Gentrification : a complex urban phenomenon and its use by public authorities

Hervé SIOU, Julie BLANCK, 2011


The term gentrification first appeared in 1963, in a study by the British sociologist Ruth Glass on the city of London. Initially considered a «  anomaly ", gentrification refers to   »processes by which formerly popular central districts are profoundly transformed by the arrival of new inhabitants belonging to the middle and upper classes«   as defined by Yankel Fijalkow and Edmond Préteceille 1. These gentrifiers, true « social innovators », most often belong to a new middle class in full ascent, highly endowed in social and cultural capital (artistic and intellectual professions…). This phenomenon gained momentum during the 1980s and 1990s. It manifests itself in transformations that are at once material, social and symbolic in formerly devalued urban spaces.

But this object of study of sociology has given rise to violent controversies between researchers who have produced since the 1980s various theories: mainly economic or cultural. It is interesting to note that, in a context of changing frames of reference and the withdrawal of the state, Anglo-Saxon theories have shown little interest in the possible use of this phenomenon by public policies. Indeed, gentrification is perceived as the result of a alliance between {{global socio-economic developments and the reactions of private actors. It is therefore a mainly spontaneous phenomenon.

It is a French approach which has shown that public actors can take it up in the framework of the rehabilitation of underprivileged neighbourhoods: embellishment and renovation of urban space allow local authorities to build an environment which is in harmony with the aspirations of new wealthy classes which dominate economically, socially and culturally. These are at the origin of an ideal model of urban life to which the public actors conform.

But this is not without its problems in terms of social mix since the rehabilitation of popular neighbourhoods inevitably leads to higher land prices. Former inhabitants often find themselves unable to keep up financially with this development. Gentrification therefore involves many issues of lifestyle, social cohesion and urban policies.

I. Gentrification: an economic or cultural phenomenon?

In an article setting out the stages of research on the notion of gentrification, Chris Hamnet sets out the terms of the Anglo-Saxon debate. According to him, «  Gentrification is one of the main sites of this conflict between the proponents of culture, preference and individual action (cultural theory), and the defenders of the imperatives of capital and profit (economic theory)  » 2. It is therefore a question of examining the arguments that oppose these different theses. Contrary to what is asserted by their defenders, they are not necessarily opposed but may prove complementary to understand the phenomenon of gentrification in all its complexity.

The economic thesis

In order to study the economic thesis, it is necessary to approach Neil Smith’s conception, which takes up this structuralist orientation, centred on the production of urban space as a result of the interplay of land and property markets and investment mechanisms. According to him, the main actors in gentrification are determined private actors whose behaviour is entirely determined by the economic situation of post-Fordism. Their primary motivation remains profit.

More precisely, in his article «  Gentrification and the Rent Gap  »3, he responds to David Ley’s work stating that it is the economic hypothesis and the thesis of the post-industrial city that matter to understand this phenomenon. Smith agrees with this assertion but questions the means of measurement used by Ley. He therefore creates an indicator,   »the rent differential«  , which according to him is the main explanatory factor for gentrification. According to his definition of gentrification, this phenomenon implies not only a social change but also, at the neighbourhood level, a physical change in the land stock, and an economic change in the land market. It would be this «  social, physical and economic  combination that would distinguish this process. The arrival of the middle classes is at the origin of an investment in the revaluation of the neighbourhood which directly increases the land value. Thus, according to Smith, «  gentrifieurs  » would be attracted by the lowest land values that have the highest potential for valorization and their main motivation would be profit. Gentrifiers would never invest for free in low value neighbourhoods.

To assess the degree of gentrification of a neighbourhood, a combination of indicators : income trends and land prices should be used. It is this approach that makes it possible to measure the relationship between speculation and social change. For Smith, the most important is the gap between the given land value and its potential for revaluation. He explains it by his theory of the   »rent gap«   or  rent differential . However, he has reservations since he observes that the neighbourhoods that see the biggest gap are not necessarily the first to be of interest to the gentrificers. Social factors, such as segregation phenomena, have a considerable influence on the gentrification phenomenon. He chooses not to study the question of the origin of collective social preferences and the importance of the role of the gentrifiers as individuals. For him, this is a secondary phenomenon in relation to economic games. Yet it is on these two points that his thesis has serious limitations. His restrictive approach to gentrification as an economic process leads to a very partial explanation of this phenomenon, which deserves to be supplemented by the cultural thesis.

The cultural thesis

To avoid reducing gentrification to economic structural conditions, it is therefore necessary to assess more precisely the motivations of the individuals involved in this process. In order to do so, it is useful to first understand the social emergence of this highly differentiated group : it would be linked to a « social restructuring », due to the deindustrialization of post-Fordist economies, which has profoundly modified employment structures. It would therefore be a new group, with particular aspirations in socio-cultural terms. Its consumption preferences would help to explain its own residential choices. We can speak here of a real «  residential identity  » linked to the consumption of artistic services accumulated in city centres.

Elsa Vivant and Éric Charmes address this particular aspect of gentrification in their article   »Gentrification and its pioneers : the role of off-artists in question  »4. According to them, the arrival of new, more affluent populations in central working-class neighbourhoods can be explained by various factors of attractiveness, particularly cultural and social factors based on a need for differentiation : lifestyle, atmosphere, conviviality, authenticity, social mix, quality of public spaces, services and functionality, everything that makes centrality an attractive notion. In France, the « new middle classes » possess a substantial social capital and seek at all costs to distinguish themselves from a « conservative bourgeoisie ». This is why the art of proximity and the aesthetic quality of the urban environment appear as a real dominant value, imposed by this class of gentrificers. These social and cultural orientations are based on their own consumer practices, which are in fact the signs of an ideological and normative discourse that has been dominant since the 1980s, carrying the representations of an ideal of urban society.

This article thus proposes to evaluate the role of cultural activities in the launching of a gentrification process. Artists participate in the «  symbolic revaluation of neighbourhoods  » that they invest, which would attract a second wave of gentrificators. But the authors conclude that artists are   »more witnesses or indicators of gentrification than triggers or catalysts«  . The revaluation movement goes far beyond them. In this way one already perceives how artists and cultural activities can even be used by public authorities to create a original identity in a devalued urban space and attract other social classes.

Indeed, this phenomenon is usually accompanied by a global and coherent action on the gentrified space. The neighbourhood is thus a place of symbolic re-appropriation favoured by artists and the new middle classes. The construction of an environment that corresponds to the aspirations of the ruling class suggests that this elite has sufficient political weight to impose its demands. This is why, in a neighbourhood undergoing gentrification, we observe a changing and complex game between attirances and repulsions5, which has consequences for the «  ambiance  » of this space. This theory is mainly based on the social and cultural preferences of the gentrificers and their ability to impose a new spatial order.

An integrated theory of gentrification

In his article The Blind Men and the Elephant : The Explanation of Gentrification(1991), Chris Hamnett manages to match structural conditions in the land market, «  production of gentrification ". (through economic conditions and land market games), and taking into account the socio-cultural aspirations of a group seeking socio-cultural differentiation. In this way, cultural and economic theories would not oppose each other, but on the contrary would complement each other. These would be two aspects to be articulated in order to understand gentrification as a whole. This is why he elaborates an integrated theory which sets four conditions for gentrification :

According to Hamnett, gentrification is primarily due to the concentration of employment sectors that produce gentrifiers and to specific lifestyles:  » the key actors in the gentrification process have been the gentrifiers themselves ".

II. From the implementation of gentrification in urban policies to the «  deconstruction  » of the concept of « gentrification »:  » the key actors in the gentrification process have been the gentrifiers themselves .

Gentrification, first observed as an anomaly, has spread widely both as a reading grid and as a phenomenon in itself. So much so that its recent adoption in the field of urban policies can be observed. From a spontaneous phenomenon we would thus move from an organized process to an organized process even if it does not appear as such. The fact remains that the multiplication of applications of the concept perhaps invites us to redefine the original meaning of gentrification.

Towards a generalized urban strategy

Neil Smith, in his article Generalized gentrification : from local anomaly to urban « regeneration » as a local urban strategy6, reviews the history of the gentrification phenomenon, from Glass’s focus on the notion of rehabilitation, which he saw as very particular and localized, in the housing market of Islington, to the expansion of the phenomenon, which has become an important dimension of contemporary urban planning. To show this rapid transformation, between the 1960s and the 2000s, Smith takes the example of New York. He thus distinguishes three phases :

Generalized gentrification is the fact that the phenomenon is spreading throughout the city centre and in more outlying and newer neighbourhoods than those of the 19th century concerned by the first phase of gentrification. The sectoral generalisation of gentrification is also important. Indeed, gentrification does not only concern narrow niches of the housing market, it increasingly concerns new restaurants and shopping streets in the city centre, museums, high-rise buildings of major brands… In this evolution of gentrification,   »the residential component cannot reasonably be dissociated from the transformation of the landscape of employment, leisure and consumption«  .

If New York is not a model of gentrification because each city has its own rhythm and its economic and social particularities, the passage from a gentrification perceived as a local anomaly to a urban strategy is generalizable. Indeed, in the 1990s, gentrification became for many cities a key urban strategy in conjunction with the private sector. Neil Smith considers that one translation of this transformation from natural to institutionalized gentrification is through the use of the term urban regeneration. This euphemism would translate the transposition of gentrification in terms of urban policy. Smith observes the transnational convergence of these policies at the European level. For him, this is proof of an important victory of neo-liberal visions over the city.

A revitalization strategy for cities in difficulty: seeking to attract rich populations rather than wealth-producing activities.

Max Rousseau, in his article   »Bringing politics back in " : Gentrification as urban development policy ? Autour des villes perdantes7, makes his contribution to the idea of a political takeover of the phenomenon of gentrification. He is therefore interested in the particular case of « losing cities », i.e. his analysis does not focus on central governments but rather on the actions and representations of the urban elites who implement policies aimed at symbolically transforming the city centre to adapt it to the taste of the middle classes whose arrival is expected in order to compensate for economic decline. These cities had often based their economic development on Fordist industrialization ; they were therefore strongly affected by the economic crisis of the 1970s.

Moreover, these are cities that have a bad image. On the basis of this observation, they seek to attract a « creative class ». (Richard Florida) rather than companies. Rousseau draws in particular on the examples of the cities of Roubaix and Sheffield, where he notes that the establishment of a real gentrification policy was done little by little, almost by chance at first. This process then grew very quickly, relying in particular on a dynamic cultural policy. Within the loser cities studied, a political will to attract the middle classes to the city, at least to its centre, has thus developed, » he writes. Thus, after initial actions carried out around the exclusive objective of attracting companies, the city elites are now increasingly trying to attract the middle classes.

Urban politics and ideology

The political powers, through their actions, can participate in the creation of a «  physical and cultural identity  » for a targeted public. These orientations therefore appear as an ideologically marked choice, which shows the collusion between gentrification and public actors. This can therefore pose a problem for a socialist municipal team, as is the case in Paris: the difficulty it faces is to manage to articulate   »physical improvement of the city while maintaining social mixing«   in the words of Anne Clerval on the link between gentrification and public policies 8. In this article, the author studies the policy conducted since 2001 by the municipality. She speaks of gentrification as an initially spontaneous phenomenon, but insists on the existence of a «  willingness to support it  » on the part of the public authorities. The cultural professions are indeed pioneers in this field, but in the 1980s, politics went against this movement through a general practice of   »destruction-reconstruction«  .

With Jean Tibéri, mayor of Paris in 1995, municipal policy changed direction by favouring the rehabilitation of old buildings with high potential, thanks to incentive tools such as ANAH aid and Programmed Housing Improvement Operations. This practice was then reinforced by the SRU law of 2000 and the political choices of Bertrand Delanoë, who made the development of roads and public spaces the second budget item and encouraged embellishment and cultural animation, criteria of urban quality of life : the city is well transformed in order to satisfy the aspirations of these middle classes.

It also stresses the social consequences of such policies. By giving priority to the demands of well-to-do social classes, we are initially witnessing an increase in social mix, but the risk of relegating the working classes out of the city centre is great. We then speak of «  social tilting . This may give rise to conflicts between actors and it is only the progressive nature of the phenomenon that allows social cohesion to be maintained in a relatively stable context.

The risk of an attractive but simplifying concept

Faced with the tendency to use the concept of gentrification to describe phenomena that are ultimately quite different from the initial process, Alain Bourdin, in «  Gentrification, a concept to be deconstructed  »9 speaks of a very   »broad definition that makes it possible to bring together many monographs under a rather fuzzy label«  . For Bourdin, this definition does not allow a better understanding of the urban transformations at work in the city.

Thus,   »the label of gentrification has become a mask that hinders the analysis of social processes as well as of the transformation of cities, and that encloses it in outrageously simplifying debates«  . Thus, to explain Smith’s thesis, he points to the influence of anti-gentrification activists in the United States. These would enslave the research process   »by seeking not the effects of knowledge but the effects of image and communication«  . On this basis, Bourdin proposes to   »deconstruct the notion by distinguishing several dimensions : that of urban renewal in the strict sense of the word, social transformation and the uses of the city«  .

In so doing, he returns to a definition closer to that given by Ruth Glass, but with the addition of a major dimension: the study of the phenomenon through sociology. However, this does not prevent him from returning to this initial definition, which tended to privilege the analysis of departures. Thus, the fundamental problem would not be that of the ‘departure but of the ‘arrival’ because leaving to find better is quite different from leaving for as bad but further away, he writes. In the same way, for him, the arrival of middle classes corresponds to an immense diversity of situations where the meaning of middle class seems rather imprecise. ’Simplification leads to mixing very different phenomena by making them unreadable except through an ideological prism«  .

Finally, the abandonment of central spaces by industries, the reconquest of these spaces, although it retains the traces of an old idealised building, has nothing to do with gentrification because it is something brand new that is being done. Finally, the   »confiscation [of the notion of gentrification] by a rather cumbersome theory and an unquestionable tendency to use it as a justification for an anecdotal empires make us wonder about its usefulness«   he concludes.


In the end, the expansion of the gentrification phenomenon and the parallel extension of the use of the concept and its recent application to various urban structures - the concept is now used in developing countries - tend to give a « catch-all » definition of this process. It is therefore apparently paradoxical that urban policies that make extensive use of the concept continue to hide behind the politically correct term   »urban regeneration« . This is because behind the discourse, gentrification sometimes hides a very different reality: neither mixing nor blending, but «  boboisation  » and social segregation… pardon «  social refinement ". Jacques Donzelot in «  La ville à trois vitesses : relegation, peri-urbanisation, gentrification«   tries to show the close correspondence between the professionally designed gentrified neighbourhood and the newcomers by analysing a «  mode of mutual recognition  » that would exist between the people who benefit from this phenomenon. This one   »mindedly reminds us of the spectacle offered by the winners of a reality TV game so naively delighted and proud to find themselves together, happy survivors of the great game of the national society, elected members of the world society«   he writes.

1 Fijalkow, Y., Préteceille, E., Gentrification : discours et politiques urbaines (France, Royaume-Uni, Canada), in Sociétés Contemporaines, n°63,(2006)(p.5-13)

2 HAMNETT, C., The Blind Men and the Elephant : The Explanation of Gentrification, 1991

3 SMITH, N., Gentrification and the Rent Gap in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 1987

4 Vivant, E. et Charmes, E., La gentrification et ses pionniers : le rôle des artistes off en question , Métropoles, 3, Varia

5 Notion de « rue décor » mise en évidence par Eric Charmes. La rue est mise en avant comme un simple « paysage humain » dont on profite mais que l’on vit à distance

6 SMITH, N., La gentrification généralisée : d’une anomalie locale à la régénération urbaine comme stratégie urbaines globale, dans Bidou-Zachariasen, C., (sous la dir. de), 2003, Retours en ville, Paris, Descartes & Cie

7 ROUSSEAU, M., Bringing politics back in » : la gentrification comme politique de développement urbain ?. Autour des villes perdantes , Érès, Espaces et sociétés, 2008/1-2 - n° 132

8 CLERVAL, A., « Les politiques publiques face à la gentrification. Le cas de Paris intra-muros » in Pérennité urbaine ou la ville par-delà ses métamorphoses, t. 2 Turbulences, Vallat, C., Delpirou, A. et Maccaglia, F. (dir.), Paris, L’Harmattan, 2009, (p.139-151)

9 BOURDIN, A., Gentrification : un « concept » à déconstruire, Érès, Espaces et sociétés 2008/1-2 - n° 132


  • AUTHIER, J-Y., BIDOU-ZACHARIASEN, C., Éditorial. La question de la gentrification urbaine, Espaces et sociétés, 2008, n° 132

  • BOURDIN, A., Gentrification : un « concept » à déconstruire, Érès, Espaces et sociétés 2008/1-2 - n° 132

  • CLERVAL, A., « Les politiques publiques face à la gentrification. Le cas de Paris intra-muros » in Pérennité urbaine ou la ville par-delà ses métamorphoses, t. 2 Turbulences, Vallat, C., Delpirou, A. et Maccaglia, F. (dir.), Paris, L’Harmattan, 2009, (p.139-151)

  • DONZELOT, J., « La ville à trois vitesses : relégation, périurbanisation, gentrification », revue Esprit, mars-avril 2004

  • FIJALKOW, Y., PRETECEILLE, E., Gentrification : discours et politiques urbaines (France, Royaume-Uni, Canada), in Sociétés Contemporaines (2006) n°63 (p.5-13)

  • HAMNETT, C., The Blind Men and the Elephant : The Explanation of Gentrification, 1991

  • ROUSSEAU, M., Bringing politics back in » : la gentrification comme politique de développement urbain ?. Autour des « villes perdantes », Érès, Espaces et sociétés, 2008/1-2 - n° 132

  • SMITH, N., Gentrification and the Rent Gap, in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 1987

  • SMITH, N., La gentrification généralisée : d’une anomalie locale à la régénération urbaine comme stratégie urbaines globale, dans BIDOU-ZACHARIASEN, C., (sous la dir. de), 2003, Retours en ville, Paris, Descartes & Cie

  • VIVANT, E., CHARMES, E., « La gentrification et ses pionniers : le rôle des artistes off en question », Métropoles, 3, Varia

To go further

This reading note was produced as part of the Master Stratégies Territoriales et Urbaines (2009) at Sciences Po Paris, under the direction of Gilles Pinson.