Self-Destruction of Diversity
The term ‘self-destruction of diversity’ comes from Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961. The ‘self-destruction of diversity’ is a multi-scalar force which can impact small nodes of intensity such as streets and corners right up to whole neighbourhoods and districts. The process originates in the success of an area. If an area of a city has become popular due to its mix of uses, high density, or other factors then it may become a magnet for investment. This influx of money can be constructive, but eventually the demand will lead to rising property prices. This rise in cost will ensure that only the most profitable uses survive, pushing out the other less profitable uses which gave the area its character (Jacobs, 1961). The result is a monotonous neighbourhood which has replaced an intricate, diverse network of uses.
The description of the self-destruction process above would nowadays be described as gentrification, but this term was not coined until 1964 by Ruth Glass in London: Aspects for Change. In the fifty years since the conversation began, gentrification has become a term that is loaded with many negative connotations. In this essay I will focus on the positive and negative aspects of gentrification and ways in which these can be harnessed for the benefit of our cities.
Although Jacobs only mentions gentrification once in her published work, in an interview with Roberto Chavez et al. (2002) she speaks of how ‘the start of gentrification, is usually quite constructive.’ It is not just the financial aspects of this early stage that are important but Jacobs’ theory of ‘unslumming’, whereby local residents, instead of moving out of a disadvantaged area once they have achieved a certain economic threshold, decide to stay. Once people begin to stay in an area by choice, then the opportunity arises for a stronger community to form. The positive gentrification of an area relies not only on external investment and social mix, but this community.
One example of this ‘unslumming’ is taking place at Benburb Street in Dublin’s north inner city. In recent years, assisted by the addition of the Luas and the development of Smithfield to the east, Benburb Street is in the early stages of ‘unslumming’. Although still littered with dereliction, it is home to many reputable establishments such as Dice Bar, Wuff, Fish Shack as well as small artisans like the Wool Felt Shop and Jennifer Slattery Textiles, among others.
The current change that is taking place in Benburb Street, and other run down areas across the world, has been called the ‘fifth migration’ by Robert Fishman (2005), who proposes an additional stage to Lewis Mumford’s ‘fourth migration’, which consisted of people moving from the cities to the suburbs. The ‘fifth migration’ is a reversal of this move, with people re-populating the urban cores of our cities.
On the other side of the debate stand critics like Sharon Zukin (2009) who believe that positive gentrification inevitably leads to negative gentrification. Negative gentrification results in the removing of vitality from the streets and displacing lower class residents. As an area becomes overly gentrified it has the possibility of becoming an ‘overpriced, overhyped and, crucially, homogenized environment’ (Schubert, 2014). The balance between an ‘unslummed’ area and an overly gentrified area is a fine line – if an area’s popularity reaches a point whereby its own residents cannot survive, then it has undergone a negative momentum shift which is very hard to rectify.
This negative gentrification is a global trend with examples all over the world. Jacobs’ own Greenwich Village in New York has undergone extensive gentrification since she wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Williams, 2014). Although it has managed to keep aspects of its ‘bohemian’ diversity this is an example of ‘authenticity… being deliberately invoked and harnessed’ (Zukin, 2009) by commercial enterprises to tap into the popularity of the area.
Ever since its inception the term gentrification has carried negative connotations of sterilising an area and displacing its residents. There are many more studies and papers exploring the negative aspects of gentrification than the positive, but as Atkinson and Bridge (2005) state ‘gentrification as a process… may have modified or positive effects’ as long as there are protocols in place to prevent ‘unchecked gentrification’.
Image: R. Atkinson & G. Bridge, 2005, Gentrification in a global context: the new urban colonialism, Routledge, London; New York.
To turn gentrification into a positive force for the city, we need to enact practices which will stem the flow of displacement and diversity out of an area once it begins to gentrify. One way to do this is to develop responsive affordable housing. Outlined as a response to the pricing out of the poor by Jacobs in Dark Ages Ahead (2010), responsive housing provides affordable housing in an area as the normal stock becomes unaffordable.
Another way to prevent the ‘self-destruction of diversity’ is to promote the ownership of buildings in popular areas. The lack of secure tenure in areas undergoing gentrification results in an influx of chain stores as small businesses can’t survive the extortionate rent prices (Chavez et al., 2002). Not having to rely on the demands of the rental market can make or break a small business.
Gentrification is an inevitable force of change within our cities that is operating on a global scale. Instead of exploring more ways in which gentrification can harm the city, we should be looking at ways in which we can harness its positive aspects. By using gentrification to our advantage we can stop the ‘self-destruction of diversity’ and instead ensure the survival of vibrant communities within the city.