Cities have the highest concentration of jobs, and they are the centres of cultural imagination and growth. Millions of people pound the pavements, seeking greater opportunity and improved lifestyles. However, it used to be that urban areas were typically uninspiring, even unpleasant, places to live. For cities like London, communities reflected a history of industrial revolution, shoddy buildings and overcrowding.
The past two decades have seen a remarkable change. Gentrification has swept through suburb after suburb, driven by artists and young professionals looking for cheaper places to live. New building work has transformed areas like Stratford and Hackney, and house prices have skyrocketed. Great news for some, but for existing tenants and residents these changes have been punishing. Although their neighbourhoods have improved, rents have become unaffordable and people are being forced to move.
The new challenge for architects, city planners and local governments is this: how do you renovate a community without making it unaffordable for the people who live there?
One way for cities to control the pace and scale of gentrification is to use a community land trust model, whereby city-owned land is leased to developers. Another option is to use nonprofit neighbourhood organisations, who act as “affordability stewards” for the property under their care. Affordable housing can be better protected this way, ensuring that the existing residents of a neighbourhood are not forced out when their community is renovated.
The key to a more inclusionary form of gentrification is to make sure that affordable housing is made available. Too often, especially in London, affordable housing has been squeezed to make more room for expensive apartments, to the point where residents are increasingly disgruntled and openly protesting the changes. It is this kind of legal chicanery that has made gentrification an ugly word in so many communities.
Additionally, affordable housing requirements don’t necessarily define the location for building. This means that communities are still broken up and displaced, potentially to places where there are fewer assets. Effects like this simply push poorer people further and further away from the city centre, rather than actually renovating communities.
When an area is gentrified, much of the profit and wealth is not retained in that area – rather it goes to wealthy investors with little stake in its people. Writing for the Guardian, Oliver Wainwright explains an alternative:
“A land value tax shifts [the] dynamic. Rather than taxing property, it taxes the value of the land itself – determined by its location, not what is built on it. The rise in value that results from neighbourhood improvements is therefore captured and returned to the community, to be reinvested in the area. Such a tax also penalises those who hoard vacant plots of land with no intention to build, while driving inflated land values down by taking into account the value of future levies that will be applied.”
Ultimately a balance needs to be found that isn’t being achieved currently. Investors need to feel confident that their efforts are going to be rewarded. And certainly investment has transformed several areas of major cities for the better. It reduces crime and poverty, as well as improving prosperity and transport links. But current tenants who have lived in a neighbourhood for decades – even their entire lives, in some cases – need to be considered.