Socially responsible gentrification is key for healthy cities

Seeing gentrification purely as a negative development supports suburban sprawl and the ghettoization of poor neighbourhoods.

Mark Swilling

The term ‘gentrification’, like ‘globalization’, is usually only used pejoratively. It is a construct that is invoked to describe a certain reality in a way that discredits what is going on.

The intention is usually to depict the gradual or rapid penetration of an area inhabited by poorer people by richer people who now find that particular area a more desirable place to live. These are normally inner city, quite high density urban areas that have for some time been inhabited by relatively poor people who either rent or own their homes. Not only does gentrification refer to the entry into these areas of relatively better of home owners, but it also quite often refers to the displacement of the people who used to live there. This can get particularly problematic when the previous inhabitants were renting their properties, which means there is no capital gains to be made from the improvements in the values of the properties.

Without in any way discounting the socially problematic consequences of gentrification, it is equally problematic to delegitimize the desire of middle class people to live in mixed neighbourhoods at much higher densities. After all, the biggest challenge we face globally is a century-long trend towards de-densification that has resulted in massive urban sprawl, often into valuable farming land that generates important food supplies for the city. Encouraging middle class people to desire to live in 4 to 8 story buildings where they can use public transport or non-motorized transport to get to work must surely be regarded as a progressive move.

Furthermore, it cannot be denied that mixed neighbourhoods that include people with significant disposable income makes it possible to have a wide array of retail services, public services and amenities that also benefit the poorer households in the neighbourhood. The alternative to this is to keep the middle class in their suburbs where they spend their money not in socially mixed high streets, but closed malls usually only reachable by car. These malls are usually dominated by multi-national retail chains, which means the local spend is not locally circulated to any significant degree except via the wages paid to locally based labour.

So if we accept that mixed neighbourhoods are a good thing, then can we also accept that gentrification may make a positive contribution towards the creation of such mixed neighbourhoods? If so, then gentrification could lose its pejorative meaning. This can be done by accepting that the entry of middle class people into a neighbourhood inhabited by relatively poorer households should not result in displacement. Yes, if these poorer households own their own properties, they could of course sell out and make a significant profit. However, this would mean making sure that property owners do not buy up properties to run the neighbourhood down to push prices down so they can buy up the properties at low prices. This kind of unscrupulous behaviour happens, and does pave the way for ethically questionable modes of gentrification.

The same outcomes are evident when most the properties are owned by landlords who rent out to poorer households. The landlords can sell, and the rentees get evicted. This is equally problematic. However, there are examples of socially responsible gentrification where middle class people access poorer neighbourhoods in ways that are self-consciously about building economically stronger, socially diverse mixed neighbourhoods. This cannot be done purely via the logic of the property market which is dominated by the interlocutors of this market, namely the estate agents. They are the storytellers of the property market dynamics, and their stories affect choices, desires and therefore prices. If they are socially responsible and know they are working within a strategic planning framework set by the local authority that is aimed at explicitly building socially mixed neighbhourhoods, and if the financial institutions involved as mortgage lenders and providers of development capital also share the vision, then there is no reason why gentrification cannot be reconstituted as a positive rather than a pejorative force.

Yes, there are many ‘ifs’ here, but the alternative is de-legitimise gentrification thus reinforcing suburban sprawl and mall-based capture of middle class spend, and the continued ghettoization of the poor neighbourhoods. This is a recipe for spatial inequality, de-densification and economic under-performance. These are exactly the outcomes that the opponents of ‘gentrification’ tend to support, but they fail to recognise that they are unwittingly undermining them by focussing purely on the disruptive and exploitative modes of gentrification. Socially responsible gentrification is a key approach for building a much denser socially mixed set of neighbourhoods.

Mark Swilling is a member of UNEP’s International Resource Panel and Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Development at Stellenbosch University, Cape Town. He is also involved with the Stellenbosch Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, and one of the guest curators of Urban Africa; What’s Next? which is integrated in the main exhibition of IABR–2016.

On April 29, 2016, Swilling spoke at IABR–2016 about planetary urbanism and the evolutionary potential of the present. You can listen to the podcast of Next Talk #1: Mark Swilling here.


Mark Swilling at IABR–2016.