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Gentrification is a clearly emotive topic which means different things for different people, so it was no surprise that my recent blog in defence of gentrification prompted lots of feedback on the website and social media. In the latest City Talks podcast, Andrew and I explored these issues in more detail with two leading experts in the area – Toby Lloyd of the charity Shelter and Anna Minton of the University of East London. These discussions underlined a number of key questions which underpin the divides in this debate.
In particular, one contested point was the “for who” argument. Critics of gentrification often observe the effects of incomers on a specific neighbourhood and conclude that the neighbourhood, and other places like it, should be protected by restricting those changes or new development.
But looking at the effects on a neighbourhood in isolation from its surrounding areas misses the point, and restricting change at the neighbourhood level has an impact on the whole city. Critics often point to existing homes and businesses making way for luxury apartments or gleaming office blocks as bad news for poor people. While this may be true at the neighbourhood level, at the city level the opposite is true. By enabling Shoreditch to change and adapt through allowing new developments, we can keep prices lower across the city. This is because even if the new buildings or businesses in a particular place might not house or hire the existing residents or firms themselves, it eases the pressure on other parts of a city’s stock of housing and workplaces – keeping overall prices lower and the city growing.
Another criticism is that the gains from gentrification are only enjoyed by land or home owners – and that the new jobs or developments created are not for local people. Again, however, new people and businesses impact positively on the wider city. For example, when ‘creative incomers’ come to a city they create jobs and wealth beyond the neighbourhood in which they are based, with US studies showing that one new high tech job creates five more jobs in other industries, as well as boosting wages across a city.
Ensuring residents are well placed to take these jobs is a city-wide challenge rather than one for any given ‘gentrified neighbourhood’. In order to make the best use of its talents, a city must prepare its people to take advantage of these opportunities with the best possible access to skills and training.
But anti-gentrification campaigns distract political focus from addressing these issues. By concentrating on the physical effects of economic change and the impact on individual neighbourhoods, they effectively let city decision-makers off the hook – shifting attention away from managing new development and investing in skills, and instead demonising the latest newcomers. Rather than intervening to keep each neighbourhood as it is, we should be taking the decisions that foster the conditions for growth, and ensure everyone can benefit. These failings should be the targets of our ire, not the latest social media start-up or bike shop café.
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