If everything is gentrification then what is gentrification?

"Don't worry, it's only gentrification"

by Ares Kalandides

I have wondered for quite some time why I feel such discomfort with the extensive use of the term gentrification. Until some time in the  early 200o’s it was a term mostly used by academics before it somehow took the leap and landed in public. Of course its use has never been straightforward. Ever since the 1960’s when the word was coined by Ruth Glass, it has been used to denote quite different things. The common understanding though, was that it refered to social change where a group of higher social status (or class) displaces a group of a lower one, mostly (but not only) as a result of regeneration processes in inner-city residential neighbourhoods.  After that things get more complicated. There are humanist and Marxist approaches that try to interpret the phenomenon, the former insisting more on the demand (the choices of gentrifiers) and the latter mostly on the supply side (cycles of disinvestment and reinvestment). Occasionally it would be applied on rural or brownfield areas, but that was rather the exception that the rule.

Today I observe two main semantic transformations of the term:

The first is to use it as a synonym for upgrading, thus obscuring the issue of displacement, which is central to the argument. But gentrification is not just a fancier word for regeneration or upgrading: it always includes displacement and the production of losers and winners. If you want to say upgrading, say upgrading.

The second transformation (which was the reason I am writing this short comment) becomes evident in the following quote by Prof. Neil Smith in an article in the New York Times we only blogged some days ago:

“The big perspective is that gentrification has changed tremendously since the ’70s and ’80s, […] It’s no longer just about housing. It’s really a systematic class-remaking of city neighborhoods. It’s driven by many of the same forces, especially the profitable use of land. But it’s about creating entire environments: employment, recreation, environmental conditions. […] Gentrification today has become all about attracting capital to the city, not least from tourism…”

This is a position he has been developing in the past 10 years and which he has presented at different occasions (1) (2). I do not disagree with Prof. Smith. I think that, at least in north-western Europe we are experiencing an accelerated neoliberal restructuring of cities in many ways: stronger social segregation, privatisation of public land and amenities etc. Probably many would include the commodification of places through place marketing in the list. Once again, I do not necessarily disagree.

But then, why call it gentrification? Why not call it exactly what it is: the neoliberal restructuring of urban space? David Harvey has written about it extensively since the late 1980’s (3) without reducing the phenomenon to gentrification.

I know that terms are always going to remain contested, but I do not think that it is enough to state how we use them before we do: words have their archeology, they carry with them a heavy burden of denotations and connotations. And most important, the use of words has consequences. We need to be clear about how we use them, not only as an intellectual exercise, but because we need to be conscious of their implications.


(1) Smith, N. (2003) “Generalizing Gentrification”, in Bidou-Zachariasen, C. Hiernaux-Nicolas, D., Rivière d’Arc, H. (eds.), Retours en ville; des processus de “gentrification” urbaine aux politiques de “revitalisation” des centres, Paris: Descartes & Cie.

(2) Smith, N. (2006), “Gentrification Generalized: From Local Anomaly to Urban ‘Regeneration’ as Global Urban Strategy”, in Fisher, M. and Downey, G. (eds.), Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

(3) Harvey, D. (1989), “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism”, in Geografiska Annaler, Series B, Human Geography, Vol. 71, No. 1, pp. 3-17.

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