Gentrification and the great social divide

Gentrification is, at least notionally, synonymous with the concept of regeneration. Impoverished and run-down areas of cities are either knocked down and re-built or given a make-over and transformed into a desirable place to live.

Or, to be more socially provocative, gentrification is the eviction of the poor from valuable land to make way for the rich. This latter seems to be the case for Johannesburg: Regeneration in Johannesburg where the latest effort to erase a notorious ghetto from the map may bode well for the economic and social reputation of the city but spells eviction and displacement for its current (albeit illegal) tenants. Johannesburg may have got rid of one problem but, by failing to provide suitable housing for its evicted it is in serious danger of perpetuating the problem; the great social divide between the rich and the poor is not being bridged, it is simply being shifted to a different geographical space.

This seems to be a recurrent theme with regeneration projects across LEDCs but also some MEDCs. Decade after decade, investors swoop in and claim land previously synonymous with crime and social deprivation, give previously unsellable homes a make-over, and hike up the property prices. This paradoxically is part of what attracts the upwardly mobile and thus prices keep rising. Which inevitably squeezes out the original inhabitants in the process. The most obvious UK examples are the London Docklands and Salford Quays in Manchester, both places where property prices have soared and gentrification has left them almost unrecognisable from the deprived areas they once were.  But, while these areas might have improved, wider social deprivation and poverty are far from being eradicated. As with Johannesburg, I believe a deeper and more holistic approach to city-wide regeneration is needed or we end up in  a cycle of  simply shifting the poor on from place to place without ever dealing with the causes of urban poverty in the first place. ‘Gentrification’ does what it says on the tin: it helps the gentry but is still not helping the poor.

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