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The issue of gentrification

Gentrification is a key contradiction of heritage policy.

The term gentrification has been used to describe the settlement of upper and middle class households in working class neighbourhoods. This process is often associated with the transition in housing tenure from renting to ownership. The rehabilitation of cities’ built heritage is often accused of contributing to the process of gentrification.

First of all, where does this notion come from? Gentrification is a process arising from the 1960s in Western European and American cities along with disinvestment or deindustrialisation of certain neighbourhoods. The term gentrification was coined by a British sociologist, Ruth Glass, as part of a study on the city of London:

“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 social character of the district is changed (Glass 1964, xix)”.

While this process enabled the renovation of old mews and cottages in inner London, Ruth Glass remains critical with regards to the changes it causes to the existing urban fabric. The intangible heritage that lies in the customs, habits, and everyday life of these neighbourhoods’ inhabitants may be at risk while built heritage is conserved.

The definition of gentrification has evolved. In the 1980s, the term was mostly related to a process of rehabilitation of 18th and 19th century inner neighbourhoods as well as the conversion of former factories and warehouses into lofts and apartments. Later on, at the turn of the 21st century, it expanded to include redevelopment projects in central areas. It also extended to the analysis of the changes in modes of consumption in inner neighbourhoods.

Nevertheless, a distinction is generally made between two types of dynamics. On the one hand, top-down logics of redevelopment of central areas that lead to (and sometimes aim at) the eviction of local populations. This kind of process has been described in the case of Shanghai:

“The regeneration of the Xintiandi district, located in the city centre, is one of the most prominent cases of gentrification in the city. In this district composed of nineteenth-century shikumen, a large-scale project conducted by a development company displaced approximately 3,500 households. The area has now become one of the city’s major tourist attractions, serving as a pedestrian ‘lifestyle’ centre, with a series of high-end cafeterias, restaurants and upper-class housing.”
UNESCO report on Culture and Sustainable Urban Development, p.100
By contrast, gentrification can result from an organic process involving local communities and businesses that enables, according to the UNESCO report, conserving the character of another area of Shanghai:
“The regeneration of Tianzifang area, in contrast, stands as a case of urban conservation and regeneration where gentrification was successfully addressed. This neighbourhood, located within the Xintiandi district, comprises a web of narrow alleyways and 1930s shikumen housing. In 2006, the area was scheduled for demolition to accommodate a redevelopment project. However, opposition from local communities, business owners and a renowned artist persuaded the authorities to preserve the neighbourhood.”

UNESCO report on Culture and Sustainable Urban Development, p.100

Thus gentrification is not necessarily a planned process. But even when it is not planned, this does not mean that policies cannot play an indirect role. The construction of a new train station or a new cultural centre, the improvement of urban services, the creation of touristic trails, can all contribute to gentrification.

As Kate Shaw argues “preservation of heritage can be used as a deliberate gentrification strategy, of course, with the ‘cultural sensibilities’ of the middle class pointedly distinguishing between past and future users” (Shaw, 2008 p.1700). Gentrification represents, therefore, a key tension in heritage policy. Different visions of what heritage should be for compete: those who argue that heritage should be preserved to accelerate urban regeneration and attract tourists and those who defend the position that cultural heritage should mostly carry social and educational objectives. It is also a subject of tension between the advocates of the rehabilitation of built heritage and those who are also devoted to safeguarding intangible heritage.

Some policies have been trying to challenge this issue. The establishment of social housing within gentrifying neighbourhood appears as a first potential solution. Social housing can be either in new building or in rehabilitated buildings. It targets lower income groups and provides them with affordable rents. A second possibility is the regulation of rents in order to prevent lower income households from being evicted because of the rise of real estate values.

Share your own experience:

Have you witnessed gentrification in a city where you have lived or been to?

What is your opinion on the impact it has on the city’s heritage?


GLASS, R. (1964) Introduction: aspects of change, in: CENTRE FOR URBAN STUDIES (Ed.) Aspects of Change, pp. xiii–xlii. London: MacGibbon and Kee

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Cultural Heritage and the City

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