From London to Toronto to San Francisco, many urban centres around the world are transforming as crumbling old neighbourhoods are revitalized and replaced by new buildings and notably, new groups of people. Today, gentrification is a growing global reality.
Gentrification refers to a process of renovation, rebuilding, and renewal accompanied by an influx of wealth and affluence. Neighbourhoods are often “cleaned up” as crime rates drop, trendy restaurants and luxury shops open, and the availability of stylish housing increases along with economic opportunities. For many, gentrification is quite appealing as it opens new doors. As the motto goes: “out with the old and in with the new,” right?
Unfortunately, gentrification also means an increase in rent, tax, and the overall cost of living. In Toronto, for instance, the cost of food and public transit has significantly increased in gentrifying neighbourhoods. For some families and small businesses, this means moving out of a neighbourhood that you had once called home. As neighbourhoods gentrify, many of the existing residents and business owners are often priced out due to their inability to keep up with the pace of rising costs. As many are forced to relocate, neighbourhoods tend to lose much of their character, along with their racial and cultural diversity.
While gentrification is usually considered a social problem, it is also a health issue. How? Because it deeply impacts the lives of those people who are usually displaced from gentrified neighbourhoods. Displacement often places vulnerable groups of people at risk, including women, children, the elderly, the poor, and racialized minorities. By being priced out, individuals are also excluded and marginalized by society as their access to affordable food, housing, and transportation, as well as quality schools, community centres and services, and social networks becomes limited. Such drastic changes tend to negatively affect the health of individuals by widening health disparities due to increasing stress levels and injuries, as well as exposure to violence and crime, and an impact on the mental health of the displaced.
When forced to move out of their gentrified, previous residents are forced to move to remote or underserviced areas where they are more likely to experience food deserts, pollutants, and have less access to vital services. This experience is all the worse for minorities, as a study from Philadelphia found that low-income residents from a gentrified area of the city experienced worse health outcomes and this impact was more pronounced in racialized groups. Moreover, another study from New York found that gentrification was associated with preterm birth among racialized groups.
Although gentrification is not an entirely “bad” process, it’s not all “good” either. What’s clear is that there are some severe negative effects of gentrification that are important to consider. While some will benefit, others will clearly lose a lot as their neighbourhoods gentrify because the benefits brought into the neighbourhood are usually not for the existing residents.
Overall, the benefits of gentrification are disproportionately shared by those with greater economic and social power. As such, there exists an opportunity to explore alternate avenues that mitigate the negative effects of gentrification and allow more people to share its benefits. It’s now time for policy-makers to start exploring alternatives, by taking the social determinants of health into consideration to find solutions that will benefit people from all walks of life when developing urban renewal projects.