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When does regeneration become gentrification?

Writing: Paula Lacey

Illustration: Rachel Berman

Gentrification is when middle class adults, couples, and families move into less desirable areas for the cheaper rent, and with them comes an influx of establishments to cater to their middle class needs: restaurants, bars, cinemas, cafes. This overall increase in a neighbourhoods appeal leads to rising property prices until the neighbourhood is no longer undesirable, but rather “up-andcoming”. On the surface this can seem a welcome change; new businesses bring in new jobs and a shift in atmosphere can bring lots of benefits to residents. But the problem with gentrification is that the changes in the neighbourhood aim to make it a more desirable place to live for the incoming middle classes - without thought to how these changes will affect the original, often working class, residents. At best, the original residents no longer feel welcome or at home in a place they’ve lived for much of their lives.

But more likely, property value increases and leads to people being priced out of their own homes and forced to relocate. Once the working class residents have moved away, and the council estates have been demolished to build new designer residencies for incoming wealthier tenants, it is easy to see why some people consider gentrification to be a form of social cleansing. But aiming to improve run-down areas doesn’t have to inevitably mean gentrification. When local councils funnel money into improving local facilities such as places to socialise, exercise, and build community, these changes can have a profound impact on reducing antisocial behaviour and creating a sense of community pride and cohesion. These improvements in the physical environment can lead to an influx of new residents. Indeed, if managed correctly, areas that are both racially and socially diverse have a positive impact on schools, and interactions with local councils can benefit the more disadvantaged members of the community. Fear of gentrification shouldn’t prevent councils from implementing regeneration policies, and these improvements should be ambitious to reflect the need of existing residents. Often, residents are excited by proposed changes, but the key to ensuring regeneration doesn’t dissolve into gentrification is by always prioritising the needs and means of the original residents.

So estate renewal is not intrinsically wrong: what matters is who it is benefitting and what end product is considered a “success”. Often development schemes are put into motion by huge corporations with very little interest in resident communities compared to profit. This leads to large areas of private land replacing council estates, the development and value of such being taken out of the control of residents and local councils. A quick influx of newcomers and businesses leads to an overloaded public infrastructure which is vital for the protection of residents. To ensure that improvement doesn’t lead to gentrification, there must be interventions in place to guarantee decent wages in new service jobs and housing price controls to combat privatisation and the driving out of locals. It is also of utmost importance that if affluent newcomers arrive, the onus is on them to integrate into the existing community: it must not fall to the locals to adjust their way of life so new residents can ‘feel more at home’. Effort must be put in to ensure that teachers, social workers, and public services on which the community depends are not threatened by the changes underway.

Often overlooked by those wishing to fund regeneration schemes is the fact that increased property values and wealthy new residents are not the only indicators of improvement in an area. When looking at an area that appears run-down, little consideration is given to the social value that existing establishments provide to surrounding communities, such as a place to socialise, rich with memories and a sense of familiarity and comfort. When an outside company with little understanding of the existing community decides that it wants to “improve” a neighbourhood with the sole intention of attracting wealthier tenants and making profit, residents lose control over their environments. There are cases where residents fight to regain that control. One example close to home is the recent struggle between residents of Leith and the Drum Property Group, who were trying to demolish 106-154 Leith Walk in order to build a designer student residency and hotel aimed at University of Edinburgh postgraduate international students and their families. The gentrification process has already begun to creep up slowly on Leith, which used to be a working class area but now attracts students and creatives due to the low rent prices.

The Save Leith Walk campaign ( post_id=94&title=save-leith-walk---fighting-for-community) ran a hugely successful petition (even signed by Jeremy Corbyn himself). The campaign consisted of planning objections against the proposed development, maintaining that the buildings should be saved and insisting that any new developments in Leith should be within the resident’s best interests, such as long term social housing. And this resistance is working; after a demonstration by SLW campaigners outside the City Chambers, the city council have gone against the recommendations of planning officers and have rejected the proposed £50 million development. Campaigners are overjoyed, and the win has installed a strong feeling that communities across Scotland can regain agency and control over the future of the areas they call home by organising and engaging with other members of the public. At the very heart of gentrification lies a lack of concern for the genuine needs of residents, a lack of respect for existing buildings and features of an area, and a lack of consideration of any signifiers of success other than profit and affluent incomers.

But this does not mean that less affluent areas should be denied a chance at improvement due to an ideological opposition to gentrification. In order for a regeneration project to avoid gentrification, the forces driving it must have the genuine best interests of the residents at heart. They should not privatise public land, and should above all allow existing communities to retain control and autonomy over the areas in which they live. The Save Leith Walk campaign success should be seen as a shining example of how community resistance can stop incoming developments and restore autonomy to residents, and it is movements like this that will protect vulnerable communities from gentrification as a result of profit-driven private companies.

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