class with a cool aesthetic and lifestyle attached (Ley, 1986). However the class transition can be truly damaging to the low income communities. Shaw explained that “for low income people who have fewer choices and less capacity to travel in order to shop and socialize, wholesale class transition …. can have significant impact” (Shaw, 2015, p. 327). The speed of class transition can seriously aggravate these negative effects. Atkinson claimed that the class transition was the “fundamental stamp of gentrification” (Atkinson, 2003, p. 2344). Some suggested that the social mix was beneficial and Duany described it as making an area “rebalanced” (Duany, 2001, p. 37). However, changes in the neighbourhood are mainly geared towards needs and desires of new residents leading the low income residents susceptible to exclusionary displacement.
Exclusionary displacement is an idea first properly introduced by Peter Marcuse. It suggests that as the area changes in all aspects the dynamic of the neighbourhood changes and the place becomes less liveable (Marcuse, 1985). Exclusion of low income households is an essential to gentrification and can make locals feel lost in their own areas. Davidson describes a type of neighbourhood displacement where “local shops and services change and meeting places disappear. The places by which people once defined their neighbourhood become spaces with which they no longer associate” (Davidson, 2008, p. 2392). Overall, this can lead to a severe loss of place and those will feel like the area they once knew is not the one they are currently living in.
Ultimately, gentrification can cause a loss of place for those from the low income communities. Research shows that “although these residents remain in place, the class remake produces a sense of loss of place” and ultimately “a loss of place identity” (Shaw, 2015, p. 339). Notions of a rub off work ethic from middle class seem to have little resonance with those prior residents. Finally, what can be determined is that the supposed benefit those who stay in gentrified neighbourhoods would accrue is a falsehood and there is instead a feeling of alienation.
As we have seen there are a variety of views and opinions surrounding gentrification. It is a vehemently debated topic and very politically loaded which makes conclusions on its real effects difficult. London is an archetypal city for the effects of gentrification as being one of the first places to see gentrification. London has many trendy areas that many of the elite who work in the city want to commute from but it has therefore experienced many of the issues with it like displacement seen in the London Docklands area. Undoubtedly it has benefits, which are seen with improved employment opportunities, crime rates and much more. However, the question regards whether these positives are worth the mounting negatives. The word gentrification needs to be reunified with its dirty image and it should be seen as something that removes culture and displaces people from places they have often had to make home. Gentrification overall is an inconsiderate endeavour. Its proponents would argue gentrification is not as methodical and targeted as many suggest but as Slater suggests it needs to regain its dirty image (Slater, 2006). The final and most poignant problem of gentrification is that it in some cases it allows the government to avoid solving the true issue of the problem which is poverty.
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