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Gentrification in Edmonton

Matthew Dance

Canada Place was built between 1985 - '88 and displaced a portion of Edmonton's original Chinatown. 

Canada Place was built between 1985 - '88 and displaced a portion of Edmonton's original Chinatown. 

I want to talk about gentrification within Edmonton, and I'm not sure the best way to do that other than to write a bunch of blog posts on what I've been thinking. Please provide comments here and/or on Twitter (@mattdance). Disclaimer: I have a bunch of privilege being white, male and wealthy. I do not intend to speak for anyone but myself, and I hope to start a respectful conversation about what development means in Edmonton, and how development impacts those with the least amount of power in our society. 

Gentrification, WTF?

Gentrification was first termed in 1964 by Ruth Glass in her description of how Urban Gentry 'emerged' or occupied some London neighborhoods, displacing the working class occupants (from 'Gentrification' (2008) by Lees, Slater, and Wyly). 

Neil Smith (1982) said:

"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)"

Both authors define gentrification within the geographic scope of a neighbourhood. But, gentrification can be spatially more encompassing - rather than limit the displacement of people from discrete neighborhoods, gentrification can be used to describe a class based displacement of people from any spatial scale - from smaller spatial units such as low-rise walkups, right though to districts and entire cities (or other areas of similar scale).

Gentrification can be defined broadly as the displacement of people, from their place (land, block, whatever) by others who are more wealthy and/or powerful. It is important to note that the words 'displacement', 'neighborhoods', 'movement', 'shift' and many others found in the gentrification literature (academic and promotional) are code for the dissolution of a social structure. Gentrification is about rending communities of poor people apart to the benefit of the rich. 

Here are two examples or research that frame the questions of gentrification within Edmonton.

  1. In their paper Revanchism in the Canadian West: Gentrification and Resettlement in a Prairie City (2007) the authors argue that the process of revitalizing the downtown east side of Edmonton, roughly equivalent to the what we now call The Quarters, (The City of Edmonton The Quarters planning document can be found here [PDF]) points to not just gentrification, but aggressive vindictive gentrification. The authors participated in the City of Edmonton public 'visioning' process and evaluated the support documents.
  2. In contrast, research conducted at the University of Alberta (the poster can be found here) used demographic data to document population change in a number of downtown neighborhoods indicated that despite significant investment, gentrification has not been an issue in downtown Edmonton's growth.
From The City of Edmonton's 'The Quarters Downtown: Urban Design Plan'. A detail of Figure 2-4: Existing Land USe.

From The City of Edmonton's 'The Quarters Downtown: Urban Design Plan'. A detail of Figure 2-4: Existing Land USe.

The two examples highlight different conclusions based, in part, on different but equally valid approaches to researching similar questions.  Example 1 used an activist research qualitative approach by participating in a public process and critiquing that process, including support documents and how discussions were framed at public meetings. Example 2 opted to use a quantitive approach by securing demographic data to capture population and income shifts. These data were used to build a 'gentrification' model within a GIS. 

Questions of gentrification are important as they highlight power shifts at a variety of spatial scales; from small public spaces to neighborhoods and cities. As urban land use changes (the development and naming of 'Ice District', The Quarters, infill housing) those without a voice can haver their communities dismantled, impacting individuals by putting them out of home, and requiring them to move from their social networks and communities of support. It is not just the questions that are important, but also but how we frame and attempt answer them.

In the coming weeks I hope to explore these issues within Edmonton by using concrete examples coupled with some research and theory. If you have any comments please let me know.