Areas in London, in particular the borough of Hackney, have undergone rapid gentrification over the last several years, bringing benefits as well as causing displacement and discomfort for lower income residents. In this article, Melissa Butcher examines how young people experience gentrification and how it impacts their daily lives.
The UK housing crisis appears at the forefront of British politics. It is a key indicator of inequality between households and between the north and southeast regions, and a major issue that all parties, leadership and mayoral candidates now have to address. In cities like London it is also indicative of cultural change as new, wealthier residents move into once decaying neighbourhoods, displacing those on lower incomes who can no longer afford increasing rents and house prices.
Much has been written about this process of gentrification since Ruth Glass first coined the term in 1964, with causes and impacts forensically debated. More recent ethnographic studies have turned their attention to the daily experience of living within a febrile housing market where the meaning of ‘home’ has elided into the terminology of investment. From this work it has become increasingly necessary to acknowledge that gentrification is not a homogenous process, but rather one that impacts on different places and people in various ways.
For young people, for example, gentrification can have multiple implications. In research in east London with youth from lower income backgrounds, we found that there were both gains and losses in their calculations of the impact of regeneration, with the speed of change often more an issue than change itself. Benefits could include an increased sense of security, liking new retail outlets and housing facades, and exposure to new ideas. It was possible for some to imagine the re-versioning of place with themselves in it.
Losses, however, included multiple stress factors that generated insecurity, including, predominantly, displacement. Young people, regulated by unequal power relations in the home and the city, have little leverage in negotiations over processes of gentrification that are often accompanied by long periods of precarity. Displacement in particular establishes a series of risks for youth ranging from families forced out due to rent increases or evictions, the loss of play areas and social networks, and disruption to education. Household resources can be diverted to increased housing costs that could otherwise be invested in children, including time lost to the need to work and/or commute longer hours if parents are forced out of the city. In a rapidly changing borough such as Hackney in east London, young people (and adults) live with an everyday anxiety of knowing that ‘this estate where I live could be next’.
Displacement, however, does not just occur through processes of physical eviction and rising housing costs. It is also the result of the discomfort felt in classed and intercultural encounters with in-coming residents. These responses coalesce into no longer feeling a sense of belonging as a critical mass of new faces, and dissonance over what is now permissible and impermissible in once familiar spaces, disrupts a sense of ‘home’ and the social cohesion that comes with it.
While reflecting on the question of ‘who the changes are for’, young people recognise their differential access to sources of power and an inability to intervene in processes of managing change. They express a sense of ‘no longer fitting in’, not only being unable to afford to buy goods at renovated local shops, but also perceiving that they are ‘looked down’ on by newcomers. Sensitive to inequality, perceived injustice and judgement, these become the parameters with which the relationship with ‘hipsters’ and higher income residents are assessed, generating simultaneously resentment and a degree of curiosity.
There is a need for some caution, however, in applying generalised concepts. ‘Youth’ itself is a heterogenous category, as is ‘middle class’ and ‘hipster’ as the archetypal occupant of the creative city. A more nuanced understanding of these labels is called for as the impact of gentrification is inflected by several variables including disposition, context such as education and employment, peer and family relationships, and existing stresses within families. Place-making by young people is an ongoing process, with or without gentrification, incorporating negotiations with other space users including commercial interests, local authorities and other young people. The current changes could be perhaps regarded as just another extension of this ongoing work although as noted the speed of change and control over its direction, as well as its classed and racial implications create particular concerns.
Significantly, the urban planning and housing policies that are driving these changes are based on adult understandings of space use and aesthetics, normatively framed by a desire for ‘safe’ and well governed cities. This does not always sit well with young people’s practices of re-appropriation and play, as they oscillate between the formal and informal use of space. At times stigmatized as ‘anti-social’ for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a discursive landscape surrounds some young people that generates tension between place design and how it is actually imagined and used.
I would argue that this tension then becomes implicated in the impetus for regeneration projects that, in effect, attempt to remove certain types of youth and youth behaviours from public space. Planning and design within this normative rubric becomes a means to address an equation that the sum of youth, poverty, and cultural diversity equals criminality and disorder that must be designed out. This is explicitly seen in attempts to remove social housing from new developments, and providing separate entrances and exclusion areas for social housing tenants.
So while the lived experience of young people can present confounding variables to a totalising description of gentrification’s impact, the social structures and power dynamics embedded in urban planning still condition possibilities. Choices and access are hampered by a lack of social, cultural and financial capital. For example, why some may aspire to own a new apartment in a block where social housing once stood, it is done with the pragmatic knowledge that they would not be able to afford it. There seems less to be excited about in the provision of security, better housing and employment opportunities in gentrified areas if young people from lower income households are not only unable to gain access but excluded altogether through their displacement. Like poor doors in new housing estates, it seems a false economy of separation.
Melissa Butcher is Reader in Social and Cultural Geography in the Department of Geography, Environment & Development Studies, Birkbeck (University of London).
(Featured image credit: Shekeila)