Words like “gentrification” and “regeneration” are no longer fit for purpose. We should stop using them

The Heygate, Elephant & Castle: one of London's more controversial estate regeneration schemes. Image: Getty.

Say the word “gentrification” these days, and you’re likely to receive a grumpy response. It’s a popular bệte noire – but it’s become too easy a target, a word that’s used to mean too many different things.

So here’s a thought: we should stop using it.

Gentrification used to mean a relatively slow process of professionals and creative types, without vast pots of money, moving into a neglected neighbourhood and doing up their homes. It used to mean gentle waves of improved housing stock, independent shops and cafes, and gradually rising prices.

This type of gentrification isn’t to be sneered at. It brings better performing schools, lower crime, and communities where people of different income levels, class and community live side by side.

That, though, is not what’s happening now: now we have gentrification on steroids. Forget gentle waves; flats in my own corner of south east London doubled in price over four years in the mid 2000s, and have likely doubled again since.

That’s not gentrification. It’s not teachers, social workers and artists who are gradually displacing the grandchildren of people who’ve lived on my street since the 1950s. That’s a housing bubble.

That bubble understandably creates resentment in communities, which has had its own curious side effect: the “hipster” backlash, of which the most infamous example is the attack on Shoreditch’s Cereal Cafe. We can probably all agree that beating up on some beardy business owners selling sugary treats is not the most effective way of protesting market-driven eviction of almost an entire social class.

But the Cereal Cafe attack didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s farcical how predictable the wave of new business openings in a super-gentrifying area can be. The local pub gets a refit with mismatched furniture and starts selling craft beer, with a related price hike. The established sandwich shop gets replaced by a deli selling artisan cheeses. It’s suddenly hard to find a coffee that costs less than two quid.

In short, it’s not just the increase in house prices that carves out a gap where the middle used to be: it’s all the changes to local businesses that come with it. Are we surprised kids eat fried chicken on the way home from school if that’s the only option in their price range?

A few months ago, some graffiti appeared on hoardings surrounding a new development in Lewisham, south east London. “Fuck your Yuppie bullshit” it declared.

The odd thing was, that development is actually emergency housing for people on the council waiting list: it just doesn’t look anything like the usual image of social housing. It’s bright, colourful and has been given a trendy name, PLACE/Ladywell. There have been artists in residence, and toy-making workshops.

In other words, it’s exactly the kind of middle class, bunting-covered “community engagement” projects we’re supposed to approve of. What was once “nice” is now seen as the enemy.

The degeneration of language

There’s another word that’s due for the bonfire. The “regeneration” of a deprived area should be a good thing. In Tottenham, north London, there’s a large post-riots redevelopment scheme under way. Millions are being spent refurbishing leisure centres, libraries and green spaces. Up to 7,000 new homes are being built in a city that desperately needs them.

You can sense there’s a “but” coming, can’t you? The artists’ plans for Tottenham give it that familiar bland sheen. Characterless towers, patches of greenery, the odd outdoor sculpture – it could be anywhere from Nine Elms in London, to Holbeck in Leeds, to Ouseburn in Newcastle. The shops depicted are major chains and could be from any high street in any town. There’s a campaign group fighting rent hikes on behalf of 60 local traders, many from the Afro-Caribbean and Latin American communities, who fear that their pitches at Wards Corner market may soon be out of their price range.

Residents have seen how regeneration has gone down in other areas, and don’t expect Tottenham to be different. Whether it’s national chains or independent “posh” shops coming in and displacing existing businesses, or skyrocketing rents and house prices, the effect on the longstanding community is the same. They feel rapidly encircled and pushed out. That’s not gentrification as we used to know it, or regeneration in the positive sense that councils like to imply: it’s too quick, too brutal.

The idea of “regeneration” has been poisoned by its association with council estate projects, too. Improving long-neglected housing should be a good thing. All too often, however, “regeneration” involves demolition and decanting of the community, imposed from above. No wonder such projects are despised, if the expectation is that communities will be thrown or priced out of their homes.

These words are contaminated. They mean too many things, and so don’t mean anything. There are many other words that might do as alternatives: blandification, community destruction, replacement, demolition, even super-gentrification.

The words we used to describe our policies really matter. The UK, particularly London, faces a severe housing shortage. Many plans to build new homes come under the banner of “regeneration”. They need community support if they are to go ahead, and not get bogged down in protests and planning fights. And while communities’ instant reaction is all too often to dismiss any attempt at development as “gentrification” – and to mean it as an insult – it doesn’t help anyone.

Some of these schemes are bloody awful, of course, but they should be fought based on their specific problems. Protests against “gentrification” are easy to dismiss because the word can mean so many different things. Instead, we should name the problems: a housing bubble, reliance on a broken market to ease supply, the reduction of genuinely affordable housing.

These are issues that can be addressed. The all-compassing bogeyman that “gentrification” has become cannot. We should throw it out and start again.

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To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”