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AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

Gentrification is the revival of an urban area that has been subject to environmental, and possibly socio-economic decline. It is the revitalisation of a part of the city that ‘has seen better days’.

It is rarely a direct planning strategy, but may come about as a desired consequence of related urban-improvement strategies or may be an ad hoc, unplanned result of private house-buying driving up the desirability of living in a particular neighbourhood.

New York was facing problems symptomatic of many North American cities in the 1980s – the movement of the more affluent to the suburbs and beyond. The suburbanisation and counter-urbanisation processes were leaving many cities with a ‘dead heart’. Characterised by abandoned industrial buildings, poor housing and deteriorating urban neighbourhoods, a negative spiral took hold leading to those who could afford to, to move out. The resultant cities were sometimes referred to as ‘donut cities’ as the outer suburbs expanded at the expense of the central zone.

New York’s recent gentrification process started in the 1980s when it was faced with a particularly severe negative spiral as drug pushers, criminal gangs and illegal activities thrived in the inner-city zone of nineteenth century apartments. A zero-tolerance policy towards crime was introduced by the New York police and this, along with schemes to get more young people into college and off the streets eventually resulted in a major reduction in criminal activitiy in central New York. As neighbourhoods became safer, newly-arrived immigrants moved into run-down, but low-cost apartments. Their initiative and determination to improve their lives extended to renovating buildings, setting up businesses, and slowly once-neglected neighbourhoods became to be seen as desirable areas of the city to live.

A negative spiral of decline can become a positive feedback loop if people start to see an economic or social advantage to living in the inner city. Once an area is seen as safe, attractive and with the economic opportunity to buy a property cheaply, make improvements to it, and see it sell for a much higher price as demand increases, then the road to gentrification of a neighbourhood is laid out. This is what happened in New York in the 1990s and thereafter. The strategy to tackle inner city crime indirectly resulted in the gentrification of a number of central areas such as Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

In London, gentrification has, in part, been a consequence of rapidly rising house prices in the suburbs together with extended commuting times and costs. In the 1980s it became increasingly attractive to buy and renovate a Victorian house in an unfashionable part of the city. Large, substantial multi-room houses were seen as ideal for raising a family and commuting into central London was far easier than from the suburbs. Once an area gets a reputation for being ‘on the up’ (often noticed by skips outside houses showing refurbishment is in progress), more potential buyers are attracted who have the affluence to consider paying a mortgage.

As more middle-class home-owners move into homes, independent businesses often set up premises: typically wine-bars, artisan bread shops, coffee houses and furniture-renovation workshops. Estate agents notice more enquiries about buying houses in the area and they start to suggest higher asking prices by those selling property. As prices rise, more owners are tempted to put houses on the market and the ‘for sale’ boards indicate that change is taking place.

Islington, Notting Hill, Southwark, Fulham… the list of areas in London that have undergone market-driven gentrification continues to grow. The key features for an area to become a target for gentrification include:

  • Substantial Georgian and Victorian buildings that can be subdivided to provide apartments for rent, or multi-room family homes.
  • Low cost property that is architecturally sound so that mortgages will be offered by banks.
  • Close to a tube station or regular bus routes into the city centre.
  • Close to a park and/or children’s play area and with nearby ‘good’ schools.
  • In a locality where the local authority has implemented an improvement scheme recently.
  • Attractive refurbished work premises for artists, academics, artisan crafts and independent shops.

Benefits of Gentrification

  • Urban areas become renovated, refurbished and improved at little cost to the local authorities.
  • Affluent residents are attracted back to the central city reversing decades of out-migration.
  • There is increased custom for inner-city businesses and retailers.
  • Those selling property get greater returns.
  • Declining communities are revived with an increase in users for libraries, schools, clinics and voluntary groups.

Issues with Gentrification

  • House prices increase rapidly, pricing out less affluent local people.
  • Rents are increased by private landlords to drive out low-cost tenants and attract higher-income tenants.
  • Increasing social division as existing communities feel powerless to influence changes.
  • Parking issues as more and larger vehicles attempt to park at the side of roads.

Whilst gentrification undoubtedly improves the environmental and economic future for many once-declining inner-city neighbourhoods, the social change is more displacement of one social group (less affluent) for another (more affluent). So, whether gentrification actually ‘improves’ parts of cities, or merely causes deprivation to forcefully migrate elsewhere, is an issue worth debating.

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