Gentrification; Good or Bad?

I’m writing an article with Amira Osman from the University of Johannesburg on gentrification in the inner city of Johannesburg. While doing research on this I noticed again that there is not really a clear definition of gentrification. Some say it is good, some say it is bad. Some say it only has to do with the influx of the rich middle class, some say it is a result of urban renewal. Sometimes it is the same as urban renewal. I’m trying to make sense of this. So here it goes, it’s a bit of a technical post I’m afraid.

Urban Renewal

Urban renewal is defined as “a process in which the state or local community seeks to bring back investment, employment and consumption to enhance the quality of life in an urban area” (Couch, 1990). Collins dictionary defines it as: “the process of redeveloping dilapidated or no longer functional areas.” The term urban renewal emerged after the deindustrialisation of cities and more specifically after the Second World War. During the 1970’s, many inner cities experienced socioeconomic decline. Governments tried to address this via several programmes and projects aiming to bring back investors to the inner city.

Whether or not people always are being evacuated from their homes while urban renewal is taking place is not clear. Some definitions do state that urban renewal entails the clearance of slums, others don’t.

Gentrification

I couldn’t find a clear definition of gentrification. The first signs of gentrification were written about by Jane Jacobs in her book ‘The death and life of great American cities’ (1961) which portrayed how artists moving into affordable space in inner city neighbourhoods, with increased buying power, generated changes in entrepreneurship patterns and social cohesion. Jane Jacobs, believed that this led to less diversity and more homogeneity in the resident profiles and caused the demise of a key ingredient for positive urban settings: “…human contact, sidewalks, mixed use, low rent, and authenticity as a democratic expression or origin.” (Jacobs,1961). Smith (1998; 189) defines gentrification as: “middle- and upper-class movement into and renewal of neighbourhoods that had experienced disinvestment and decline.”

Today gentrified neighbourhoods are often characterised by coffee shops and cafes, places where freelancers can work behind their Macbook’s with a latte, designer boutiques, organic food stores (Kohli, 2015). New shops and stores would attract different people; often people who have more to spend or who are willing to spend more – leading to higher retail prices and property prices. The pioneers sell their houses to the next generation. The renewal of the neighbourhood is complete and gentrification has set in.

Gentrification in this sense is seen as a negative phenomenon, often changing the identity (Vigdor, 2002; 135) of a neighbourhood completely and forcing the original inhabitants of the neighbourhoods to move to other less expensive neighbourhoods. The changing socio-economic status of households in a neighbourhood is seen as the root cause for the displacement of the poor. Although this perception of gentrification dominates, (Vigdor (2002; 135) argues that there is no evidence that gentrification necessarily displaces the poor. Positive outcomes of gentrification are often overlooked. New investors bring new attention to deprived areas, contributing positively by decreasing crime rates, increasing job opportunities and bringing diversity into a neighbourhood. When this diversity is preserved the poor may actually benefit from the gentrification (Charles, 2003; 167-207).

So what does this mean for Johannesburg?

For Johannesburg it seems that the negative effects of gentrification are definitely happening. One can see it in neighbourhoods like Parkhurst, Maboneng, New Town where house prices are increasing of the years. Many expats would like to live there because they have the atmosphere of the big city, which is not the case in the northern suburbs like Dainfern, Fourways etc.

But we can also see the benefits of urban renewal. More investors are coming into the CBD to renovated dilapidated buildings. The streets get cleaner, crime is still an issue but more and more people are walking on the streets or would even consider to go to town. So my preliminary conclusion would be that for Johannesburg urban renewal and gentrification are a good thing. The image of Johannesburg is changing. And from personal experience, a lot has changed for the better in three years time. But it remains important to keep targeting investments to protect the poor and exciting affordable housing options, otherwise the coffee shops will take over.


  1. Couch, C.,1990, Urban renewal: theory and practice. Basingstoke: MacMillan Education.
  2. Jacobs, J., 1992 [1961], The death and life of great American cities, Vintage Books
  3. Kohli, S., 2015, Developers have discovered the secret sauce for gentrifying neighbourhoods, http://qz.com/408986/developers-have-figured-out-the-secret-sauce-to-gentrification/
  4. Smith, N.S., 1998, Gentrification
  5. Vigdor, J.L. et al, 2002, Does Gentrification Harm The Poor? Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs 2002(1), January 2002 Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs 2002(1); January 2002.
  6. Charles, C.Z.,2003, The dynamics of racial residential segregation, Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 167-207, 2003

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