'Dr Dan Explains Gentrification'

Dr Dan Explains Gentrification

In a recent piece in the Irish Independent (which is a reprint of part of the latest Daft.ie house price report), Ronan Lyons outlines what he refers to as ‘accidental gentrification’. This is brought up via a wider discussion of the housing market in Dublin as follows:

“What is clear is the different trend emerging between the cheapest and dearest areas. The strongest price growth is currently in previously unfashionable postcodes – the market’s judgment, not mine!

The link between incomes and house prices has forced people to reconsider some of their implicit assumptions about where to look when buying a home – leading to what might be termed ‘accidental gentrification’.”

The point is not to question whether or not gentrification is happening, and, as I will discuss later, I agree that it poses considerable challenges for the social reconfiguration of Dublin. However, invoking a notion of ‘accidental gentrification’ is not just a throw-away catch phrase, but encapsulates a highly questionable attitude to the dynamics of housing and urban change. One of the predominant dangers of the notion of ‘accidental gentrification’ is that it makes it seem as though it is an unstoppable force that has no discernible cause bar the ‘market’. Instead, the market is made out to have its own agency in making judgements about place. This perspective builds upon much of the current representation of gentrification within media discourse as though almost a natural force. Indeed, in this highly mediated world, gentrification has increasingly been put across as a form of saviour from ‘blight’ and ‘decay’, which are also outlined as inevitable parts of urban change. The notions that both urban decline and renewal operate in a form of power vacuum have been central to critiques of gentrification over the last forty years or so. Furthermore, there is, as Tom Slater has pointed out, nothing ‘natural’ about gentrification. Much of the literature on the topic has demonstrated how gentrification is symbolic of the inherent unevenness of contemporary capitalist cities and how this becomes represented through numerous factors such as rounds of disinvestment and investment, social class, and questions of ‘taste’.

In evoking a notion of a ‘accidental gentrification’, Lyons seems to be attempting to differentiate between different degrees of desire to live within a particular area. However, there is nothing accidental about this and the relationship between gentrification and notions of choice and compromise have formed a central feature of gentrification debates over the last number of decades. Indeed, perhaps the most lucid examination of the compromises of gentrification is the work of Sharon Zukin. In particular, Zukin has outlined the relationship between culture and capital in the urban core as a form of ‘historic compromise’. In making compromises, different groups have, to different levels of success, drawn on their own resourcefulness, such as lobbying, to promote their own social agenda in a particular locale.

While there may well be different levels of perceived desire to move to an urban locale, decision making needs to be considered in the context of wider processes and how they play out in different contexts. Not least in this is affordability and access to capital, factors that are by no means an accident. The combination of these factors may vary, but are of key importance in understanding gentrification. It could be the ‘artist pioneer’ in search of a new ‘frontier’ and cheaper rent, the, by now, almost cliched notion of the tech worker seeking the new fashionable location, or, the movement of the middle class to less well off parts of the suburbs. This is not even to mention the role of property agents, investors and banks. If the, at times highly charged, debates about gentrification over the last fifty years have thought us anything it is the myriad of actors and forces involved in urban change.

To declare any form of gentrification as a type of accident is not only highly reductionist, but it is severely misleading about the realities of urban transformation. It is as though the areas in question are a form of black hole into which house buyers involuntarily fall. This goes way beyond the rather problematic notions of gentrification as a ‘natural force’ and ventures into the realms of gentrification as a form of mystical activity that just happens. When taken to its logical conclusion, it could almost seem as though all housing choice is some form of accident.

Where I agree with Lyons is the potential danger that central parts of the city could be turned into an enclave for the rich. However, the means by which to address such a possibility will not be solved by the reduction of land-use standards and other measures that are entangled in speculative land markets. As is the usual with such an approach, it seeks market-bases solutions for a market-based problem. Not only is this not likely to be a solution to the issue, but it may reinforce it. Indeed, the notion that a more market friendly approach to the delivery of housing will produce housing for the less well off in society is highly questionable. Frank McDonald’s article on ‘designer shoebox living’ is a case in point.

As I have argued before elsewhere, we need alternative approaches to urban transformation. A deeper engagement with gentrification theory teaches us is the inherent unevenness of capitalist urbanization and how this is played out within housing. If we at least become aware of this, we might be able to conceive of new ways of dealing with it.

Philip Lawton

Watching from afar, I have been interested in a number of the debates taking place about Dublin over the last number of years. The most recent example of such is the Reinventing Dublin series currently running in The Irish Times. The focus of this series, as with discussion taking place through other forums (e.g., the city intersections talks), is about making Dublin a better city. The series puts forward a number of interesting suggestions such as the library on College Green (Something discussed previously on this blog), and touches on some pressing social issues, such as is illustrated by Fr. Peter McVerry’s comments on homelessness and Fintan O’Toole’s analysis of the social structure of the city.

In as much as it is lacking, the series also points to the need for a greater level of engagement with the wider structural issues that influence the city. That so little attention within each sub-topic is oriented towards solutions that go beyond the accepted largely market-driven norms of urban development seems somewhat of a short-coming. The affording of less attention to alternative approaches to the delivery of housing than the possibility of Elm Park being used as a film-set is a case in point. Can this really be the best solution for an under-occupied development? Indeed, the only mention of housing in the top ten ways to make Dublin Better put forward by The Irish Times is the possible role of Georgian Dublin being returned to residential use. Another piece in the series briefly touches on how this might occur, but it is largely focused on the impact that shifting market forces may have. The desire to see improvement to the physical fabric of the city is understandable, but this also requires some reflection as to what processes might actually bring this about in a more socially equitable and viable manner. Pointedly, it is through the mention of a seemingly mundane example – that of the need for public toilets – that some of the core structural issues become highlighted, if only implicitly. The mention of ‘anti-social behaviour’ here is noteworthy and points to a need to examine the broader factors which serve to influence everyday life in the city. Overall, however, there is little focus upon the societal structures which serve to produce the daily reality of the city or, indeed, how the city itself serves to reproduce or reinforce that same reality.

Widening the discussion out a bit, one of the striking features of current debates and initiatives in Dublin is the focus on the city centre as a distinct and almost isolated entity. While this focus on the city centre is somewhat inevitable given it is the part of the city that citizens can readily identify with, it seems to point to some problematic tendencies about the form that debate is taking at present. From a broader perspective, it is difficult to attend to the needs of the city centre without thinking holistically about the wider city area, if not the city region. Furthermore, the focus on the city centre has, in recent years, become increasingly oriented towards the assumed cultural and social values of the middle classes. This perspective, which was made explicit by the Dublin City Architect, Ali Grehan at a recent TED talk, is a follow-on from the promotion of the supposed virtues of the middle classes that became a hallmark of urban development during the boom years. While on one level there has been a desire to attract ‘talent’ to the city centre so as, it is thought, to strengthen the economic base of the city, such rhetoric also draws upon the notion that that middle class residents will help to strengthen the social fabric of a particular area. That this is being promoted without any real engagement with what its role might be in the creation of a better city seems somewhat perplexing. One needs only to look at the example of Tower Hamlets in London to see that location of different social groups within one geographical area does not necessarily lead to any form of upward mobility or ‘trickle-down’ of wealth. Social-mix as a target in and of itself cannot be looked at as a solution for the problems of the city. This is not, it should be stated, an argument against change in the city centre or the promotion of good design in infill developments discussed in the afore-mentioned TED discussion, but more about the manner of delivery of such.

When viewed from a broader perspective, the focus on the city centre as opposed to the wider city is not all that surprising. Indeed, many of the initiatives currently taking place (such as Dublin City Beta Project and Pivot Dublin) are closely aligned to Dublin City Council, whose remit is, after all, focused almost exclusively upon the city centre. From a critical perspective, the structure of local government has very real implications for the context in which debates take place and the manner in which initiatives become implemented. Arguably, the current structures leave little alternative but for policy makers to think predominantly of their own location without significant consideration of what its impact might be elsewhere. Furthermore, it seems somewhat inevitable that if little action is taken to address wider structural issues on a national scale, urban policy makers will do their best to achieve what they perceive is best for their particular locality. Moreover, if local authorities can have little direct impact upon services such as transport and education, it perhaps follows that the focus will be placed on ‘soft’ factors as a means of achieving change. In short, planning (in the wider sense of the term) is being left to deal with consequences of wider structural issues, one of which is an imbalance in the planning system itself. While there are many initiatives out there which seem very positive in their approach (eg; the recent dublin tagged event), there is space for discussion of how exactly they will come together to improve Dublin in the long-term.

There seems to be urgent need for wider debate about what exactly it is we mean by making Dublin a better city, and, indeed, a broadening of the debate to include an analysis of the social, political, and economic factors that would be necessary to bring about positive change in the city. The approach of envisaging an ideal urban scenario – both in terms of urban form and social life – without confronting the forces which go to produce such seems somewhat insufficient. Ideas of making a better city necessitate an idea of the form of society that is desired. Lasting change in Dublin – at the scale of both the centre and the suburbs – can only be achieved through an active and critical engagement with the forces that shape it.

Philip Lawton