2. History and Explanation of Gentrification

History of the Term

    The term ‘gentrification’ was coined in 1964 by a British sociologist – Ruth Glass – when referring to the alterations she observed in the social structure and housing markets in certain areas of inner London.  Glass observed; "One by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class - upper and lower ... Once this process of 'gentrification' starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social social character of the district is changed" (Glass, 1964, p.xvii).

    Early definitions of gentrification, like that of Glass, tended to focus on the residential housing market and the rehabilitation of existing properties.  However, since then the definition has widened to include vacant land – usually in prior industrial use – and newly built designer neighbourhoods, as well as neighbourhoods of working-class housing.  Smith’s (2002: cited by Atkinson and Bridge, 2005) more recent work has argued that gentrification has broadened once again to become a new form of neo-liberal urban policy.  Where the original definition focused on ‘sweat equity’ gentrification, with the middle-class householder rehabilitating their dwelling; more recent discussions have included off-the-peg new-build developments, often beside water or in other notable locations in the city.

    Initially confined to western cities, gentrification has spread globally.  Evidence of neighbourhood alteration and colonisation illustrated by an increasing concentration of the middle class can be found across the world; including cities such as Shanghai, Sydney and Seattle.  As well as this, the process can now also be observed in regional centres such as Leeds in England and Barcelona in Spain. (Atkinson and Bridge, 2005).

Gentrification in Bristol

Source: Gentrification Web
   Prior to gentrification.

Source: Gentrification Web
During gentrification.

  Source: Gentrification Web
 After gentrification.

Explanation of Gentrification

    The academic literature that seeks to explain gentrification hinges around three key different explanations.

    First and foremost, Ley (1986, 1996: cited by Hamnett, 2003) argues that the origins of gentrification stem from the altering industrial structure in major cities.  A change from manufacturing based industries to service based industries in the inner cities results in a simultaneous change in the occupational class structure from one largely based around manufacturing working class individuals to one increasingly dominated by white-collar professionals whose financial, cultural and service industries are located in major cities.

    Secondly, also related to the restructuring of industry in inner city areas, Ley (1980: cited by Hamnett, 2003) and Butler (1997: cited by Hamnett, 2003) believe that due to the changes in class composition, changes have also occurred in the cultural orientation, preferences and working patterns of a segment of this new middle class which have predisposed them to living in the inner city, rather than commuting from leafy suburban areas.  These scholars suggested that the purchasing of properties in the inner city was more on an individual and demand-orientated basis, rather than Smith’s theory of gentrification on a larger scale.  Related to this occupational change was the movement of women into the new class workforce, and the growth of smaller adult oriented-households well suited to central neighbourhoods.

    Finally, Smith (2002: cited by Atkinson and Bridge, 2005) argued that gentrification was a movement of capital and not people.  Smith (1979, 1987, 1996: cited by Hamnett, 2003) demonstrated that the driving force behind gentrification was the growing difference between the potential value of inner urban properties and their underlying land values.  Smith suggested that this difference has opened up a growing ‘rent gap’ which has been exploited by the actions of property based capital, estate agents and developers whom have gentrified undervalued inner city housing for profit.