Gentrification. How far have we come?

By Jane Witham.

Work by Banksy. (Source: Business Insider)
‘Happily gentrifying the neighbourhood since 2014’, a small coffee shop wrote on a sandwich board sign in November 2017 in Denver, Colorado. Shortly thereafter the sign found itself viral on the internet, sparking outrage and resulting in vandalism of the shop frontage and the temporary closure of the business.

Gentrification as a word, is common and controversial. First referred to in the 1960s, it defined the influx of the middle class displacing lower class workers in London. It was also prevalent in New York, where the bohemian appeal of areas such as SoHo lead to affluent populations moving in, affordability adjusting accordingly and artists who started the movement, being displaced.

In 2018 it continues to maintain these negative connotations. Various areas in metropolitan Melbourne experience protests against gentrification. New businesses and so-called hipsters are found at the forefront of this conflict, primarily due to their role in neighbourhood composition and the associated increased cost of living and affordability.

Gentrification, flaws and all, is inevitable as long as urban consolidation continues to accommodate growth. However, the way in which gentrification occurs today is vastly different from what it used to be. There are various strategies in current planning frameworks to help tackle the gentrification issue and it is the combination of each physical, social and collaborative feature that helps soften the impact.

One of these key controls embedded in Victorian planning schemes is the retention of neighbourhood character. Retaining character and heritage elements of buildings, and retaining the character of the wider urban fabric, plays a pivotal role in reducing the impact of gentrification. Responding to neighbourhood character results in the physical charm of an area remaining strong for established residents and newer residents alike. When standing on the footpath and nearly (or completely) missing the majority of a building’s density due to it being recessed or tucked away, is key in softening growth on neighbourhoods.

Built form respecting existing character on Toorak Rd (left) and renewal on Johnston St (right). (Source: Google Maps).
This together with fostering sustainable communities, in terms of public art, placemaking and community infrastructure are other key ways the Victorian planning framework enables cohesion between varying demographic cohorts. Notably, not all new residents to an area intend on eroding the existing community, and if they’re anything like me, they want to contribute and be a part of the established community. Overall, Melbourne is renowned as a culturally diverse network of neighbourhoods and which is supported by planning controls.

Affordable housing initiatives are another active response to gentrification, with Councils such as Port Phillip and Moreland being at the forefront of initiatives in affordable housing, to help retain the cohorts who are subject to potential displacement. Affordable housing has proven a challenging matter to address, but emerging collaborations between Councils and the development industry that are exploring creative ways to address the issue, such as the Moreland Civic Lab.

Finally, the ability of the communities in contemporary planning to be a part of the planning process, allows for input from all. Our community maintains a key voice throughout the planning decision making process, which unlikely was the case when the debate on gentrification commenced in the early days.

When you consider these avenues that collectively help to tackle the issues surrounding gentrification and support the positive change, it is clear that a significant amount of progress has been made, particularly in Melbourne. Whether it be sensitivity in building design, public art, placemaking strategies contributing to cultural cohesion or innovations in the affordable housing realm, gentrification has a stigma to some which may not consider how much progress has been made and continues to be made.

Adaptive protests. (Source: The Guardian)
A few things to think about in conclusion to this piece: 

  1. Do you think we have progressed with addressing gentrification? Do you perceive it in a positive or negative light? 
  2. Do you think the coffee shop sandwich board would have had the same negative response if it stated: ‘Happily revitalising the neighbourhood since 2014’?

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