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Bookending Gentrification

Blog

Bookending Gentrification

Matthew Dance

This will be my last blog post for the next couple of weeks while my kids are out of school for the winter break. I'll be back on 06 January 2016.

The term 'gentrification' is limited.

It is limited in that it only describes the outcome of a power imbalance that exists between those who are displaced but who already rent or own, and those who are doing the displacing.

As Smith (1982) states:

"By gentrification I mean the process by which working class residential neighborhoods are rehabilitated by middle class homebuyers, landlords and professional developers.  I make the theoretical distinction between gentrification and redevelopment. Redevelopment involves not rehabilitation of old structures but the construction of new buildings on previously developed land. (Gentrification (2008)"

As a term, gentrification is limited in the process it describes, the people who are affected and the outcomes achieved. I have called this 'Classical Gentrification' after Elise Stolte's use of the term in a comment on a previous blog post.

This classical gentrification has a number of process based theories (demographic, social, political, and economic) associated with it (please have a look at the Gentrification Wikipedia page for an overview). These are important theories that warrant a close look and contextualization to Edmonton.

But, none-the-less, the term gentrification is limited - as it should be. If the term was too broad we would not be speaking about anything specific. 

Spatially, gentrification references neighbourhoods, and not spaces that are smaller - such as blocks or specific development projects - or bigger, such as entire cities. Or spaces that straddle neighbourhoods, for instance a community that may cross a neighbourhood line.

Temporally, gentrification pre-supposes that developments (houses, apartments, etc) are already built and occupied, and as such ignores those spaces that are undeveloped. Even the term 'development' is problematic. Who is determining that an area is not developed, or is under-developed?

Gentrification is focussed on physical places and mostly ignores a range of non-physical attributes that may be associated with a place. Sure, more recent conversation of gentrification does include the dissolution of social structures that occur when people are displaced (please have a look at the article about Regent Park in Toronto). But gentrification does not address the non-physical attachment to a place that can be reflected in place names or historical uses / buildings.

Finally, our conversation around gentrification does not adequately address the displacement of people who are not owners or renters, but who still use a place. For instance, the development of the Quarters area of Edmonton is not impacting housing, and those that own or rent. But the development of those parking lots in the Quarters is shifting an outdoor social space used by homeless people, or those dwelling nearby. Our conversation doesn't include how the homeless or the inner city poor are impacted.

An image of an orthophoto being annotated by inner-city residents on how they use outdoor downtown spaces. 

An image of an orthophoto being annotated by inner-city residents on how they use outdoor downtown spaces. 

While the range of concerns raised above are not gentrification, they are all related through power. The decision makers - for instance City Administration and Urban Developers - are not negatively affected by the decisions enacted in the downtown core, and are the ones who benefit financially from the development. 

I propose that in addition to gentrification, we have a continuum that describes urban displacement from the view of power and that describes who the decision makers are, and the ways in which they benefit. And on the flip side, we should do a better job at describing those who are impacted, and the ways in which they are impacted.

We are a city that is in a process of reconciliation with FNMI peoples. Very often it is those FNMI who are negatively impacted by development decisions. We can do better.

Saskia Sassen wrote in a recent Guardian Article that:

Cities are the spaces where those without power get to make a history and a culture, thereby making their powerlessness complex.

We need to ensure that we protect those voices, that those without power are the first to be considered in urban development. Furthermore, we must not only protect everyone's history and culture, we must start to unearth those histories buried under Edmonton.