Gentrification is good for you

The controversial Brixton Village market, south London. Image: Getty.

There are few people who would argue that gentrification is anything other than A Very Bad Thing. The term itself is a vague one, but is generally used to signal wealthy newcomers displacing existing residents in up and coming neighbourhoods – with unhappy connotations of spiraling house prices, and poor residents being shunted out to make way for wealthy tech workers, expensive burger joints and cereal cafes.

At least, that’s the conventional narrative of countless articles and editorials fretting about the impact of gentrification in cities such as London, Brighton and Bristol. However, when we take a step back from the hand-wringing, it’s clear that the debate around gentrification is a lot more complicated than a simple battle between plucky communities and greedy gentrifiers.

The problem with this perspective is it fails to recognise that the roles and functions of urban neighbourhoods within a city have always changed over time. Shoreditch’s latest incarnation as a tech hub, for example, is just the latest example of a long line of "disruptive newcomers" coming to the area, dating back to the arrival of the Huguenots in the seventeenth century. This dynamic is inherent and critical to making and sustaining successful cities, which have an economic imperative to welcome and make best use of new people and businesses.

Another factor which many critics fail to recognise is that gentrifying businesses can play a big role in raising prosperity and wages for everyone in a city, not just those they directly employ. The economist Enrico Moretti has shown, for example, that US cities which had a boom in "new work" jobs (such as those in digital or creative firms) also enjoyed a boost in wages and employment in other sectors – benefiting people working in restaurants, retail, marketing and legal firms, and hotels and laundrettes.

This trend can also be seen in the UK. Centre for Cities research shows that places which are home to the highest concentrations of small businesses in "new work" sectors are also among the most successful places in terms of overall jobs growth and wages.

Rather than attempting to preserve places like Shoreditch as they are, the focus should therefore be on making sure that people already living there can also enjoy the benefit from the changes. That means, for example, taking steps to improve education and skills-levels among local residents, to help them to capitalise on the new opportunities that changes in their area might offer.

Of course, no would one deny that the rise in housing costs in places like London and Bristol pose major problems that urgently need to be addressed. But doing so won’t be possible unless we puncture the myth that creative in-comers are to blame, when the biggest cause is in fact poor city management.

The most successful cities in the UK are also the least affordable to live in or to rent workspace in, primarily because of the scarcity of available land in these places, and the competing pressures for both housing and commercial usage. As a result, the development of new homes and workspaces is nowhere near the level it should be to match demand.

The onus is therefore on local leaders in places like London to bring more land to market – for example, by considering the option of building on a small portion of the green belt. That would enable more homes to be built, lowering costs for existing residents, and freeing up space in central urban areas for commercial use – allowing more new people and businesses to work, create jobs and contribute to the city.

The problem is that the planning system as it stands doesn’t give decision-makers enough incentives to address these challenges. The councillors who authorise local plans will inevitably respond to the views of those who vote them in – local residents – who tend not to welcome new developments being built in their neighbourhoods.

Policy responses to these problems have so far been inadequate. That urgently needs to change, especially in an increasingly globalised world in which the pace of change and disruption in our communities is only likely to increase.

One answer would be to give local leaders more powers over tax revenue generated in their areas, including stamp duty, which would give them the incentives they need to tackle housing shortages and other issues.

But ultimately, we also need to recognise the real roots of the problems that thriving urban economies face, rather than simply pointing the finger at the people and businesses which are driving that success. Failing to do so will result in places like London becoming so unaffordable they will stagnate – and as the late, great urban activist Jane Jacobs warned, when a place gets boring, even the rich people leave.

Edward Clarke is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.