What We Really Mean When We Say Gentrification

The focus on gentrifying communities has, in many cases, eclipsed the similar problems facing more stagnant neighborhoods.

Read Time: 2 minutes

September 14, 2021, 5:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Gentrification

J / Flickr

What is gentrification? Jerusalem Demsas attempts to define this slippery term, whose use has steadily grown since the 1990s, and assess what people really mean when they use it. Coined in 1964 by sociologist Ruth Glass "to describe the process of 'middle class liberal arts intelligentsia' moving into her primarily working-class London neighborhood," gentrification has, in the eyes of most Americans, come to signify the displacement and other negative impacts of redevelopment and neighborhood change. The Urban Displacement Project defines gentrification as "a process of neighborhood change that includes economic change in a historically disinvested neighborhood — by means of real estate investment and new higher-income residents moving in — as well as demographic change — not only in terms of income level, but also in terms of changes in the education level or racial make-up of residents." Planetizen defines gentrification similarly, as "a process of neighborhood change, usually resulting from an influx of relatively wealthy, white residents to a neighborhood."

But this focus, argues Demsas, obscures the fact that "the core rot in American cities is not the gentrifying neighborhoods: It is exclusion, segregation, and concentrated poverty." As activists focus on the changes happening in working-class neighborhoods, "[w]hite, wealthy neighborhoods that have refused class and racial integration have successfully avoided much scrutiny," says Demsas. "While stagnant, segregated neighborhoods are an accepted backdrop of American life, fast-changing, diverse neighborhoods and the culture clash that accompanies gentrification are the battlefield where all the disagreements come to the forefront."

All of the problems people worry about when they invoke gentrification — displacement, police action against people of color, lack of investment, predatory landlords — are also present in segregated neighborhoods, often even more so.

Demsas concludes, "it becomes clear why we focus on gentrification while the unseen culprits (segregated enclaves) are able to avoid controversy: Gentrification is the most visual manifestation of inequality in urban life." But displacement and disinvestment harm non-gentrifying communities at similar–or even higher–rates, suggesting a need to broaden the lens through which activists and policymakers view urban poverty.

Sunday, September 5, 2021 in Vox

Books

The Top Urban Planning Books of 2022

An annual list of the must-read books related to urban planning and its intersecting fields.

November 28, 2022 - James Brasuell

Urban separated bike lane with street trees on one side and cars parked on the other

How Urban Trees Save Lives

New research shows a strong connection between a healthy urban tree canopy and lowered mortality rates.

December 1, 2022 - Congress For New Urbanism

Houston, Construction

How To End Homelessness: The Houston Model

While the numbers of unhoused people in other major U.S. cities grow, Houston has managed to effectively end veteran homelessness and house more than 26,000 people since implementing a ‘Housing First’ approach a decade ago.

December 1, 2022 - Smart Cities Dive

Old church and modern glass building in downtown Boston, Massachusetts

How One Massachusetts Governor Rejected Car-Oriented Development

Fifty years ago, Governor Francis W. Sargent nixed a proposed expressway and set in motion a transportation future for Boston that would be remarkably different from many other U.S. cities.

27 minutes ago - The Boston Globe

Man walking away past glass elevator in brightly lit New York City subway station corridor

New York MTA Releases Plan for Improved Accessibility

The MTA announced plans for new or improved elevators at almost two dozen stations as part of its pledge to make more of its stations fully accessible.

1 hour ago - The Architect's Newspaper

Rendering of Juneteenth Museum

The Best, Worst, and Most Questionable in 2022 Architecture and Design

A list of innovative projects, intriguing design, and flummoxing failures.

December 6 - Medium

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.