There is Nothing Natural about Gentrification

by Tom Slater

Cities are not natural organisms but arenas of political struggles.

First published: 24 November, 2014 | Category: Class, Housing, Inequality

In February 2006, I reviewed an article submitted to a leading journal which argued that gentrification is a middle class strategy of ‘coping’ with the demands of metropolitan life, without any mention of capital, disinvestment, displacement, power, working class and so on.  The next day I penned an article entitled ‘The eviction of critical perspectives from gentrification research’.  Such was the dismay I felt at what was happening to gentrification research that I wrote that article in one day, from dawn to well into the night, and then emailed it to a few esteemed colleagues for feedback.  Suitably encouraged by their reactions, I tidied it up and submitted it to the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research where it was published in December that year.  

In the article I argued that the scholarly obsession with the preferences and lifestyle practices of middle-class gentrifiers, and a tautological infatuation with how to define gentrification, had shifted attention away from its negative effects.  I identified some key reasons why discussions of rent increases, affordable housing crises, class conflict, displacement, and community upheavals had all but vanished, and, correspondingly, I dissected the stagnating effects of the protracted theoretical and ideological squabbles over the causes of gentrification, the demise of displacement as a defining feature of the process and as a research question, and the pervasive influence (on research) of neoliberal urban policies of ‘social mix’ in central city neighbourhoods (almost always a smokescreen for gentrification strategies). 

I thought nobody would take much notice of the article, and even if they did, that they might just dismiss it as a polemical rant.  I was wrong – it seemed to strike a chord with what many others were thinking, as well as touch more than a few eminent nerves.  Research on gentrification has changed since I wrote that article, in my view for the better.  I am not making a boastful claim that my article has had anything to do with this change.  Rather, the pressing realities of disinvestment, land grabbing, rent increases, evictions and displacement in gentrifying contexts all over the world have been met by a dedicated scholarly response, most effectively and insightfully when scholars have worked with and/or learned from activists on the front lines of fighting gentrification.  Whilst there are some scholars who continue to argue that studying middle-class gentrifiers offers the best pathway towards understanding the process, and others who feel that time is best spent calling out the class position of those researching gentrification, there is much to gain from a new wave of scholarship that understands gentrification as the neighbourhood expression of class inequality, and as structural violence visited upon working class people living in contexts boosted by some as ‘regenerating’ or ‘revitalising’.  Furthermore, the emerging class struggles over the rights to social reproduction in London – typified by the FOCUS E15 movement and mirrored in numerous struggles over ‘social cleansing’ strategies across a capital city undergoing the class war of austerity – indicate that class analysis applied to housing and urban issues is more urgent than ever.  

Naturalising urban displacement

It is in this context that I read, and am now responding to, an article published in the Guardian on Wednesday, 19 November entitled ‘Gentrification is a Natural Evolution’, with the subtitle, ‘By regarding cities as natural organisms, we can see what drives gentrification’ (more on this later).  Penned by a science writer of considerable distinction, Philip Ball, it is a grotesque distortion of urban theory and gentrification.  It is based on one academic article entitled ‘The Form of Gentrification’, published in the journal Physics and Society by a research team led by Sergio Porta, a scholar of urban design based at the University of Strathclyde.  Here’s how Ball begins his piece:

Grumble all you like that Brixton’s covered market, once called a ‘24-hour crack supermarket’ by the local police, has been colonised by trendy boutique restaurants.  The fact is that the gentrification of what was once an edgy part of London is almost a law of nature.

Not only is this a pure exemplar of an author reproducing the territorial stigmatisation that so often precedes and justifies strategies of gentrification, it suggests that the massive upheaval visited upon Brixton’s precariat is simply the order of things, the way it is supposed to be.  ‘Grumbling’ (a patronising dismissal of social critique and of resistance) is pointless – for Ball, gentrification was just supposed to happen.

The paper Ball has read and enjoyed so much has so many errors of fact, unsubstantiated assertions and dubious assumptions that I do not think it would have survived peer review had it been sent to urban studies scholars.  The authors think that the role of ‘urban form’ in processes of gentrification has not been subject to enough scrutiny, yet as far back as 1986 scholars were writing about the production and consumption of a ‘gentrification aesthetic’, and have continued to do so with theoretical guidance from Pierre Bourdieu’s immense body of work on class, habitus, field, and taste.  But Porta et al go on to say,

In particular, we are interested in understanding whether gentrification that starts from the bottom-up by collective activism does happen in urban areas that are physically and spatially similar and, if so, what are the physical and spatial features that these areas have in common.

This, then, is a study of how the form and geography of the built environment causes gentrification.  ‘Collective activism’, through their lenses, is the ‘activism’ of the middle classes in deciding where to live, and they spend some time focusing on physical attributes of gentrifying neighbourhoods, i.e. the amenities, street appearance and architectural forms preferred by the middle classes (at the expense of focusing on the much more pertinent question of how those ‘attributes’ are produced – by whom, for whom and against whom).  Their literature review is notable for their peculiar lumping together of the late urban geographer Neil Smith and the New Urbanist design guru Andres Duany; as far apart as you could possibly imagine politically and analytically, yet portrayed as offering the same interpretations of different ‘waves’ of gentrification.  After a tortured statistical analysis of the urban form of five London ‘neighbourhoods’ (which are inaccurately designated on their maps), their conclusions are worth quoting at length:

In this paper we propose a study of the urban form of five urban areas in London that have successfully undertaken a process of gentrification.  …Urban gentrification is here seen as a natural and cyclical force underpinning the evolution of cities, i.e.  just the way cities work on the ground, and indeed an opportunity for policies of social equity to take place and operate, the ultimate scope of the paper is to help understanding how urban form can adapt and positively respond to it.  …In particular, we note that gentrified neighbourhoods seem to be well defined areas with major roads on the edges defining boundaries and calm streets in their cores.  This provides, on one side, a good connection to main amenities and transport systems while, on the other, a safe and pleasant urban environment with some local businesses.

They go on to argue that their findings are in line with Tim Butler’s qualitative observations of gentrification in the same London neighbourhoods, without any mention of Butler’s influential documentation of ‘social tectonics’ between different class categories in Brixton.  Then, most astonishing of all, they claim that their findings 'confirm the observations carried out by [Ruth] Glass about the typical housing densities and typologies of gentrified neighbourhoods'.

Ruth Glass, who coined the term ‘gentrification’ in 1964, was not particularly interested in housing typologies.  She coined the term  to describe a process whereby the housing opportunities of working class people were restricted whilst those of middle class ‘invaders’ were expanded.  The very impetus for her work was the injustice of displacement that gentrification caused.  Porta and his colleagues miss all this, and seem only to have focused on Glass’s brief description of the housing stock in Islington in 1964.   

It is worth noting that Porta et al are by no means alone in their belief that ‘urban form’ is a determinant of urban processes (rather than vice versa).  An entire cottage industry in support of this perspective exists among architects, urban designers, neoclassical urban economists, planning gurus and ‘sustainable’ urbanists, all of whom have a near-evangelical belief in the agency of buildings at the expense of any concern over class power, land ownership, and political structures.  An institutional apparatus has now formed to push the view that the physical appearance of neighbourhoods is the principle determinant of social life in them, spearheaded by deeply conservative organisations such as Create Streets and The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, the latter producing a report earlier this year on London’s housing crisis that enthusiastically pitched ‘solutions’ in the form of extensive ‘mid-rise’ construction just as it swept out of sight the question of why housing in the capital has become so scandalously expensive.  (I recommend that anyone disturbed by this cottage industry read a delightfully pithy book on environmental determinism in architecture by Simon Richards called Architect Knows Best.)  My own view on this ‘buildings shape social life’ paradigm is that people’s experience of urban life is determined by their ability to make a life in the neoliberal city, where immediate concerns over, among other things, making rent, feeding your family, finding childcare and a reliable network of support, are rather more important in shaping people’s daily existence and decisions than the appearance of buildings and streets around them.  In addition, a substantial body of scholarship exists to show that whilst architectural heritage and urban location/amenities matter to the middle classes, what matters most is profiting from property, or a sound financial investment in housing.  These consumer preferences and opportunities for profit have to be produced – they do not just happen naturally.  

False choice urbanism

It is not a novel observation that there are numerous agents involved in the uneven withdrawal and supply of building capital and urban ‘amenities’ across a city, e.g. policy elites, state agencies, financiers, developers, property owners.  Yet none of these agents or issues appear to matter one iota to Philip Ball, who having got in touch with Sergio Porta offered this interpretation:

Gentrification is not just ‘natural’, but also healthy for cities, Porta says: it’s a reflection of their ability to adapt, a facet of their resilience.  The alternative for areas that lack the prerequisites – for example, modernist tower blocks – which cannot acquire the magic values of housing density and frontage height – is the wrecker’s ball, like that recently taken to the notorious Heygate estate in south London.

The implication is clear – ‘notorious’ places which lack the magical ‘prerequisites’ for gentrification just get bulldozed, which is ‘healthy’ as those places are not ‘resilient’ enough to survive and this is all part of the ‘natural’ way cities change.  Together, Porta et al and Ball have fallen into the trap of what I have called false choice urbanism: it’s either gentrification (good) or disinvestment (bad), which reduces urbanisation to an ugly morality play that precludes the crucial political question of how capitalist urbanisation and uneven development creates profit and class privilege for some whilst stripping many of the human need of shelter.  Ball’s distortion of urban theory is shocking: 

Looked at this way, the researchers are studying city evolution much as biologists study natural evolution – almost as if the city itself were a natural organism.  This idea that cities obey laws beyond the reach of planning goes back to the social theorist Lewis Mumford in the 1930s, who described the growth of cities as ‘amoeboid’.

This is a mischaracterisation of the work of Mumford, a prolific historian of cities who was never part of the Chicago School of Human Ecology.  Had Ball done his homework, he would have written about a grouping of urban sociologists in the 1920s led by Robert Park who took inspiration from the natural sciences and turned their city into a huge laboratory for the investigation of human beings ‘adapting’ to their environments (or ‘natural areas’, as Park put it), deploying biological metaphors of invasion, succession, and dominance to describe how the demographics of neighbourhoods change over time.  The legacy of the Chicago School is immense, and extremely divisive – the idea that a city grows and changes naturally, and that people simply sort themselves into natural areas, has been roundly critiqued time and time again for its wilful ignorance of structural forces of power, politics, policy and privilege, and of capital and class.  Also, the claim that urbanisation is natural has proved very convenient to those who wish to defend urban policies that cause enormous upheaval and social suffering (‘It’s just the way the world works’).  But here's Ball again:

Many urban theorists now believe that city growth should be considered a kind of natural history, and be studied scientifically using the tools of complexity theory rather than being forced to conform to some planner’s idea of how growth should occur.

He doesn't mention who these urban theorists are, but complexity theory applied in this way to urban processes is nothing more than a dangerous diversion towards social Darwinism (as Porta puts it in Ball’s article, gentrification ‘is a natural force underpinning the evolution of cities’).   Complexity theory would have us believe that intended outcomes of policies are in fact ‘accidental’ systems failures in a complex world.  This, as well as Ball’s tweet that people adversely affected by gentrification do not understand it, is deeply insulting to those who are fighting for the right to stay put in the context of assaults on housing assistance, land grabbing, and the class war of austerity.  

Planetary rent gaps

It is striking that, the day after Ball’s article appeared, the Guardian’s best writer on housing and urban issues, Aditya Chakrabortty, wrote a marvelously astute piece on how speculative landed developer interests in London are having devastating consequences for people living at the bottom of the class structure in that city.  Along these lines, in a forthcoming piece I have revisited and extended Neil Smith’s theory of gentrification, the rent gap, to explore the emergence of what I call ‘planetary rent gaps’.  In its initial formulation, rent gap theory explains gentrification as the closure of the disparity between ‘capitalised ground rent’ (the actual quantity of ground rent that is appropriated by the landowner, given the present land use) and 'potential ground rent' (the maximum that could be appropriated under what economists like to call ‘highest and best use’).  But today, in the context of global financial systems and the deregulation of the entire global financial apparatus, we are seeing the creation of financial instruments designed to broaden the markets of who can bid and by how much, meaning that expectations of what can be extracted from legally-enforced rights to land have drastically increased.  Chakrabortty showed this brilliantly in reference to the sale of land upon which sits the New Era estate in Hackney, tracing the circulation of interest-bearing capital from New York to Singapore to London, where rampant speculation has resulted in eviction and homelessness.  

Rent gaps have thus become much wider, woven into causal linkages with processes at wider spatial scales.  The challenge for scholar-activists is to study planetary rent gaps in relation to how global financiers, developers, states, and local populations work together to produce the conditions for accumulation in a very uneven manner.  It seems essential to identify precisely where developers, owners and agents of capital and policy elites are stalking potential ground rent; to expose the ways in which profitable returns are justified among those actors and to the wider public; to raise legitimate and serious concerns about the fate of those not seen to be putting urban land to its ‘highest and best use’; to point to the darkly troubling downsides of reinvestment in the name of ‘urban growth’; and to reinstate the use values (rather than exchange values) of the land, streets, buildings, homes, parks and centres that constitute an urban community.

There is nothing remotely natural about gentrification, and its positives are only felt by those who profit from the loss of housing opportunities of others.  Contrary to contemporary journalistic portraits of latte-drinking white ‘hipsters’ versus working class people of colour, the class struggle in gentrification is between those at risk of displacement and the agents of capital (the financiers, the real estate brokers, policy elites, developers) who produce and exploit rent gaps.  Housing is class struggle over the rights to social reproduction – the right to make a life.  This is a class struggle playing out within the realm of the circulation of capital in urban land markets, between, on the one hand, those living in often desperate housing precarity, and on the other, finance capital and all its many tentacles.  

Fighting gentrification

A growing body of critical scholarship on gentrification teaches us about the vested interests behind the production of urban space for the affluent, and paves the way for possible courses of action to stop people from losing their homes under vested interest urbanism.  A set of lenses trained on ‘urban form’ via complexity theory, concluding that gentrification is a natural evolution, steers us away from these questions of social justice and trivialises the concerns and messages of social movements.  The implications are disturbing – it is only a short leap from saying that gentrification is a natural evolution to saying that austerity is a natural evolution, tax evasion is a natural evolution, rentier capitalism is a natural evolution.  A powerful rearguard action would be to engage with people fighting for their homes and for their places in the city, listen to their stories, their hopes and their demands, and then agitate for political change.  Cities are not natural organisms but expressions and arenas of political struggles, and the distortions of science writers and urban design scholars must not shield us from the disturbing transformations roiling stigmatised districts of unequal cities, which are always connected to strategies and skirmishes traversing circles of power.

Postscript

Philip Ball has since issued some further thoughts in reaction to some criticism he received.  None of them change my mind on the dangers of complexity theory applied to urbanisation.  Also, he says, ‘In the current case, the question is: why do some areas undergo gentrification, but not others?  I can’t begin to imagine why, regardless of how you feel about gentrification or what its socio-political causes might be, that question would not be of interest.’  That question has been addressed carefully and fascinatingly for over 40 years in an enormous body of scholarship I hope he might one day consult.

Tom Slater is Reader in Urban Geography at the University of Edinburgh, and has published extensively on the urbanisation of injustice.

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