The gentrification of inner cities

There’s increasing interest in what’s happening to neighbourhoods in big modern cities which suffered a drastic decline in the 1970s and 1980s and have now been “gentrified”. A 4-stage evolution has been detected: decline -> regeneration -> displacement -> gentrification, and the real problem is how to arrest the last two stages. Bennie Gray has written various investigative journalism bits about this, and I’m working with him now on something related to it all. What follows is based on Bennie’s work so far.

The story of Covent Garden is an example of the decline to gentrification process.

In 1973 the whole of Covent Garden, which, for more than a century had been devoted to selling fruit, vegetables and flowers, moved en masse to a new site in Battersea.  As a result, ten acres of wonderful old buildings fell empty. There were plenty of developers hungry to knock the whole lot down and put up some lucrative new office blocks, but the government decided to intervene, and slapped protective orders on most of the buildings, with the inevitable result that they became neglected and began to deteriorate.

The next stage of the cycle started when various dodgy people (“deviants” they’d probably be called by town planners) began squatting in the buildings, passing virtually unnoticed by those who preferred to look the other way. They included artists and other arty-crafty, alternative life style desperados looking for free space; drug dealers looking for a place to hide; winos looking for somewhere to crash, dossers looking for somewhere to, well, doss; and so on.

Gradually, a kind of demi-monde community grew up, which was perceived as wicked, which is to say, somehow glamorous and authentic. This in turn began to attract small-time hippy entrepreneurs who opened cafes, craft shops, tattoo parlors, art galleries and alternative therapy places. Quite soon, Covent Garden had become very cool indeed, and thus, more respectable activities began to take place. Art galleries equipped with proper lighting appeared and restaurants with proper kitchens and tablecloths soon followed. Even the squatters moved up a notch, taking an interest in plumbing, for example.

By around 1980, Covent Garden had become a popular tourist destination, which was when the big corporations began to move in, taking advantage of all that commercially fertile coolness.  Rents quickly shot through the new atrium-clad roofs; before long the spirit which had characterised the area in the 1970s evaporated; and by the noughties, Covent Garden had become just another cute, crowded, over-priced shopping centre.

So this is the cycle. An original set of buildings with an original purpose loses its purpose and the buildings fall derelict. They get colonised by people who, although generally regarded as disreputable, create a thriving community.  The place gets talked about and becomes a tourist destination. This generates investment, and although the area prospers, it loses its original appeal. Spiralling rents means that the area loses the very people who created that appeal in the first place – they simply can’t afford to stay. In the case of Covent Garden, many emigrated to run down,cheap parts of Shoreditch and Hackney, and the same old cycle started again.

Another example is Trellick Tower in North Kensington, a huge block of council flats which was once the highest residential building in Europe.  Designed by Erno Goldfinger, it’s a fine example of the “new brutalism”.  In its early life, Trellick Tower was a great success – fantastic views, airy and spacious apartments, lots of balconies, etc., – but thanks to appallingly negligent management, it fell into decline to the point that it became a very dangerous place to live, teeming with vandals and drug dealers.

In the 1980s, Trellick Towers started to be re-assessed, as part of the general re-assessment of North Kensington as a place to live. Nearby Notting Hill, which in the early 60s had been the scene of riots associated with the “No Irish, No blacks, No dogs”  policies adopted by slum landlords, had become absurdly expensive, and North Kennsington, despite the crime and the drugs, was dripping with the “authenticity” and “street credibility” that marks the start of stage 2.

As the early 90s went by, more and more Japanese tourists came to photograph this icon of brutalist architecture. The clicking cameras, together with builders’ skips, mineral water bars and artisan bakers, was a reliable marker of incipient gentrification. Conned by Margaret Thatcher’s catastrophic “right to buy” policy, the poor and needy original tenants sold up and moved out, and the hipsters moved in. Trellick Tower became a desirable place to live: the land at the base of the building was turned into a park, the common parts were carefully restored, and the flats themselves were spruced up. Thus, Trellick Tower went from being good social housing, to a near deathtrap, to a spectacular example of gentrification.

That same cycle is happening all over the Europe and, perhaps most spectacularly, in The US. One indication of the extent of  gentrification is the fact that in recent years, American speculators have taken to buying tracts of rundown inner-city property and land, and then paying groups of the aforementioned “artists and other arty-crafty, alternative life style desperados looking for free space” to live and work in the area free, in the sure knowledge that their mere presence will boost the desirability of the land and the property they occupy.

This process was described by Jane Jacobs in her groundbreaking books on 20th-century urban planning, notably “The Death amd Life of American Cities”.   She had no panacea, she simply pointed out that people are as important as property and that people, in the end, determine what happens with property.

As I’ve said, Bennie Gray has written about this cycle and informed what I’ve written here. Bennie masterminded the Custard Factory project in Birmingham, and he actually managed to prolong the second stage of regeneration for more than 20 years, just because he owned it.  In Bennie’s opinion, there are only two ways to blunt the damage caused by gentrification, neither of them, he confesses, being of much use. The first is a form of value taxation, as proposed by Henry George a hundred years ago. Liberals of one stripe or another have been tinkering with this mechanism ever since, and there’s general agreement that it won’t fly. The second way involves either hugely rich benefactors or the State interfering with the so-called free market.  The Duke of Westminister could, if had a change of heart (don’t hold your breath) freeze development in all the parts of London that he owns in their cozy second stage, and Xi Jinping or Raul Castro could do the same (ditto). Bennie’s pessimistic, of course, and he refuses to even consider the third option – see below.

A third possibility is land trusts, described in some detail in Context Institute website. These trusts divide land rights between immediate users and their community, and examples of them are springing up all over the world, including in India, Israel, Tanzania, Canada, and the US.  We may distinguish between conservation trusts, community trusts, and stewardship trusts.

A conservation trust preserves some part of the natural environment either by the full ownership of some piece of land that it then holds as wilderness, or by owning “development rights” to an undeveloped piece of land. Once conceded, these rights allow them to veto any attempts to develop.

A community land trust (CLT) attempts to remove land from the speculative market and to make it available to those who will use it for the long term benefit of the community. A CLT generally owns full title to its lands and grants long term renewable leases to those who use the land. Appropriate uses for the land are determined by the CLT in a process comparable to public planning or zoning. The lease own the buildings on the land and can take full benefit from improvements they make to the land. They can not, however, sell the land nor can they usually rent or lease it without the consent of the trust. The Institute For Community Economics in the USA is one of the major support groups for the creation of community land trusts in both urban and rural settings.

The stewardship trust combines features of both the conservation trust and the CLT, and is being used now primarily by intentional communities and non-profit groups such as schools. The groups using the land (the stewards) generally pay less than in a normal CLT, but there are more definite expectations about the care and use they give to the land.


In each one of these types, the immediate users have clear rights which satisfy all of their legitimate use needs. The needs of the local community are met through representation on the board of directors of the trust and the larger community has representation on the trust’s board.  Thus by dividing what we normally think of as ownership into “stewardship” (the users) and “trusteeship” (the trust organization), land trusts are pioneering an approach that better meets all the legitimate interests.

The system is, of course, still limited by the integrity and the attitudes of the people involved. Many anarchists will suspect that the idea is manipulative and are right to be sceptical, particularly when considering the possibility of any kind of land trust arrangement in big cities. So what is it then I wonder: nutritious food for thought, or sickly thin soup?

4 thoughts on “The gentrification of inner cities

  1. Another aspect of gentrification is the very strong possibility that the global market for property is now the main source of worldwide money laundering since the banking system is more closely regulated. The housing crisis in London, in particular, is distorted by the simple fact it is a global market.


    1. Hi Russell,

      Yes, of course the housing market is being used as you suggest. One wonders if, like the banks, it’s “too big to fail” or if the bubble will eventually burst.


  2. Hi Geoff,
    I had not googled it hence the qualification. Since reading your comments I googled it and was surprised by the amount of coverage the concept has received. One wonders why it has not become a political hot potato and the authorities are not taking action. All the building sites, particularly in the East of London consist of luxury apartments.

    Even the FT is commenting.


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