Opinion

Why Gentrification Isn't Always Bad For London

By Londonist Last edited 13 months ago
Why Gentrification Isn't Always Bad For London

Centre for London research manager Kat Hanna takes a closer look at why gentrifying parts of London isn't always as awful as popular culture would have us believe.

Photo by Sean Batten in the Londonist

Gentrification is a bad word in London. No-one likes to identify themselves as the gentrifier.

This is little surprise, when gentrifiers are portrayed as smug middle-class millennials, who will not rest until each warehouse has been converted, each caff replaced with an artisan coffee shop, and the neighbourhood population looks about as diverse as an episode of Borgen.

When it comes to talking about gentrification, discussion drifts into that most British of conversation styles, littered with apologies, and embarrassed references to house prices. Very few are willing to admit the benefits that gentrification may bring, but there are some:

A caffeine-fuelled local daytime economy

The majority of young Londoners simply want a place where they can afford to live. Being able to get a decent cup of coffee is a bonus. Young professionals bring with them disposable incomes and frivolous consumption habits. Too lazy to head to the nearest large supermarket, most can knock out a three-course meal sourced solely from the newsagent.

Their appetite for coffee in exchange for functioning Wi-Fi means local daytime economies are no longer reliant on stay at home mums.

Young professionals bring with them disposable incomes and frivolous consumption habits.

As money flows into a neighbourhood the local high streets flourish, and new jobs are created in the retail and service businesses, as well as through new construction.

The key is making sure that local people benefit from these new employment opportunities.

The Peckham Coal Line: an example of gentrification bringing the community together

Revived public spaces

Gentrification can have a positive physical impact on an area, especially when it comes to public realm. An influx of newcomers to an area can prompt investment into parks, markets, and pedestrianised spaces — often preceded by some kind of activity (pop-up market/outdoor cinema/mini golf course), that attract people to these places.

The success of crowdfunding initiatives such as the Peckham Coal Line, are indicative of the potential for newer (and often high-skilled) and existing residents to collaborate to secure public realm improvements than benefit the whole neighbourhood — not just a demographic subsection.

Notting Hill: it didn't always look like a Richard Curtis film. Photo by Nick Walker in the Londonist Flickr pool

The little things

It's the provision of amenities and services that are accessible to a range of residents that is particularly important to how we talk about gentrification. It means understanding the positives and negatives of existing neighbourhoods, and being realistic about the small changes that gentrification may bring. This could be the opening of a bank, complete with ATMs that don't charge, the re-purposing of a long-derelict shopfront into a small art space, or a chain coffee shop that gives more senior existing residents a place to meet up.

Islington did not always look like where hipsters go to die. Notting Hill did not always look like a Richard Curtis film.

Gentrification is hardly a new phenomenon. Urban change, whether of the built environment or a neighbourhood's population, forms an essential part of the capital's history. Islington did not always look like where hipsters go to die. Notting Hill did not always look like a Richard Curtis film. There is a tendency to look at neighbourhoods undergoing gentrification in isolation, and often through a narrow time frame.

The process of gentrification will always be a complex and contested one, and as with any type of change, there will be winners and losers. But the more we learn to talk about gentrification, the more we can have this debate in a manner that is informed, and that does not simply divide London into the gentrifier and the gentrified.

Centre for London's next report looks to understand public attitudes to new developments in their area. The report identifies seven complex and very real reasons why residents oppose developments. Find out more at the report launch on Wednesday.

Last Updated 19 July 2016