De-Gentrifying the City

Fighting gentrification is a crucial to any hope of reclaiming our cities from capital, but doing it effectively will require setting out a working-class vision for renewal to rival pro-business regeneration projects.

Anti-eviction street art in Brixton, London. (Credit: PA / Getty)

Last month, Twitter discourse erupted over a video of swimmers in the Sky Pool of Nine Elms’ Embassy Gardens. Many were quick to share reporting from earlier in the year of the building’s segregationist policies, whereby residents in shared ownership units are denied access to amenities like the Sky Pool, and ‘poor doors’ are used by those who do not live in the (more expensive) private blocks of flats. Aydin Dikerdem, one of the councillors for Queenstown Ward in Wandsworth where Embassy Gardens is situated, wrote about the replication of these trends across London and the role of so-called ‘opportunity areas’ in catalysing developments with minimal social housing provisions, like the ones currently under construction in Vauxhall, Nine Elms, and Battersea.

In response, people online began to air their frustrations with London en masse, and rightly so. The city has become a playground for the global elite, where neighbourhoods often no longer bear a resemblance to their previously working-class roots. Mass mobilisations have fought against this process, from the campaign to save Nour Cash and Carry in Brixton from the Hondo Tower development to the ongoing effort to stop the development of the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, which will see a shopping mall and corporate offices built in the heart of the historic East End. Demonstrations against gentrification in London parallel others taking place in the US, where protestors marching through gentrifying neighbourhoods in cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and Oakland chant, ‘Black people used to live here’ and ‘Fire, fire gentrifier’ to onlookers awkwardly eating brunch.

Having completed a twelve-month quantitative analysis to empirically measure gentrification in London in the past decade (accompanied by an online mapping tool to look up gentrification levels by postcode), I had the chance to observe how widespread the phenomenon is and its reach beyond oft-referenced sites like Brixton, Shoreditch, and Peckham. In the process, I faced questions from colleagues and friends: ‘Are you going to count the number of white hipsters moving into a neighbourhood?’, ‘Does this mean that we shouldn’t go to coffee shops anymore?’, or ‘Isn’t gentrification inevitable? Won’t all neighbourhoods become gentrified one day?’

These questions made me wonder. If hipsters and coffee shops were the forces driving gentrification, does this mean an ungentrified city would have no hipsters or coffee shops? Would the process of de-gentrification mean closing up coffee shops and telling hipsters to move it along? And if gentrification inevitable, is fighting it a lost cause?

The immediate answer is, of course, no. These questions reflect the symptoms of certain manifestations of gentrification, rather than addressing the underlying roots. Some of the areas which experienced the highest levels of gentrification in the 2010s—like suburban Ealing in West London and Southfields in Southwest London—were likely driven by the entrance of middle-class white families looking to ease their commutes into the city using the Central and District lines, rather than students from Goldsmiths or UAL. But the motivating factors behind these questions remain. What would an ungentrified city look like? What would the process of de-gentrification be?

Displacement, the core defining feature of gentrification, would be the principal issue to address in any process of de-gentrification. The disruption of complex community and kinship networks established at the neighbourhood level constitutes the phenomenon’s most immediate threat: in a de-gentrified city, people would be able to exercise agency over where they chose to live, and would not be barred access on the basis of their limited social or financial capital. Families and communities could continue to live intergenerationally and derive a greater sense of social cohesion and identity through their participation in the local environment. Dr. Fatima Rajina, co-founder of the grassroots organisation NijjorManush advocating for Bengalis and Bangladeshis in the UK, told me that her ideal for a de-gentrified city is a place where ‘people feel a sense of belonging, a sense of identity… simply feeling that you’re seen by the same people, that you’re heard by the same people on a daily basis.’

Ending the displacement of long-term residents, who disproportionately constitute the multiracial working class, can be achieved through a number of methods. One is enacting a ‘right to the city’, which moves beyond the fundamental tenet of a right to high-quality and adequate housing to offer the right to a say in how the city is managed, organised, and defined as a common good. As Brazilian architect Raquel Rolnik states, ‘the best use of a place is the use that meets our needs’.

In the de-gentrified city, tenants on the 100 housing estates in London earmarked for demolition would not have to worry about whether they will be relocated to housing that fails to meet their needs or bars them from the public services they frequent, like schools, GPs, or community centres. The government has already shown that it’s possible to prevent displacement through the eviction ban, which should be extended and expanded to promote the acquisition of homes where landlords are unable to pay the mortgage to be converted into social housing units.

Calls to end displacement are often misrepresented in the mainstream as fear of change. The argument is that these areas have changed throughout history, with different ethnic and social groups occupying the space at different points in time. Change is of course a natural process necessary for our cities to be resilient, dynamic, and interesting places to live – but many Londoners know that the changes that we witness day-to-day seldom involve the participation of long-term and working-class residents.

Exercising the right to the city would allow locals to decide how they would like to improve their homes and neighbourhoods without fear of triggering their own displacement. They would also be able to deliberate on how best to alter the built environment to accommodate incoming residents in a city experiencing an unprecedented housing crisis: using the ‘never demolish, never replace’ model developed by French architects Lacaton and Vassal, existing structures would be amended to deliver better living conditions and new homes would be added using the insights of the people who currently reside there. This model has already been trialled in London, where Architects for Social Housing worked collaboratively with the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates to develop a regeneration scheme which involved 65 percent of households, and was to the satisfaction of 90 percent of the residents who participated.

As the reaches of financial capital extend further into our cities, our neighbourhoods continue to be robbed of the elements that make them affordable and stable places to live, as well as interesting and unique. Gentrification is exercising its full potential as a deleterious force, and resistance against it has become a central principle for a broad range of grassroots social movements.

But while we push back against development and regeneration schemes that do not meet our needs, we must also work towards building the type of city in which we want to live. The elites are already using their wildest imaginations to build infinity pools extending between skyscrapers. It’s time for the rest of us to dream too.