TOPIC GUIDE: DM Berlin: Gentrification

"Gentrification is good for neighbourhoods"

PUBLISHED: 01 Sep 2015

AUTHOR: Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng

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‘Gentrification’ has recently become part of the vernacular when discussing issues around housing, social mobility and inequality. Normally used as a pejorative term, it describes the phenomenon of wealthier residents in cities gradually moving into traditionally run down areas and changing the dynamics of a community. In June, Berlin became the first German city to impose rent caps – meaning that landlords cannot charge more than 10% above the local average [Ref: Guardian] – a move in part designed to assuage fears that excessive rents push poorer residents from the area. And in England, earlier this year the debate came to a head with protests against gentrification held in Brixton, south London in which residents aimed to highlight the damaging impact that it was having on their community, both for traders priced out of retail units and residents who can no longer afford the increase in rents [Ref: BBC News]. Supporters of gentrification on the other hand suggest that ultimately, it “helps the poor” [Ref: Economist], and is a positive thing which brings jobs, commerce and culture to run down or deprived areas, acting as a source of regeneration for communities. However, for critics, “regeneration is simply code for gentrification, which is often a fancy term to describe how poor people are cleared from valuable land to make way for the rich” [Ref: Guardian]. The discussion isn’t only pertinent to Germany - throughout America, in cities such as Chicago, Portland, and San Francisco, as well as New York Boroughs such as Brooklyn and Manhattan – the debate about whether gentrification is a positive or negative force is hotly contested. Fundamental to the discussion are questions surrounding the nature of cities – should we be relaxed about the fact that they are dynamic, fluid places in which different types of people move in and out of areas over a period of time? Or does fluidity create problems for settled communities who may feel forced and priced out of neighbourhoods when newer, wealthier residents arrive? Is gentrification a benign form of urban renewal that we should welcome, or is it really a symptom of inequality? Is gentrification a good thing for neighbourhoods?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What is gentrification?
Although the definition is contested, the term gentrification was first used in 1964 by sociologist Ruth Glass in her study of working class displacement in London. She says: “One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes – upper and lower….once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district, it goes on rapidly until most or all of the original working class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed.” [Ref: UCL] The Collins Dictionary describes it as: “A process in which middle class people take up residence in a typically working class area of a city, changing the character of the area.” [Ref: Collins Dictionary] It is mainly used in discussions around regeneration, urban renewal, class and housing, and is at the heart of the debate about the changing nature of towns and cities.

Gentrification as urban renewal
Many see gentrification as a cyclical process of renewal which is the very essence of a dynamic city [Ref: Evening Standard]. For cultural critic Stephen Bayley, “the arguments for gentrification are strong. It is a process which enhances derelict properties, creating wealth.” [Ref: Spectator] He dismisses critics as advocating a backward, negative attitude towards cities, asserting that to ignore the merits of gentrification is “to accept the inevitability of decline”, concluding that: “Gentrification is about returning cities from the dead. So it’s a vital obligation.” [Ref: Spectator] Commenting on the effects of gentrification in inner city American neighbourhoods, writer Justin Davidson notes that: “Gentrification doesn’t have to be something that one group inflicts on another; often, it’s the result of aspirations that everybody shares….a nice neighbourhood should not be a luxury, but an urban right.” [Ref: New York Magazine] In addition, it is argued in some quarters that gentrification helps reinvigorate previously impoverished areas, because “repopulating the inner cities has been good for all, creating sustainably dense neighbourhoods…rebuilding derelict sites and introducing articulate new residents, who then press for improved schools and services for all locals – rich or poor, in a kind of trickle down of aspiration.” [Ref: Guardian] An example of this potential for rebirth can be seen in traditionally working class areas of Berlin such as Kreuzberg and Nuekolln , which have undergone a transformation in recent years [Ref: Spiegel] – with investment flooding in from more affluent residents, making it now one of the most desirable areas in Berlin.

A threat to communities?
Debate has raged about the way in which gentrification threatens to fundamentally alter communities in places such as Hamburg, Germany [Ref: Detroit Free Press] Brick Lane, London [Ref: BBC News], and Brooklyn, New York [Ref: Huffington Post]. Last year film director Spike Lee made headlines when he launched a scathing attack on gentrification in his old Brooklyn neighbourhood, questioning whether the effects had been positive for long standing residents [Ref: New York Magazine]. His reservations are not new - critics of gentrification claim that ultimately, it is a form of ‘social cleansing’, which according to one activist, “means cleaning an area up, and saying if you can’t afford to be here, then you have to leave.” [Ref: Telegraph] In Hamburg for instance, “displacement of lower income residents….has been rampant in recent years”, and with “Altona, a former working class district seeing new investment, thousands of residents of Turkish immigrant background, have been displaced by rising rents” [Ref: Detroit Free Press]. The consequence of this, according to one British commentator, is that: “As gentrification tightens its grip, people on lower incomes are being pushed to the area’s edges” [Ref: New Statesman], leading to segregation and social displacement. British architect Edwin Heathcote cautions against the displacing effects of gentrification, stating that a social mix is vital in creating adaptable, vibrant cities where rich and poor are able to live side by side [Ref: Financial Times].

Who wins and who loses?
Opponents of gentrification claim that it largely bypasses the poor, and only benefits the newer, wealthier residents of an up and coming area. Using the American city of Detroit as an example, academic Brian Doucet argues that gentrification, “does little to address poverty, unemployment, and access to resources for the vast majority of residents…contributing to greater inequality and polarisation.” [Ref: Guardian] Others though assert that gentrification is not as simple as its critics would like to suggest – with the poor being left behind by the affluent, who move into their areas and reap all of the benefits of an improving neighbourhood. Instead, as one advocate points out, the regeneration of high streets and markets in run down areas encourages people to spend money locally, therefore putting money back into the community, which is “positive for neighbourhoods and all those living in them”. After all: “The sober truth about gentrification is that, for everyone who loses out, someone gains. And that ‘someone’ is not always one of the rich.” [Ref: Guardian] With all of this in mind, how then should we view gentrification? Is it a positive indicator of regeneration and urban renewal, bringing investment into deprived areas? Or is it a form of ‘social cleansing’, slowly pushing the poor further and further towards the edge of our cities, while doing little to alleviate inequality and poverty?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


The moral case for gentrification

Stephen Bayley Spectator 27 June 2015


The gentrification and petrification of London’s heart

Edwin Heathcote Financial Times 16 June 2015

The Truth about Gentrification: regeneration or con trick?

Aditya Chakrabortty & Sophie Robinson-Tillett Guardian 18 May 2014

Why this ‘Shoreditchification’ of London must stop

Alex Proud Telegraph 13 January 2014


London: the city that ate itself

Rowan Moore Guardian 28 June 2015

The G Word: gentrification and its many meanings

Gillian B. White Atlantic 25 May 2015


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Eccentricity is the vital ingredient to a successful city

Edwin Heathcote Financial Times 26 May 2015

Stop gentrification: the urban wheel is always turning

Simon Jenkins Evening Standard 28 April 2015


Flavia Krause-Jackson Bloomberg 23 March 2015

Gentrified Brooklyn is not my Brooklyn

Vanessa Martir Huffington Post 16 March 2015

In gentrified Brooklyn, where will ordinary people live?

Alan Singer Huffington Post 13 February 2015

The myth of gentrification

John Buntin Slate 14 January 2015

How Ruth Glass changed the way we approach our cities

University College London Urban Lab 13 January 2015

Hamburg, Detroit share concerns over gentrification

John Gallagher Detroit Free Press 2 November 2014

This urban vibrancy is really just urban cleansing

Ian Martin Guardian 19 January 2014

Berliners are waging a war against gentrification

Matt Shea Vice Magazine 6 April 2013

Berlin’s gentrification row: locals rage against rising rents

Christopher Cottrell Spiegel March 2011

The gentrification myth

Derek Scally The German Times March 2011


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


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