Gentrification: Friend or Foe
Gentrification as a term has been around since 1964, when it was applied to a trend that saw middle-class people displacing lower-class workers in parts of London. Although the idea dates back to ancient Rome. Today it’s a common factor in many major cities worldwide and many Australian suburbs reflect the trend. In Sydney think of Paddington, Balmain and Surry Hills, or Brisbane’s West End and St Kilda in Melbourne, even some suburbs in a city as new as Canberra see the trend, and there are lots more.
It’s a trend that we’re all familiar with, but it’s a trend that divides opinions with different sides of the argument both for and against are becoming more vocal as inner-city suburbs have become much more popular and usually more expensive.
Like many issues, the question of affordability arises when discussing the merits or disadvantages of gentrification. It’s a trend that in part reverses the demographic movement of population away from the centre of cities that was so apparent since the 1950’s. It was a trend inspired by car ownership and a desire to have large blocks of land.
Then inner-city suburbs were seen as crowded and they were frowned upon, by all but the poorer working classes and immigrants. Today the trend is very different.
Inner-city suburbs have become very popular and are experiencing rapid population growth, these areas are in demand and as a result prices have risen sharply.
The process of gentrification has seen entire areas re-generated and the housing stock has been altered and renovated from ‘workers-accommodation’ into highly sought-after homes or as sites for modern high-end apartments and this is where the dividing line starts to become apparent.
Gentrification also impacts the supply and type of rental accommodation available in an area, often removing ‘cheap’ accommodation from the market. But this is not a simple equation, as the original accommodation can often be sub-standard, for example run-down boarding houses.
In some cities build-to-rent projects have been included as part of the planning, and that helps to retain an area’s diversity. There are good examples of this approach in Berlin and Manchester, locally we are yet to fully embrace that idea. Although the German rental market is very different from ours or that of the United Kingdom, with a greater emphasis on longer-term leases and much less reliance on the private rental market.
Diversity or Disruption
The pattern is familiar and continues today. Former residents sell and move out and new buyers come into an area, gut and renovated properties investing a great deal of money and so further fueling costs and demand, as supply is always limited.
We know that it’s not possible to expand a historic suburb like Sydney’s Paddington and in Balmain almost all former industrial sites have been transformed into high-value housing and frequently those sites have been on the harbour because of former maritime transport links.
Balmain was once even home to a coal mine but no longer, and so, as areas change and become more desirable gentrification is almost a natural cycle and many would suggest a positive trend.
However, some critics tend to suggest that the suburbs are somehow turned from communities and homes into ‘financial assets’, that are somehow sanitized and even dull. But I suggest that’s an unfair judgement, most of the suburbs mentioned here are dynamic attractive areas with a mix of population from singles to families and extended families across several generations are not uncommon.
There are also examples of large areas of gentrification that have involved the transformation of both former residential areas and industrial areas into dynamic new neighbourhoods. One key aspect of this trend has been the impact of mixed-use projects, and again that’s a formula repeated in many cities.
Technology is today playing a role as it did when cars became more wide-spread after WWII. Today’s technology is changing the character of the workforce and so more people are looking to live closer to the main CBD employment centres and access to public transport is key.
However, these trends do produce pressure points, and in Sydney we’ve seen the demand for more inner-city schools sky-rocket and the State Government is having to play catch-up.
History tends to demonstrate that gentrification is a natural process that helps keep cities as dynamic interesting places.
Many suburbs in our cities and internationally have been experiencing gentrification for several decades, it’s not a new trend. Many of these neighbourhoods are now some of the nicest places to live in the various locations and they are in high demand.
It’s over simplistic to suggest that all the original residents of areas that have become gentrified had to move out. While some did, and were happy to secure a capital gain on their property, others have stayed. Those residents and their new neighbours are attracted to the changed environment, while many of the areas original features have been retained.
In other locations, industrial facilities have given way to bright new developments that capitalise on their inner urban locations. With careful planning gentrified neighbourhoods become popular and attractive communities.
While gentrification may always be seen as a double-edged sword, it can save run-down neighbourhoods, introduce new and diverse housing options, bring new services to an area along with employment, new open space, cafes, restaurants and shops.
Run-down urban areas, once blighted by unsavoury reputations, are transformed by innovation and planning into desirable areas with the co-operation of the community, governments and developers.