I’ve been following an online conversation between friends exploring possible limits to rapid gentrification. This has been brought home to me primarily as a result of being in Hackney Wick. This is an interesting area (many have written about this, especially in the wonderful book on SoHo: Illegal Living and less academic pieces like here and here) specially understanding the role of creatives in regenerating places and the cycle of improvement, selling off, and new people moving in. The pattern goes a bit like this. First the artists come, they clear up the place and make it interesting. Then the homemakers, then the opticians and estate agents, Tesco and so on. So, it’s really surprising how gentrification here was not accelerated during the Olympics.
Hackney Wick is a fascinating combination of people living lightly in informal spaces, on boats, in shared spaces. Then there are more formal arrangements, tidy and neat local authority housing and finally new build elegant blocks of studio spaces in old Works. And in amongst these are many artist studios, car repair units, a German Deli, indeterminate industrial units, a bagel factory and many cafés. In terms of different types, it’s the biggest range of different kinds of people, and there is something about that which feels so right. Yes, there are irritating hipsters, and one guy with a hatred of them who insists on defacing work on behalf of working class people everywhere. It’s sparky, fast changing, scruffy, and beautiful.
If you talk to some people, there is a sense that a gentrified change is inevitable. Passions are clearly visible here too.
Rapid gentrification was a fear of people we worked with in low income neighborhood Garfield (Pittsburgh, PA), where locals were worried that bringing in creatives sparked a change where they would be priced out of the area. It’s a pattern they had seen, or had heard from family members and saying no became not just a resistance to change, but the only defense they had to prevent what could be a negative effect. Better nothing changing than something bad happening. Sometimes the only power disenfranchised people feel they have is the power to say no. Some times they don’t even have that.
The online conversation asked a particular question: could you stop this kind of change where developers cashed in where artists and creatives had turned an area around and made it an interesting/safe/habitable place again. This particularly referred to the lofty Polish Hill, a perfectly positioned place for cheaper rents and purchases, amazing views across the valley, and over time a cracking community of people making it into their kind of place.
Could they do anything to manage that change with the artists and other residents, or maybe control some of what they see as inevitable development? Precedents seemed to be few and far between. There is an opportunity here, though to review how local planning zones work – in a business and retail context, for example, zones are created to support kinds of activity – then might there be a possibility for a new kind of regeneration zoning. One that supports the status of that particular community for a period as it establishes the change it has created informally? Such zones could at least start to allow people to reap the benefits of their investments, without being priced out and moved on. They would support stability, care for the place, and a deeper sense of ownership and interdependence. In the UK, as we hear about older concepts such as Play Streets, might we be able to create innovations in planning law, that might change such things?
What about a early change community zone? One that restricts large scale land purchases, or preference and rent frozen places for existing residents in new home building? One that took care of longer terms residents, newer folk, and kept the pace of change slow enough just in that location. Given the chance, some planners to work with, and communities to develop a deeper understanding, we could do something that could work.
A follow up: A week later I found this great piece produced by Affordable Wick