An urban geographer’s journey through the changing landscape of gentrification

Writer, urban geographer and guest blogger Loretta Lees has been researching gentrification on and off now for 27 years. Her interest was triggered as an undergraduate student by a tour of the gentrifying Lower East Side in New York City. In her post Loretta guides us through the journey that has led her to research and publish numerous books and papers on the subject…

Loretta picturesAs an undergraduate student in the summer of 1988 I took a tour of the gentrifying Lower East Side in New York City given by the late Marxist geographer Neil Smith. There was community division about the recently introduced 1am curfew on the previously 24 hour access to Tompkins Square Park and the tension was palpable. A couple of days later the Tompkins Square Park anti-gentrification riots exploded, largely attributed to the heavy-handed actions of the NYPD.

NYC

The Lower East Side about to gentrify (photo: Loretta Lees, 1988)

Since then the gentrification process has mutated almost beyond recognition. Much of the gentrification we see these days is not the classic type where old houses are refurbished but rather new-build gentrification on brownfield or cleared sites. Gentrification is rarely small-scale and individually-led now, it is large scale and state-led. The social cleansing of Tompkins Square Park, that led to the riots, already demonstrated to me back then the increasing support the state was giving to gentrification.

Comparative urbanism

My expertise is in British and North American cities but I have shifted over the past 5 years to look in more depth at other European cities and processes of urbanization in the Global South and East. A longstanding interest in comparative urbanism and a desire to learn more about gentrification outside the Global North informed my collaboration with Hyun Shin, Ernesto Lopez and the late sociologist Hilda Herzer (University of Buenos Aires).

Huan Bang Shin, LSE

Huan Bang Shin, LSE

Working together we ran two linked seminars, one in London and one in Santiago in Chile. We asked questions like: Has gentrification really gone global? Is gentrification in the global south and east a new phenomenon or can it be regarded as part of a historical continuity of urban segregation and class-led urban reconfiguration? Should we call it gentrification at all? How does a gentrification blueprint anticipate the geographical and historical specificity of places? How do gentrification policies emerge in different countries? How does gentrification play out differently in the predominantly non-white cities of the Global South and East?

Ernesto Lopez, University of Chile

Ernesto Lopez, University of Chile

Drawing on conversations with folk writing about gentrification in the Global South and East, and from international reviews of pre-existing and emerging gentrification literatures we set out to answer such questions by giving voice to academics not usually consulted. What was required of us was no mean feat: a comparative imagination that could respond to the post-colonial challenge of unpicking the ‘Northern theoretical’ reference points on gentrification. And this will have implications for how gentrification is conceived and how research is conducted. It means paying attention to issues of developmentalism, universalism and categorisation. The way we did this was to use a relational comparative approach that, as Ananya Roy suggests, uses one site to pose questions of another.

Going Glocal

But, even though my interests went global, my concerns about gentrification also remained local. For a while I went Glocal! As someone who had lived in council properties at various stages of her life across the UK, and whose father was an architect who designed council houses, I became concerned about the gentrification of council estates. Although there are cases elsewhere in the UK, the gentrification of council estates has been especially prolific in London, where I live.

London

The Heygate Estate, London, socially cleansed (Photo: Loretta Lees, 2013)

Wanting to do something about this I teamed up with JustSpace, the London Tenants Federation and Southwark Notes Archive Group and together we worked on a project titled ‘Challenging ”the New Urban Renewal”: gathering the tools necessary to halt the social cleansing of council estates and developing community-led alternatives for sustaining existing communities’. After research into displacement on five council estates in inner London and workshops with tenants and others to identify alternatives to this ‘regeneration’ we successfully launched our handbook Staying Put. The handbook explains how the ‘regeneration’ of council estates is often  ‘gentrification’ and seeks to help tenants not just to recognise this but to fight it too. I’m really proud of the fact that the handbook has been adopted in a number of Swedish cities confronting the same issues.

I am currently extending this work in a new project titled ‘AGAPE: Exploring anti-gentrification practices and policies in Southern European Cities’. I am working with an Italian urban scholar, Sandra Annunziata, on the ways in which anti-gentrification practices have fed through to anti-gentrification policies in Rome, Madrid and Athens. The interface between gentrification studies and socially-just urban policy remains a tough nut to crack, but we must continue to try.

You may like to follow Loretta on twitter @LorettaCLees or get in touch with her via email.

Global gentrifications [FC]Global Gentrifications: Uneven development and displacement which details the results of the research conducted by Loretta Lees, Hyun Bang Shin and Ernesto López-Morales can be purchased at a 20% discount from the Policy Press website – here

See other Policy Press books by Loretta Lees

Sustainable London?: the future of a global city, Policy Press, edited by Rob Imrie and Loretta Lees, 2014.

Mixed Communities: gentrification by stealth?, Policy Press, edited by Gary Bridge, Tim Butler and Loretta Lees, 2011.

You may also be interested in other titles on gentrification by Loretta Lees

Planetary Gentrification, by Loretta Lees, Hyun Shin and Ernesto Lopez-Morales, forthcoming Polity Press, Cambridge.

The London Tenants Federation, Lees,L, Just Space and Southwark Notes Archive Group (2014) Staying Put: An Anti-Gentrification Handbook for Council Estates in London 

Loretta co-organises: The Urban Salon: A London forum for architecture, cities and international urbanism

Listen to Loretta’s TEDxBrixton talk on Gentrification and a podcast of her talk on Ruth Glass at the 50th Anniversary of the coining of the term ‘gentrification’.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

1 Response to “An urban geographer’s journey through the changing landscape of gentrification”



  1. 1 Planetary Gentrification | IUD blog Trackback on March 13, 2016 at 8:03 pm

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