“Sir, of all the tiresome emotive words coined by this generation “gentrification” must rank among the worst. By its implication of class ridden envy, peculiar I believe to this country and perhaps a symptom of our current malaise, fears of “gentrification” threaten plans for the rehabilitation of many derelict areas of “listed” housing in London.”
As cited in the book ‘Gentrification’ a letter to Times London (1977) by the member of greater London council William Bell specifies about the issue of an emotive word and how it threatens the plan of rehabilitation in many derelict areas of listed housing in London.
Gentrification was a term coined by a British sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964. “But it would be a careless to assume that it started form there “ . The phenomenon started much before the term was introduced. For many the term could evoke a various range of emotions such as anger, grief, resentment and powerlessness, which are mostly rooted to ones’ personal experience.
Modern dictionary defines gentrification as “a process of renovating and improving a house or a district to conform with the middle-class taste” and to add further, by displacement of the indigenous population from their neighbourhood.
As described by Cheong and Fong in article ‘Gentrification and Conservation: Examining the Intersection’, “gentrification is a politically charged set of spatial and temporal process involving complex negotiation between government, markets, local businesses, national and international companies, social and cultural ideologies, racial and ethnic minorities and majorities of varying social classes and host of other influential” . In this highly variable mix, addition of heritage value further elevates and complicates the process of neighbourhood. So, the question here is, how are heritage and gentrification related? Does heritage conservation exacerbate the process of gentrification?
As Viollet-le-Duc defines, the idea of historic preservation that evolved during the first quarter of the 19th century in his book ‘The Architectural Theory of: Viollet-le-Duc’, with time the mediating process has evolved and has become an important aspect that has gained international attention. Conservation as a process of care, should employ an ethos that values the age, cultural identities and most importantly the ‘sense of a place’. Is it something that’s happening? Yes, indeed when it is carried out in a sustainable manner considering the sociocultural aspects of a neighbourhood.
The argument put forward in this paper is against negative rhetoric related to gentrification and conservation. The urban conservation in present day scenario is seen acting as a precursor to gentrification. And gentrification further leading to the displacement of indigenous people and culture of the place. A new materialistic approach to conservation is employed in neighbourhood revitalisation. “The visual impact of physical conservation is easily recognizable at street level: upgradation of buildings, streetscapes and landscapes that leads to an “improved sense of a place” . Despite of these seemingly positive aspects, the question, ‘for whom?’ remains—who is benefited with this revitalized economy and improved sense of place? -- negative impact due to heritage conservation rises when the targeted user group for attaining the benefits of the same is different from the local residents.
The heritage conservation and its impact on neighbourhood is captured by Smith, Neil in his journal article ‘Historic Preservation in a Neoliberal age’, where he describes:
“The benefits of historic preservation in terms of ‘economic and community development’ are heavily weighted toward one part of the population, while the costs largely fall to a quite different group... Historic preservation has thrived on popular appeals to the ‘‘national interest’’ and to a common cultural heritage, but the social bifurcation of who benefits and who pays belies these claims.”
Smith portrays that heritage conservation works in conjunction with gentrification and without clearly defined methods or protocols for social protection it will inevitably lead to gentrification. But heritage conservation is not the only factor that causes gentrification of a neighbourhood and displacement of the residents (mostly working-class people). As Kalima Rose defines, there are specific community attributes that create this vulnerability of displacement that includes:
- High proportion of renters
- Ease of access to job centres
- Location in a region with increasing level of metropolitan congestion
- And comparatively low housing values, for housing stocks with architectural merits.
So, heritage conservation remains a part of the complex network of various entities leading to gentrification. As we take a close look into the variables of gentrification and the way they interact with each other resulting in a change in neighbourhood, a challenge is posed upon us- which factor is to be criticised individually as the culprit for gentrification. The deeper we look, the more difficult it is to define gentrification, its impact, how it is experienced and what are the broader implications in neighbourhood level.
Much of the negative rhetoric in the present scenario associated with gentrification and urban conservation is an issue of lack of evidence-based analysis. The process involved in designation of historic place must become a participatory process were preservation is defined through public policies and public eyes . To exemplify the same authors Avrami, Leo and Sanchez use the example of a survey conducted in New York. The authors project the issue of exclusion of public through the lens of preservation. Further emphasises is on societal aims cum benefits that preservation is intended to achieve through legislative mandate. The survey conducted based on the topic within New York public throws light upon how exclusion of public could potentially lead to negative impacts due to preservation. The lack of diversity among advocates and decision-making actors pose a threat on the process of historic designation to a neighbourhood and could impose an indirect effect on the underrepresented communities. The paper concludes as the challenge faced today by heritage conservation are institutional infrastructures that doesn’t allow for “nimble policy reforms and fears of undermining the legal footings of preservation by opening up the municipal ordinances.”
The relationship between gentrification and heritage conservation is a complex phenomenon. To exemply that gentrification due to heritage conservation doesn’t always create a negative impact city of Hoi An, Vietnam and to exemplify the negative impact due to inconsiderate behaviour of the governing body towards the local residents while conservation, The Rocks, Sydney is being chosen.
Hoi An is a historic city in Vietnam Quang Nam province and is one of the finest examples of well-preserved Southeast Asian trading port dating from 15th to 19th century. The town reflects an amalgamation of indigenous and foreign cultures that combined to produce this unique survival. The town comprises of 1107 timber framed buildings, with brick or wooden walls, including architectural monuments, commercial and domestic vernacular structures. The streets are lined up by the row houses, tiled and wooden components carved with traditional motifs. An interesting feature to note is that the town still acts as an active port region and centre of commerce. The cultural and historic features of town are well preserved and stands evident within the boundary of inscribed property, even while its functioning as a port city, along with rushed incoming of tourist.
The heritage management plan for the zone is developed so that there is a buffer zone to protect properties from external threats. The adverse effect caused urbanization, or any other potential threat would not affect the community due to the buffer zone. Active participation of local community and authorities make the neighbourhood a successful example of heritage conservation.
So, in this case designation of historic area has not caused or exacerbate gentrification rather it has benefited the community.
Whereas in case of The Rocks during 1970 a resident’s action group along with the BLF (builder labours Federation) protest to save the rocks from redevelopment of the area as high-rise commercial precinct from a residential neighbourhood by Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority. A green ban was placed with the effort of the activist group. But today the Rocks is not the same neighbourhood that once the activist groups fought for. The man ideal then was to protect the residential neighbourhood from being demolished, but with mediating time the economic pressure on the residents increased due to lack of proper buffer as in case of Hoi An. So gradually the place became a ‘heritage theme park’ as defined by various critics. The place today stands as a relic with no meaning.
The idea of conservation here was completely off track, instead of protecting the culture of a place what was focused was a portrayal of the build mass as heritage. A sense of place and the value of heritage always is related to the indigenous people and their activities around that neighbourhood. But what we see here today is completely a new set of users completely unaware of the deteriorated past. The place did portray an improved sense of place as presented initially in the paper but with improper
In both cases we could see that the conservation or designation of historic area was not the reason the exacerbate gentrification, it was the approach and the targeted user by the governing body. In case of ‘Hoi An’ the benefits of the conservation was targeted to the local community thereby creating a positive impact due to gentrification, whereas in case of ‘The Rocks’ with mediating the focus was shifted on to the incoming tourist community and not the local and hence led to formation of a place with zero meaning, mere build mass got the focus and the area became a heritage theme park. The conservation designation doesn’t cause the negative gentrification it is for whom the conservation is carried out that defines the impact of it.
“The challenges of gentrification can best be met by implementing strategies that enable low-income residents to stay anchored in their neighbourhoods and to thrive.”
To conclude as Lawrence quoted in his research it would be apt to implement strategies in accordance to the need of the local residents of the zone. The prime target must be the indigenous user. When gentrification happens due to conservation resident seek protection and this must come in various forms as historic designation of neighbourhood would protect the neighbourhood whereas the policy reforms such as low-income housing and rent freeze policies would protect the people. A value based heritage conservation is something that’s intended to be carried out assessing the community needs, bridging social and economic realities for creation of a sociocultural sustainability.