Gentrification is an issue in cities across the world, but urban planning systems are ill-equipped to deal with it.
When modern planning systems were first constructed, the word “gentrification “ did not exist. It was coined by the sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964 (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/urbanlab/news/ruth-glass-seminar). She explained how “One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes — upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages — two rooms up and two down — have been taken over, when their leases have expired.”
Since then, gentrification has been widely recognised in cities around the world. Last year I had a fascinating chat with a taxi driver taking me from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. A young man, he told me how he was buying an apartment in a rundown district near the bus station in Tel Aviv, because it was cheap to live in now, but would rise in value, as there were plans to regenerate the area . He never used the word “gentrification”, but precisely defined the processes bringing it about.
The Guardian recently published a fascinating series of articles on the subject https://www.theguardian.com/cities/gentrification . These ranged from Liverpool to Johannesburg, and from Amsterdam to Mexico City. Amongst the themes explored were $1000 a month rent hikes in Silicon Valley, and how Airbnb and other app-based businesses are fuelling the gentrification process.
One posting https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/sep/30/worlds-most-gentrified-cities-crime-stats-coffee-shops explored ways of defining and measuring gentrification, and in particular the problem of getting data at sufficiently fine grain to detect the dynamics of the process. Amongst other approaches, it discussed a study that used Google Street View to track visual evidence of neighbourhood change. I found this interesting because social scientists tend to rely on statistical evidence, whereas planners are much more aware of visual aspects of things.
Why has gentrification become such a significant component of urban change?
Gentrification has become so familiar that we tend to forget the obvious factors that have brought it about and assisted its growth. To state the obvious, it is deeply rooted in the way that property markets have been restructured. Increased owner occupation, deregulation of rents, and the diminution of the social rented sector have been the backdrop to neighbourhoods moving upmarket. Housing has become not just a source of shelter, but a means of investment and speculation, competing with more traditional avenues for those with savings. Meanwhile, the deregulation of financial services saw a shift from extremely cautious lending policies to the kind of reckless lending that precipitated the global financial crash of 2007-8. Before the 1970s many inner city areas were “red-lined” by building societies, who would not loan on old properties lacking modern amenities.
It is no coincidence that Glass’ original identification of gentrification came from observing neighbourhoods in London. Even back in the 1960s it was a relatively well-off city with a relatively pressured housing market. However, the upgrading which began as a spontaneous process pioneered by young professionals, not least architects and planners, was soon aided by public policy. The reaction against comprehensive redevelopment helped, with the birth of the modern conservation movement in the late 1960s. Grants for modernising older properties provided incentives to those with the courage and the know-how to grasp the opportunities. The advent of regeneration in the 1980s, with its emphasis on reviving areas of market failure, was a step change. It rested on two fundamental assumptions. First, that overcoming market failure and restoring “normal” market operation was the name of the game. Second, that there were areas of town with unrecognised potential (e.g. in character, location, cheap land and property): restore perfect information about these qualities, and remove blockages like the lack of confidence of lenders, and the market would do the rest.
So gentrification has been policy drive, but this is not to underestimate the changes in labour markets and family structures that have also contributed. Deindustrialisation and the rise of the service sector impacted locally on the spatial patterns of housing supply and demand. The move to mass higher education systems created situations where four students sharing a house could pay a rent that a single earner low wage family with a couple of kids could not afford. A further consequence was the injection into the labour market of women with the qualifications and earning power either to enhance the income of professional household or to enter the housing market independent of a partner.
A role for planning?
None of this was in the minds of legislators who crafted planning legislation in the first half of the 20th century. Yet if you were looking at the problems of cities today, and into the future, how to control gentrification, and ensure a supply of housing that is accessible to the low income workers needed to service the city, would be key challenges needing action. Despite the obsessions of many governments with reforming their planning systems, these concerns are not being addressed.
What could be done? How about powers for area renewal that could be exercised by public bodies, housing associations or community based development trusts, that could improve conditions in an area while capping rents and house prices? What about using more sophisticated change of use definitions to control the transition from low rent to high income occupation, and the loss of local commercial and social facilities to higher value uses? Yes, these beg questions of definitions and resources; they are a start not a final answer. My point is that unless we look for an answer we won’t find one. While gentrification remains seen as a solution, we cannot approach it as a problem.
Without some change, well intentioned planning policies shaped by attitudes from the era when planning was conceived as part of a welfare state, accelerate gentrification and displacement of traditional residents. Environmental improvements? Public art? Cycle lanes? Reuse of empty buildings? Clean up of contaminated land? Better public transport? Mixed uses with small business and starter premises? Walkable and legible neighbourhoods? A new school? All these and more raise the appeal of a neighbourhood, and in an unfettered property market where interest rates are low and money is seeking investment opportunities, you have preconditions for gentrification. As Win Curran has argued the alternative in such situations is to make neighbourhoods “just green enough”.
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