The suburbs and the ‘gentrification’ debate

April 14, 2008

I recently discovered an article titled ‘Going down in the world’ from the Daily Telegraph (2006) in which the possibility that suburbs might become ‘degentrified’ was raised in relation to the suburbs of inner London. Apart from being of obvious relevance to our project it seemed interesting that such a term as ‘degentrification’ was being applied to the suburbs, in an obvious reversal of the ‘gentrification’ tag typically associated with the renewal of inner city neighbourhoods by incoming middle-class inhabitants. This triggered a discussion within the project team as to whether the term ‘degentrification’ was anything more than pithy journalistic prose.

[SG]

The article expresses some of the fears of the metropolitan middle classes. I think the term ‘degentrification’ (first time I’ve heard this used), might be implicated in some of the challenges facing the Greater London suburbs. Yolande Barnes of Savills comments in the article that one aspect of this problem is that the “suburbs are getting old”. The article goes onto suggest how ‘gentrification’ and ‘degentrification’ are linked processes and that we are not incorrect to think of (de)gentrification in a suburban context – rather than a purely urban one. It also points to the fact that we should be careful about harking back to a golden age of the suburbs or to some kind of timeless suburb. Is it the case that today’s ‘diverse community’ were yesterday’s ‘gentrifiers’; is this is a cyclical process?

[MH]

I think that we need to be careful about the use of the term. De-gentrification can occur where gentrification happened before. So for example, an area that was middle class and is going down is not being de-gentrified, just going downhill. On the other hand, if Islington (which was a working class area) will go downhill again, it will be de-gentrified. In summary, I don’t find the term very useful or helpful, as I can’t see the huge difference between going downhill or deteriorating etc to de-gentrification.

[SG]

I don’t particularly like the term ‘degentrification’ either – it’s journalistic and obviously just a spin on the better established ‘gentrification’. What I thought was interesting was the suburban context. I mean, ‘gentrification’ is traditionally associated with urban ‘loft living’ etc.

One of the difficulties in researching the interwar suburbs is that they are so marginal to debates like this – yet, in London as we know, there is a debate about (even the outer) suburbs going ‘uphill’ or ‘downhill’. I agree this isn’t equivalent to the gentrification question which generally addresses urban areas; but I think it may be related. The difficulty with terms like ‘downhill’ is that they come heavily value-laden from the researcher’s point of view but without acknowledging it.

Places like Barnet (for example) tend to be defined as a particular kind of category of suburb ‘once and for all’. However, as new people move into well established post-war communities they may bring with them certain demands associated with ‘gentrification’, for example, a preference for Waitrose over down-market independent shops, gastropubs, expresso coffee, non-participation in traditional community agencies and a tendency either to commute to work, or work for big companies which have few local roots even if they are physically located in the suburbs. Whether the community is going ‘uphill’ or ‘downhill’ here is very much depends on whether you identify with the older or newer communities.

Where less well favoured suburbs – or parts of suburbs (including the high street) – do not participate in this (hypothetical) suburban gentrification process then locally distinctive patterns of socio-spatial differentiation may lead to these areas becoming relatively ‘run down’. Therefore it may be appropriate to talk of ‘gentrification’ and ‘degentrification’ as being linked processes in suburban areas.

An alternative scenario is that relatively recent arrivals in a suburb are initially regarded by existing residents as outsiders (i.e. not the right sort of people, foreigners etc). This may result in some long-term residents of the suburbs preferring to live further out beyond the M25 in places like Reading etc. in an example of the ‘population cascade‘ noted by Champion.

Again, it’s hard to say categorically whether would mean an area is going uphill or downhill – it’s just changing. However, it may help to understand this change in terms of a process involving (perceived) changes in social class composition.

‘Degentrification’ in this sense would express a middle-class unease that their suburb is ‘no longer the place it used to be’ or that the house they bought is in the ‘wrong’ area – house price stagnation etc. So… I suppose if this term has any validity it’s to express the idea of a place going ‘downhill ‘but from a peculiarly middle class rather than working class perspective.

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