Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Is Gentrification?

4 minute read

Gentrification is a process of neighborhood change, usually resulting from an influx of relatively wealthy, white residents to a neighborhood. But that definition, and the controversies that follow, vary greatly by location, and there is no universally accepted definition of the term.


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The term gentrification describes the social, cultural, and economic changes that occur when large numbers of relatively wealthy residents move into neighborhoods. Gentrification is an immensely political term. The meaning of the term can vary greatly depending on context, like in the most commonly discussed U.S. example—when relatively wealthy, white residents move into neighborhoods previously populated by lower-income individuals and communities of color. Being able to identify how and why the definition of gentrification changes is critical to understanding one of the most consequential and controversial topics of contemporary planning discourse. 

Sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term gentrification in the introduction of a collection of essays called London: Aspects of Change, edited and published in 1964 by the Centre for Urban Studies. Here’s how Glass described gentrification in this first use of the term:

One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle-classes—upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages—two rooms up and two down—have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences .... Once this process of 'gentrification' starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.

Since Glass first used the term, gentrification has become a central figure in the study of cities. The term is found as readily in the headlines of mainstream media as it is in social media and the messaging of grassroots activism. Since 1964, gentrification has also evolved to fit the specific demographic and design dynamics in neighborhoods all over the world. 

The spread of the term gentrification has picked up speed in recent decades, as numerous Americans have emigrated to the city, reversing the trend of White Flight to the suburbs that defined the second half of the 20th century. Gentrification dominates the policy discussion as demand for homes in urban areas previously populated by lower-income individuals and communities of color has risen. Hence, the use of the term frequently implies a few specific consequences—namely a lack of affordable housing resulting in the displacement of the individuals and culture that previously inhabited the neighborhood. 

The debate about whether new housing investment causes gentrification, or whether a lack of new development causes gentrification, is the source of a major schism in progressive housing and planning policy circles. It’s safe to say that in many casual or political discussions, the conflation of the word gentrification with the term displacement is implied. In more academic or scientific discussions it’s important to maintain the distinction between cause and effect.

Intrepid academics and data-oriented journalists have sought to define gentrification with specific, quantifiable metrics. Measuring gentrification with specific metrics is subject to extra scrutiny for biases and conflicts of interest—seemingly small choices about how to measure gentrification can have a huge consequence for the findings of the effort. So, depending on the variables in play, gentrification can be presented as nonexistent, small obstacle, or a national crisis. The case has also been made that gentrification is good for neighborhoods.

To choose a famous example of the criticisms that can arise in response to the act of defining gentrification with specific, quantifiable metrics, Governing created a special report on the subject of gentrification in 2015. The specific metric the publication used to define and measure gentrification proved controversial to say the least. 

A consideration of race is essential to an understanding of gentrification, although gentrification can certainly be found in low-income white neighborhoods as well and many definitions of the term to be found online will avoid the subject of race altogether. While gentrification is generally perceived as a threat to the cultural identity and economic stability of people of color, that assumption is quickly complicated by real world examples. A study of the city of Chicago, for example, found evidence that gentrification is more likely in neighborhoods with a significant population of white residents. But, other studies have shown that issues of race are too frequently elided from the discussion about gentrification given how frequently the consequences of gentrification fall on the shoulders of people and communities of color.    

Contradictory evidence and intensely passionate politics can make it difficult to choose a side on questions about the causes and effects of gentrifications, but political battles are won and lost depending on opinions on either side of the ongoing debates about the role of these factors in cities.

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