Monday, March 3, 2008

Gentrification: A Misunderstood Phenomenon?

By Jillian Olinger, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

With any neighborhood redevelopment proposal, a rallying cry spreads out against the evils of gentrification. Fear seems to run rampant among the residents. While historically redevelopment projects through federal programs such as urban renewal have really amounted to “Negro removal” under the guise of ‘good faith’ policies, gentrification is not entirely part of these types of policies.

In the larger society, and even at the planning level, the term gentrification has come to take on an automatic negative connotation, largely due to perceptions (or misperceptions) of displacement and an inequitable process. In reality, and far less explored or understood, gentrification is a more nuanced process, and relies heavily upon the context of individual neighborhoods. As in most aspects of planning and neighborhood redevelopment, there is no “one size fits all.”

Lance Freeman’s There Goes the 'Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up, present recent studies that support that there can be benefits associated with gentrification for certain areas from residents’ viewpoints. Such benefits include wealth generation in areas of sustained disinvestment, the mixing of socioeconomic classes, and so forth. His studies also point to the lack of substantive research on the extent of actual displacement of residents. In fact, it seems that the issue is more accurately described as one of fear of displacement, as opposed to actual displacement.

The ambiguous evidence to date on the real impact of gentrification for indigenous residents suggests a role for policy. However, with increasing interest in inner city living, not in the least fueled by the unsustainability of suburban living, the issue is especially relevant. While market forces tend to alter every neighborhood’s desirability in cycles, with the most affluent occupying the choicest land, the drive for equitable, and presumably stable, housing and neighborhoods for all would implicate the need, as Freeman suggests, for oversight or policy control over the process of gentrification. The frame within which this policy operates, however, does not necessarily have to take the stance that the gentrification process is itself inherently evil. Rather, with identifiable benefits accrued to residents from this very process, the objective should focus on the opportunities afforded by gentrification, and aim to secure and maintain these opportunities. The model can be both efficient (economically) and equitable.

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