Gentrification: a social justice issue

Toronto’s tree-lined streets are getting a makeover. Contractors replace windows and sagging porches. Real estate signs dot elegant gardens. Gentrification makes the city a better place to live.

Or does it?

“Canadian cities are growing more unequal,” says Alan Walks, an associate professor in the University of Toronto Mississauga’s Department of Geography. “Over the last 50 years, a series of working-class neighbourhoods has been redeveloped for high-income households, and in recent times at quite rapid speeds.”

In the traditional model of gentrification, which Toronto experienced from the late 1960s through the 1980s, working-class areas are first colonized by artists, who provide the cachet that attracts tenure conversion and eventually high-income purchasers. The original inhabitants are displaced.

More recently, Walks says, gentrification has become so well established that almost any area in the inner city is fair game for speculators and higher-income individuals. The process is fueled by easy credit, which in the 2000s was driven by low interest rates and government mortgage policies.

Walks points out that gentrification involves distinct winners and losers. Municipalities encourage gentrification because it increases tax revenue. Speculators make money. Those with higher incomes have pleasant, accessible places to live. Gentrifying neighbourhoods enjoy ever-better services and more diverse retail.

That’s the winning side. Gentrification also means younger families take on higher debt to afford a house, and become involved in bidding wars that further drive up prices. Those with lower incomes find themselves priced out of inner cities entirely and compelled to live in cheaper neighbourhoods with poor transit. These newly displaced citizens can experience isolation, difficulty accessing employment and services and a lowered quality of life.

“There’s a social justice issue here: Who deserves to live in the high-accessibility, transit-friendly, walkable neighbourhood?” says Walks. “Gentrification takes those neighbourhoods away from those with fewer means, who can’t afford a car and who must rent, and hands them to the wealthy.”

To delve further into gentrification and the economic relationships between neighbourhoods, Walks turns to a concept he calls the “urban debtscape,” which examines hidden flows of debt across space and their uneven and unequal impacts. “It’s a conceptual tool that can help explain why there is decline in one neighbourhood and gentrification in another,” he says. “It shows factors such as the movement of credit and debt from areas where debt is high to those where it is lower.”

Walks says gentrification is not inevitable. locating heavy industry in the inner city and building more social housing are two important factors in maintaining a social mix in the city and providing poorer households fairer access to jobs, transit, and other inner city benefits.

“There is definitely an argument to be made for having a balanced mixed city, and this requires housing for low-income renters.”

Tagged: Community, Culture, Economy, Blog, Stories

Share: Print

Leave Comments

Blog Posts

A matter of will ...

Cherri Greeno | January 14, 2015

New research from the University of Waterloo explains why our brains often fail to turn intention into action, and why this gap can be overcome. read more »

Adjusting goals is not ...

Deborah Durbin | January 12, 2015

On January 1st many people set bold exercise goals for themselves as part of their New Year resolutions. Come Valentine’s Day, though, most of those goals have fallen by the wayside, tossed aside along with empty heart-shaped candy boxes. read more »

How to set realistic ...

Araina Bond (with files from Patchen Barss) | January 9, 2015

Making New Year’s Resolutions and sticking to them are two very different things. Two Ontario researchers have each discovered different ways to make reaching goals more likely. read more »

Let shopping be your ...

Noreen Fagan | December 18, 2014

Here’s a fun fact – Canadians eat more sushi than the Japanese. At least that’s what Mark Cleveland says, and he should know. Cleveland is a professor of marketing at Western University. His research focuses on the integration of cultures on a global scale and the effects of cosmopolitanism, which according to Cleveland is, “the cultural openness and the ability to successfully navigate between different cultural groups.” In other words, people who want to understand and experience other cultures do so by fully immersing themselves in that culture. “You want to live the life of cultural authenticity, by trying to understand the culture through that culture’s eyes,” he says. Cleveland’s interest in cultural openness started when he was a Master’s and then a Ph.D. student at Concordia University in Montreal. He started researching how new immigrants, primarily ethic minorities, adapted to Canadian culture by finding ways to combine their traditional identities, culture and values into mainstream society. “I have always believed that just because you learn another culture does not mean you give up the original culture. You can be bicultural or multicultural and the two can reinforce each other,” says Cleveland. “Not only are minorities affected by cultural exchange but the majority are as well.” Canada’s multiculturalism prompted Cleveland to extend his research into globalization, with a focus on how global cultures affect majority populations around the world. In the last decade Cleveland has conducted research in 15 to 20 countries exploring cultural exchange and cosmopolitanism. He says a person no longer has to travel abroad – although it helps – to become cosmopolitan. A person can experience different cultures in the comfort of their own home or neighbourhood, simply by watching TV, surfing the Internet, playing videos on You Tube or buying and consuming different products. “When we buy products, and types of brands and the reasons for buying them, they are like extensions of ourselves,” he says. So how do the sushi–eating Canadians fit into all of this? Cleveland believes if a person wants to experience cultural authenticity they will gear their shopping towards achieving that aim. In other words, a person is not going to go for the North American version of sushi (think Californian Roll), when they can get the real thing – think Unagi. He says there is probably a general global trend towards cultural openness as people become more educated and have more exposure to other cultures but he warns, there is another side. “A lot of people are really opposed to what is happening with Globalization and they see their culture as under threat,” says Cleveland adding that the threat is heightened when people feel insecure. If people are feeling secure in their surroundings (financially, emotionally and physically), the more open they are to cultural exchange and the more cosmopolitan they become. Being cosmopolitan however, does not mean buying local is a thing of the past; in fact what makes cosmopolitans stand out is that they strive for cultural authenticity. “The more cosmopolitan you are means you are not only interested in preserving differences but also interested in the environment, like getting the best locally,” says Cleveland. In terms of cosmopolitanism Cleveland thinks Canadians are more accepting of other cultures. “We are a new country, most of us go back two or three generations and have one or two grandparents born somewhere else. We have a more fluid identity,” he says, adding that as large cities go, Toronto is well integrated. “We are not just living in these areas dominated by our own ethic group, there are more opportunities to mix, and I think that allows us to become more open-minded.”
More Blogs »