What is Gentrification?
Gentrification is a word coined by the sociologist Ruth Glass in the 1960s to describe the transformation of predominantly poor or working-class neighborhoods into places populated by wealthier and higher-status people. The concept has been extensively studied and applied since then. The definition of the term remains a source of controversy and miscommunication.
Academics often define gentrification in quantitative, demographic terms—a change in the characteristics of a neighborhood’s residents like race, income, or level of education. Note that this does not imply anything about development: a neighborhood can transform in this way when a lot of buildings are being built or replaced, or when there is almost no physical change occurring. The demographic definition also does not account for the presence or loss of businesses and services focused on the needs of a particular low-income or ethnic community.
Although they are related, gentrification is not the same thing as displacement. People can be displaced from their homes (via eviction, foreclosure, or rent increases) in a gentrifying neighborhood, but there is also evidence that many forms of involuntary displacement occur as often or more often in declining neighborhoods than in gentrifying ones. Furthermore, it is possible for a neighborhood to gentrify without directly displacing existing residents, by adding population and through resident turnover over time.
Gentrification and the Strong Towns Approach
The Strong Towns approach recognizes that neighborhoods naturally change and evolve over time, and must be allowed to do so, or our cities will become economically fragile and financially unproductive. However, when those changes happen in a rapid, transformative fashion it can be profoundly disruptive of communities and their complex webs of social and economic relationships.
This disruption is intensified by the prevailing approach to development in cities today, which tends to follow a “trickle or fire hose” pattern in which a small minority of neighborhoods bear the brunt of almost all new development, while many more neighborhoods experience decades of near-stasis. The flow of what Jane Jacobs called “cataclysmic money” to certain neighborhoods in the form of large-scale redevelopment efforts is a primary driver of gentrification.
Strong Towns advocates can combat this by working for a development approach that lowers the bar to incremental development by many hands. Neighborhood change should occur through many small efforts instead of a few large ones, and no neighborhood should be allowed to exempt itself completely from change (through zoning or other exclusionary means). A Strong Towns approach will mean that change is more steady and responsive to bottom-up feedback, and will thus open new opportunities for those who already live in a neighborhood to play a greater role in shaping its future.