Communities are changing dramatically as new businesses and people move into their neighbourhoods. But is all this change good? Can a city evolve without relying on outsiders coming in? This paper discusses gentrification and the eventual destructive nature of modernist urban planning. We consider Sharon Zukin’s claim on unregulated market forces that use cultural diversity, neighbourhood distinctiveness and “liveable” scale to help establish local ‘authenticity’ in the service of economic development.[i]
Planning and managing the development of contemporary cities has become one of the most important development and societal challenges worldwide. Today, 54 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, which is expected to increase to 66 per cent by 2050.[ii] Urban Regeneration is required in order to maintain living standards in many of the older but over-crowded urban cores. In order to increase the positive social, economic and environmental facets of the urban society and reduce the negative ones, urban planning is vital to fulfil a sustainable and secure “urban” future.
The gentrification effect
Since the 1990s, there is subsequently a concern that the outcome of regeneration policy in cities has been gentrification. New users of higher socio-economic status gather most likely in low-priced city areas, discovering the situation of large gaps between ground and potential property rents. This process drives out cultural and community activity and causes changes in the district’s overall character and culture. Sharon Zukin, a professor of sociology who specialises in modern urban life, describes these changes as the authentic social character of urban spaces that get constantly invented and reinvented all over again. Zukin (2010) advocates that authenticity has become a cultural form of power over space, that serves gentrification purposes as discussed later on. As the influx of upper-income or affluent people impose their culture on the neighbourhood, lower-income residents become economically and socially marginalised. This can lead to “resentment and community conflict that feeds racial and class tensions”.[iii]
However, gentrification can also be a sign of economic growth, as many aspects of everyday life are transformed for the better when money flows into a neighbourhood: Employment is provided due to increased construction activity and new retail and service businesses; buildings and parks are renovated and beautified; crime rates decline; the funding to local public schools increases with the rise of the property tax base; formerly racially homogenous neighbourhoods get an influx of diversity; etc. There are many things to applaud about the influence of gentrification – however critics question whether this economic growth is shared equally by new and old residents alike. Recent studies have assessed how extensive displacement is in relation to gentrification and precisely what kinds of people are displaced – demonstrating “no evidence of displacement of low-income non-white households in gentrifying neighbourhoods”.[iv]
In fact, the demographic group that contributed the largest percentage to the income gain was black residents with high-school diplomas (33 per cent in comparison to college-educated whites that only brought in 20 percent of the total income gain). A 2011 study concluded that neighbourhood income gains did not significantly predict outmigration, but that age, minority status, and renting instead of buying were determinants. Further studies found that gentrifying neighbourhoods were generally more diverse when it came to income, race, and education as opposed to non-gentrifying neighbourhoods.[v] Gentrification can indeed push residents out of their neighbourhoods, but the ultimate effects of displacement are less clear.
Nevertheless, displacement is becoming a greater issue in knowledge hubs and “superstar cities”, where the pressure for urban living is accelerating. These particular cities attract new businesses, highly skilled workers, major developers, and large corporations, all of which increase both the demand for and cost of housing. As a consequence, local residents may feel pressured to move to more affordable locations.
The gentrification dilemma
An even bigger issue is certainly the neighbourhoods that are untouched by gentrification and where concentrated poverty persists and expands. A 2014 study assessed that “for every gentrified neighbourhood across 51 U.S. metro areas, 10 others remained poor and 12 formerly stable neighbourhoods fell into concentrated disadvantage”.[vi] Another study found that “the gentrification process continues for neighbourhoods with over 35 percent of white residents, and either slows or stops if the neighbourhood is 40 percent black”.[vii]
The reality is that the displaced are getting pushed out of working class districts that are “good enough” to attract people and investment, while the poorest and most vulnerable neighbourhoods remain trapped in persistent poverty and concentrated disadvantage. Thus, gentrification and displacement are symptoms of the scarcity of quality urbanism. The driving incentive behind both is “the far larger process of spiky reurbanisation – itself propelled by large-scale public and private investment in everything from transit, schools, and parks to private research institutions and housing redevelopment”.[viii] All of which reveals the most significant task ahead: to create more inclusive cities and neighbourhoods that can meet the needs of all urban residents.
The rise of the authentic city
Although the economic disparities might not always be as strong as they appear to be, an enduring complaint about gentrification is that it destroys the “soul” of a neighbourhood. Sharon Zukin uses the concept of authenticity to understand gentrification. Authenticity is understood as the feature that makes a place unique. She believes consumption and consumerism is the means by which individuals create authenticity, which has the power to turn a neighbourhood into a hip place to be. Zukin outlines in her book “naked city” how cities function best and addresses the destructive nature of modernist urban planning. With the example of New York City, she focuses on the rise of the “authentic city,” a place characterised by a tension between old, historic, deep-rooted elements and new, creative, innovative forces. Zukin points to a wider trend and how food and restaurants, cafes, bistros, markets etc. are a key tool in gentrification and the creation of authenticity.
Accordingly, it arises because of the way in which the media present and re-present spaces. Therefore authenticity is also a media creation that directs investment into certain parts of the city. Zukin tries to draw attention to the perverse side of the most recent transformations in the city’s places, known for its diversity and authenticity and she describes how the spaces of Harlem, Brooklyn and Union Square have developed from sites of declination to sites of mass cultural consumption. For example in the case of Williamsburg, writers, artists, musicians, and other cultural creatives followed the old ethnic working classes that had been pushed out of SoHo and Little Italy over the Williamsburg Bridge to create a funky neighbourhood of bistros, performance spaces, and boutiques. The gritty character, ethnic diversity and eclectic spirit that attracted the initial urban pioneers is overtaken by chain stores, overpriced brunch menus and iPad-tapping hipsters. Those are the kind of noticeable social effects that can’t be quantified by statistics, but feed a growing antipathy for gentrification and gentrifiers.
In short, Zukin (2010) advocates that authenticity has become a cultural form of power over space, that can both serve gentrification purposes as well as fighting those same purposes. In the end, Zukin is concerned with the question if we can create the rent controls, the use controls and the rules that will allow old physical structures, old social spaces and new ones to stand side by side in an authentic city. She underlines that, “if we don’t confront the question of what we have already lost, how we lost it, and what alternative forms of ownership might keep them in place, we risk destroying the authentic urban places that remain”.[ix]
Image via Flickr
[i] Zukin, S. (2010) Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. Source: http://www.popmatters.com/column/121262-aked-city-the-death-and-life-of-authentic-urban-places/
[ii] UN News Centre (2014) More than half of world’s population now living in urban areas. Source: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=48240
[iii] Atkinson, R. (2002) Does Gentrification help or harm urban neighborhoods? Source: http://www.urbancentre.utoronto.ca/pdfs/curp/CNR_Getrifrication-Help-or-.pdf
[iv] Kiviat, B. (2008) Gentrification: Not Ousting the Poor? Source: http://content.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1818255,00.html
[v] Florida, R. (2015) The Complicated Link Between Gentrification and Displacement. Source: http://www.citylab.com/housing/2015/09/the-complicated-link-between-gentrification-and-displacement/404161/
[vi] Cortright, J. (2014) Neighborhood Change, 1970 to 2010. Source: http://dillonm.io/articles/Cortright_Mahmoudi_2014_Neighborhood-Change.pdf
[vii] 7Reuell, P. (2014) A new view of gentrification. Source: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2014/08/a-new-view-of-gentrification./
[viii] Florida, R. (2015) The Complicated Link Between Gentrification and Displacement. Source: http://www.citylab.com/housing/2015/09/the-complicated-link-between-gentrification-and-displacement/404161/
[ix] Zukin, S. (2010) Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, Oxford University Press.