‘The deep association that people have for place constitutes a vital source of both individual and cultural identity and security and acts as a point from which humans can orientate themselves in the world.”
(Relph, E., 1981, The Modern Urban Landscape, p.27)
Urbanisation. Historically the product of the industrial revolution and the associated mass in-migration of the “working classes,” today we are facing the re-urbanisation of our cities and all its impacts – positive and negative.
Among urban sustainability professionals, the benefits of urban living in our comparatively wealthy western world need little explanation. Walkable neighbourhoods; reduced car dependency; higher density living and smaller homes, with their associated reduced ecological footprint; opportunities for increased localised social interaction facilitated by communal rather than private open spaces.
Our cities are places of vitality, dynamism, creativity, diversity.
Diversity. It is this word that leads us to reflect on the issue of gentrification and its impacts, currently so heavily debated in cities like Sydney.
Just last week the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article highlighting the pace of gentrification in Sydney’s inner suburbs. The local government areas of Marrickville and Randwick were the most rapidly gentrified areas of Sydney during the decade to 2006.
The article arose from the publication of a new report on gentrification by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, Gentrification and Displacement: The Household Impacts of Neighbourhood Change.
The report seeks to quantify the pace of gentrification in Sydney and Melbourne through analysing socio-demographic change characteristics recorded through the Census. These include the growth in the proportion of managers and professionals, high-income households, high-income renters, and people with a bachelor degree or higher. It also looked, conversely, at the decline or negligible growth in low income households and low income private renters. There is little doubt that this year’s Census will reveal more of the same, probably amplified.
As a resident of Newtown (in the LGA to which the report refers), and as an urban planner who wrote my dissertation on the gentrification of this very suburb in 1998, I have a particular interest in this report. My thesis was inspired by the genuine concern that the cultural melting pot that Newtown represented would soon be erased by the pace of gentrification that was gathering back then. That the socio-spiritual meanings woven into its physical fabric would be lost forever.
On my return from a decade living in London, in 2008, I was relieved to see that the Newtown I had loved was fighting on; its culture had not been erased.
So what exactly is the problem of gentrification? The AHURI report highlights issues such as rapidly increasing rents and house prices, associated increased overcrowding in shared houses, and the forced displacement of the neighbourhood’s historic communities – the Greek-Cypriots and Maltese (their children also unable to afford to live in the locality), the “blue collar” families, and more recent populations of low income earning creatives – actors, artists, writers.
The report states: “Those who had been evicted were often deeply angry at their enforced move. Those struggling to stay found themselves impoverished by hikes in their rents, but also feeling no longer at ease in [their] neighbourhoods.”
Over the past two years I have watched the very personal effects of this trend in Newtown. A case in point is the family down the road: the mother who had grown up in the terrace and spent her whole life there, brought up her children in the home and nursed her elderly, terminally ill mother there. The house was recently sold from under the family’s feet by the absentee brother who inherited it. Unable to afford a home in the neighbourhood or any nearby, the family were homeless as of a week prior to their forced departure to make way for the professional couple moving in. I have no idea where they are now. The AHURI report features interviews with 30 residents who express their “significant sense of loss” at being displaced. This family’s sense of loss and disempowerment was palpable.
One of the interesting issues associated with gentrification is that the gentrifiers often do not perceive themselves as such. They identify rather with the edgy creatives, the students and the other socio-cultural groups whom they are effectively outsting. They bemoan the impacts of the very trend of which they are a part.
Urban neighbourhoods look set to continue to be subject to these unstoppable economic forces. Yet there are ways in which the socio-cultural qualities of rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods – and, indeed, their residents – can be protected through policy mechanisms. These may include mandatory affordable housing provision in new developments, the protection of facilities such as low cost artists’ studios, and rent controls, as have been successfully enacted in New York City and other US cities for many years.
Urban and social planning policies will not slow the pace of gentrification. Indeed they more often than not encourage and facilitate it. Gentrification certainly brings benefits – revitalised retail areas, restored and protected historic buildings, infrastructure improvements which become viable due to the increased prosperity of a locality.
But good urban and social planning should also seek to mitigate gentrification’s adverse impacts. This needs to be a strong focus of government policy in Sydney’s inner suburbs, to ensure the social and economic balance sheet is carefully weighted.
This is not about social engineering. It is about ethical urban planning underpinned by principles such as the protection of equality and diversity. It is about recognising the cultural meanings embedded in our urban fabric. As Cresswell states (1996, In Place/ Out of Place: Geography, Ideology and Transgression, pp.8-9):”Value and meaning are not inherited in any space or place. Indeed they must be created, reproduced, and defended.”