Gentrification's Image Problem and How It Has Been Villified

Gentrification's Image Problem and How It Has Been Villified

The idea of revitalizing a public space by bringing improvement that brings people together should not generate suspicion or fear. However, specific examples of places that have seen the cost of living greatly increase after their revitalization have been creating paradoxes. After all, does this "new villain" called gentrification have any relation to placemaking?

The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Although it's not a direct relation of cause and effect, it is impossible to deny the tenuous line between the two concepts. By definition, gentrification, or "ennoblement," refers to the social, cultural, and economic improvement of a neighborhood or, on a larger scale, of an entire region. Placemaking is the process of planning quality public spaces that contribute to the well-being of the local community. The concepts may be similar, but the methods and consequences of the two are very different.

The idea behind placemaking originated in the 1960s when writers like Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte began to develop innovative ideas about creating cities that catered to people, focusing on the importance of inviting and living neighborhoods. The term gentrification was coined in 1964 by the British sociologist Ruth Glass to describe the flow of people of the middle class that displaced inhabitants of low class of urban districts. Glass illustrated gentrification by citing the example of the Islington neighborhood in north London where modest and old cottages were bought up and turned into elegant, expensive residences when their permits expired. 

© Dylan Passmore, via Flickr. CC

Today, it is this same process that turns gentrification into a villain. Residents are displaced when they can no longer pay for housing, utilities, school fees, and other services offered in the neighborhood due to the growing wealth of the area. The blurring between terms begins when investments in public spaces are likely to result in even greater potential investments for the area.

In this complex process, it is difficult to deny the relationship between the improvement or development of a public space and the consequent increase in the value of the surrounding land. However, the placemaking process is not a direct cause of gentrification. The difference lies in the factors that motivate the two processes.

Placemaking is no longer placemaking when it stops considering the opinion of those living and working in the area. Making decisions with the genuine contribution of the community and the recognition of their needs and wants is what defines the process. The transformations must start with the very community that uses the space. Gentrification is guided, with or without the influence of the government, by economic objectives, involved in the process of enhancement and devaluation of urban spaces over time. This can happen especially when upper-class districts can no longer sustain the number of inhabitants, who then look to settle elsewhere.

Mural no Mission District sinaliza gentrificação. Image © torbakhopper, via Flickr. CC

This process is widely debated in the US city of San Francisco. Urban Displacement, a University of Berkeley site, has developed a map showing the types of displacements in the region and indicates several areas in the advanced stage of gentrification. The relocation of various tech companies is commonly given as the culprit for the transformation of the city. The cost of housing and the large amount of a new class of workers has made neighborhoods like the Mission, famous for the presence of Latin American immigrants, enter a phase of transformations.

Luxury condominiums, organic ice cream stores, cafes that serve soy lattes, and chocolate shops that offer samples from Ecuador and Madagascar are rapidly replacing 99-cent stores, corner shops and rent controlled apartments in the Mission District , (San Francisco’s) working-class Latino neighborhood - writes The New York Times.

In São Paulo, the Minhocão Park project has been carefully studied due to fears that it will become another example of gentrification. The project, sanctioned in March by Mayor Fernando Haddad, aims to gradually transform an elevated highway that cuts through São Paulo’s city center into a recreational area. Currently, Minhocão is closed for almost 40 hours during the weekends. "We are concerned about gentrification in the area because we don’t want to drive anyone out," said the mayor. To this end, Haddad said he would suggest to the sub-prefect of the area to create a Management Council made up of residents.

Although the phenomenon of gentrification is becoming common in large cities, local improvements shouldn’t be seen as threats. What the urban critic Matthew Yglesias calls "gentrificationphobia" can generate an excessive fear of progress and delay projects that communities need. Advances may increase the value of land, but don’t need to evict the inhabitants.

The way projects are run is what determines their results. Knowledge about gentrification and placemaking emphasizes the importance of creating spaces for all, spaces that connect areas, rather than dividing them. Neighborhoods need to be identifiable and maintain their natural qualities, things that have been developed over time. Avoiding gentrification keeps history from being erased.

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Cite: Tanscheit, Paula . "Gentrification's Image Problem and How It Has Been Villified" 21 Nov 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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