People do take care of where they live. In times of globalization, especially since the advent of internet and social media, some might think that global issues have taken the place of local ones. On the contrary, recent studies have shown that urban neighbourhoods are still important for its residents. We might live in constant connection with the rest of the world, but at the end of the day, we are still willing to pay for a house in a good neighbourhood. Or, if we can’t afford it, then we can at least try to revitalize the area we are living in and contribute to make it more liveable. From isolated interventions to more extended urban requalification, our neighbourhood can suddenly become more attractive and bring new investments that can increase the economic activities of an area. In these cases, major concerns arise around the problem of gentrification.
The term “gentrification” was first introduced in 1964 by a British sociologist – Ruth Glass – to describe the relationship between housing market and social character in some districts of London. In fact, she had observed that when working class quarters were “invaded” by the middle class, housing market in that area changed accordingly. As she pointed out, this was due to the rehabilitation of the existing dwellings by the new owners that determined an increase in housing prices and forced prior occupiers – the working class – to displace elsewhere.
According to the academic literature, this phenomenon was linked to the shift from manufacture to service industries in some major cities. Inner areas previously dominated by working class were then occupied by white-collar professionals. Today, the definition of gentrification has widened, involving not only rehabilitation, but also new build-developments in western cities as well as in the rest of the world. We could say that it has become a global problem. Since quality of urban life is a shared concern, it is important to understand how to revitalize urban neighbourhoods without gentrifying them.
Often critics focus on the social repercussions taking place in gentrified areas. Attractive districts with particular qualities and cheap buildings available are the perfect context for investment opportunities. That increases economic activities while also affecting the value of land and properties. Previous residents can initially benefit from the development of their district, until rising costs force them to leave, especially those renting flats. However, concerns over social inequalities shouldn’t discourage people from renovating their neighbourhood, but involve local communities in the process. Instead of top-down interventions that benefit a few, bottom-up initiatives that benefit everyone. It doesn’t mean that growth has to be avoided, but it should be managed in order to guarantee inclusiveness instead of enhancing social division.
As an example, in London, 1300 mq of vacant spaces are planned to host training and cultural programmes in a deprived area suffering from high youth unemployment rate. The sixty vacant garages on the Ledbury Estate on Old Kent Road that are object of this transformation, will help to create opportunities for citizens locally. The main aim of the Livesey Exchange project is to create a community space for people from different cultural backgrounds. A social experiment in an area that has becoming profitable.