Patrick Mulrenan and Jane Lewis hope to re-imagine the analogy of ‘social tectonics’ developed by Butler and Robson in their study of gentrification in Brixton in 2001. They argue that, like tectonic plates, communities constantly pull apart, collide into one another and glide past each other, reshaping the urban environment.
Urban spaces are the site of constant physical and social change. They are being transformed by international, national and local processes, and by a neo-liberal ideology which informs policies such as housing, regeneration, and welfare reform. These changes are reflected in current debates on the growing socio-spatial segregation of cities, and are accompanied by growing health differentials, communities living parallel lives, and the segregation of poorer residents in redeveloped areas.
In a free market, there is a tendency for communities to separate geographically, as individuals make decisions about where they will live. This will be informed by a range of factors including ease of access to work and the proximity of ‘good’ schools. Poorer areas can be identified by a series of physical, cultural, and social signifiers. Clear differentials develop between areas in terms of health and education, and poorer locations may become labelled as ‘problem areas’. Communities separate like ‘divergent’ tectonic plates, such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is pulling Europe and the Americas apart by 20cm each year. To some extent this process has been softened by policies to build social housing and provide housing allowances to low income families living in high cost areas. However, there is evidence that the continued reduction in new social housing built, the sale of social housing and the reduction in Local Housing Allowances is leading to rent arrears, homelessness, overcrowding, and to poorer families moving to cheaper areas.
Since the late 1990s, the policy solution to urban problems has been mixed communities – in practice, mixed tenure. The movement of the middle classes into poor, inner city areas is not a new phenomenon. It was identified by Ruth Glass in the 1960s and labelled ‘gentrification’. Originally an organic and gradual process, it has more recently been promoted through the redevelopment of social housing estates in urban areas. It has been argued that bringing the middle class into poorer areas has a number of benefits for the local people and areas: more social engagement between classes, increased job opportunities, better services, an improved environment, and the promotion of ‘mainstream’ values. In other words, more ‘sustainable communities’ that will not need repeated government investment. The aim of the process is that all individuals in these areas will experience rising incomes and enhanced quality of living- like ‘convergent’ tectonic plates that push up against each other, creating mountain ranges such as the Alps and the Himalayas.
However, the reality of gentrification may be quite different. In their study of gentrification in Brixton in 2001, Butler and Robson described gentrification as a process of ‘social tectonics’ in which white middle class gentrifiers and predominantly black, working class residents lived separate, parallel lives with little day-to-day social interaction (‘groups move past each other like tectonic plates below the earth’s surface’), a scenario that was very different from the claims of policymakers. The hope that mixed tenure and social mix would lead to greater social interaction and improve the life chances of lower income residents has been increasingly challenged.
The tectonic movement Butler and Robson describe is what geologists call a ‘transform’ plate boundary, where plates slide laterally past each other. An example of this is the 750-mile long San Andreas fault in California. Stress builds up in these faults and results in earthquakes, such as the one that destroyed San Francisco in 1906.
It has been suggested that gentrification is neither a benign nor a neutral process. It is in fact actively destructive of existing working class communities. There is growing evidence and concern that mixed tenure developments, particularly those replacing council housing estates in the name of regeneration, produce highly segmented spaces. Social housing tenants are effectively segregated from private residents. Gentrified spaces are shaped to reflect the interests, income and lifestyles of the new higher income, middle class, private residents. Meanwhile, existing working class residents feel a loss of belonging and ownership of many new spaces and facilities, whilst being out-rightly denied access to others.
In terms of our model of social tectonics, the outcome of tenure and social mix policy is more aligned to ‘convergent subduction’ tectonic plates, where plates of unequal density create a subduction zone, with one plate pushed under the other. An example of this is the destruction of tectonic plates, which has created the deep Andes-Peru trench along the coast of South America.
Metaphors are useful in providing insights into complex processes such as gentrification, but of course have limitations. One of the dangers of the metaphor of gentrification as a tectonic process is that it implies that segregation of, even destruction of, communities is inevitable. Our view is that this is not the case. Gentrification may be a positive process for some people, but if it is seen as the only possible route to regeneration, we may find that it reflects and reinforces the very inequalities it aims to address.
Patrick Mulrenan is Senior Lecturer and teaches management and leadership, housing and community development at London Metropolitan University.
Jane Lewis is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at London Metropolitan University.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).