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Gentrification as policy – empirical frontiers

La gentrification comme objectif politique – pistes de recherche empirique
Mathieu Van Criekingen
p. 65-74


L’argument central de cet article est qu’il importe d’envisager la gentrification contemporaine comme une stratégie de politique urbaine, multiforme et de grande ampleur. L’enjeu est ici de dépasser les représentations usuelles de la gentrification ne reconnaissant à celle-ci qu’une qualité de processus de transformation urbaine, par lequel un quartier est progressivement dédié à des habitants et utilisateurs plus aisés. Il s’agit de mettre spécifiquement en lumière le rôle joué par les acteurs publics dans l’accompagnement ou l’encouragement des processus de gentrification. L’article propose une lecture transversale des principaux points mis en évidence dans les travaux, encore fort rares, ayant cherché à documenter empiriquement l’émergence d’agendas politiques hissant la gentrification au rang d’objectif plus ou moins assumé et décliné à travers différents domaines d’action publique (politiques du logement, culturelle ou touristique, plans d’infrastructures, etc.). Des travaux menés à Paris, Roubaix et Anvers sont particulièrement commentés, en vue d’en dégager une vue d’ensemble. Il en ressort un éclairage direct sur le contenu des politiques pro-gentrification, mettant en lumière des combinaisons multiformes mais systématiques d’actions sur la demande et sur l’offre d’espaces à gentrifier ainsi que sur la production de représentations visant à conférer une légitimité propre à ces politiques. Ces travaux mettent encore en relief que le déploiement d’un programme politique pro-gentrification s’appuie sur des transformations des structures opérationnelles de gouvernement urbain. En conclusion, l’article plaide pour la poursuite des recherches empiriques sur les politiques de gentrification explorant la variété des contextes urbains locaux et des combinaisons de politiques publiques. Développer cette perspective de recherche est essentiel à l’entretien voire au renouvellement de la portée critique de la notion de gentrification.

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“Positive gentrification in Molenbeek”

  • 1 “(...) l’idée étant d’utiliser la vertu transformatrice de la présence d’artistes pour infléchir l’ (...)

1This title is taken from an article reporting the near completion of a project involving the conversion of a disused 19th-centruy brewery building in an impoverished working-class district of Molenbeek, one of Brussels’ central municipality ; the article appears in the summer 2010 issue of a quarterly edited by the Department of Culture of the Ministry of the French Community of Belgium (Brunfaut, 2010). The project was developed by a public-funded housing company controlled by the regional government (i.e. the “Fonds du Logement”), further to the transfer of the property from its original owner (i.e. the French Community of Belgium). In return, the Fonds du Logement was to produce social housing in the form of 31 live-work units to be rented by artists (see also Cohen, 2010). However, in the eyes of the French Community, “... the idea is to use the transformative properties of an artist presence to change the image of the neighbourhood. In this sense, gentrification is offered like a ‘window’ for a neighbourhood languishing in welfare support” (Brunfaut, 2010, p. 23 – my translation)1.

  • 2 Precisely : “a process involving a change in the population of land-users such that the new users a (...)

2This extract offers a place-specific, but quite telling and extremely explicit illustration of gentrification taking centre-stage in urban policy discourses, representations and strategies. In this sense, it echoes – and only very modestly adds to – a growing body of empirical evidence supporting the essential suggestion that gentrification today could no longer simply be conceived of as a process of urban change resulting from the play of market forces2, but ought to be simultaneously considered as a core element of conscious policy strategies.

  • 3 To some extent, Smith put here new emphasis on a point that he already stressed in his earlier work (...)

3This point has been vividly put forward in a paper entitled “Gentrification as global urban strategy”, published by Neil Smith in 2002 and soon translated to French (in Bidou-Zachariasen, 2003). Smith notes the “rapidity of the evolution of an initially marginal urban process first identified in the 1960s and its ongoing transformation into a significant dimension of contemporary urbanism” (p. 439), and goes on to argue that “... to different degrees, gentrification has evolved by the 1990s into a crucial urban strategy for city governments in consort with private capital in cities around the world” (p. 440)3. Accordingly, Smith concludes that the generalization of gentrification as central goal of contemporary urban policy forms part of a broader shift towards a new, neoliberal urbanism (see also Hackworth, 2007).

4This paper has marked an important step forward for gentrification theory. In a sense, Smith’s point has “liberated” gentrification literature from resilient, and indeed sterile “theoretical and ideological squabbles” (Slater, 2006, p. 746) initiated in the 1970s and based on entrenched binaries between supporters of an “economic” (i.e. “supply-side”) versus “cultural” (i.e. “consumption-side”) explanation of the process. Smith’s argument on the central role of public policy and governmental actors (as well as corporate-governmental partnerships) in 21st-century gentrification has taken this debate in a different, and indeed much more stimulating direction (see e.g. Lees, 2003 ; Slater, 2004 ; Collomb, 2006 ; Uitermark et al. 2007 ; Lees & Ley, 2008 ; Wyly & Hammel, 2008 ; Clerval & Fleury, 2009 ; Rousseau, 2010 ; Garnier, 2010). His argument is also fully in tune with Loïc Wacquant’s warning that “(it) is high time students of gentrification recognize that the primary engine behind the (re)allocation of people, resources and institutions in the city is the state” (2008, p. 202).

  • 4 See e.g. the anticipated impact of recent cuts in housing benefits included in Mr. D. Cameron’s aus (...)

5However, as several scholars (including N. Smith) acknowledge it, gentrification policies – or “state-led gentrification” – are played out in contrasted ways in different places, although such policies are on the rise worldwide. If only taking cities of advanced capitalist countries into consideration, spatial contingencies in that matter relates notably to the place-specific interaction of diverse components of neoliberal policy (cutbacks in welfare redistribution4, privatization of formerly public services...), the scalar reconfigurations of the (local) state as well as the form of social geographies inherited from previous phases of urban change (e.g. the relative centrality of working-class neighbourhoods at the city scale) (Lees et al., 2008). The play of these multiple parameters urge students of gentrification to refine and contextualize the broader, and indeed essential argument about gentrification becoming a central urban policy objective.

6But then a methodological challenge immediately arises : how to empirically test, nuance and contextualise this argument in different urban environments ? Related research questions are numerous : What are the precise (non-)material ingredients of a “gentrification policy” ? Who precisely among state actors are involved, and at what scale of government – for setting objectives, selecting targeted areas, funding and implementing programmes... ? How public actors interact with different categories of non-state protagonists for defining and implementing these options ? To what extent do urban policy initiate new gentrification processes, or rather foster or redirect pre-existing ones ? How far gentrification objectives have reoriented, marginalized or displaced other policy goals, notably redistributive programmes ? etc.

7Addressing these issues in different urban contexts would greatly contribute to strengthening the foundations of the gentrification-as-policy argument. It is useful to refer here to a recent critique addressed to the related, and rapidly expanding literature centred upon the notion of urban neoliberalism. As Harding (2007, 455) puts it : “It would be particularly helpful... if commentators who use the words neoliberal, neoliberalism and neoliberalization... were prepared to say precisely what they mean by them, which economic and social interests advance them, through what mechanisms and with what effects. In the absence of such clarity, the danger is that they continue to be used as catch-all terms of abuse by ‘progressive’ critics rather than concepts that are useful to empirical research”. Such point is also valid for the literature on gentrification and public policies, in my view, and needs to be addressed both theoretically (see e.g. Brenner et al., 2010 for the urban neoliberalism debate) and empirically. Here, I would specifically argue that reinforcing the empirical bases of the multifaceted and place-specific ties between gentrification and urban policy ought to be considered as a priority task for researchers seeking to make sense of contemporary urban change. Further­more, I would stress that such a task should not be limited to add conceptual clarity to the notion of “gentrification policy” per se. Rather, beyond this, what is essentially at stake is to add to the capacity of the gentrification-as-policy argument to fuel a broader critique of the contemporary dominant – i.e. neoliberalised – mode of production of urban space.

From Paris to Roubaix, to Antwerp : emerging geographies of pro-gentrification political coherence

8Some recent works have begun to pave this research way. There is now a variety of works exploring the ways through which particular policy tools, discourses or programmes impact on gentrification processes. One can notably find here studies of policy discourses (e.g. Bacqué & Fijalkow, 2006), “social mix” policy rhetoric in particular (e.g. Walks & Maaranen, 2008), intervention on urban public spaces (e.g. Dessouroux et al., 2010), changing directions of (social) housing or cultural policies (e.g. Uitermark et al., 2007), new surveillance and security programmes (e.g. Coleman, 2004), state support of large-scale urban projects (e.g. Vicario & Martinez Monje, 2003), etc. Yet, fewer works have tackled gentrification policy head-on, that is, establishing it as their central research object in order to explore its multiple aspects altogether. The works of Clerval & Fleury (2009) on Paris, Rousseau (2008 ; 2010) on Roubaix and Sheffield, and Loopmans (2008) on Antwerp are rare exceptions in this respect, and indeed very stimulating ones for they seek to bring out the political coherence across recent changes in diverse policy fields – such as (social) housing policies, cultural policies and heritage conservation, interventions on public spaces, or economic (re)development options.

9Clerval & Fleury (2009) stress point this very clearly : “(...) these various policies hang together on the ground, and their geography is indicative of this support of gentrification : the working-class neighbourhoods that are invested by middle- and upper-class groups are those ones which benefit most from the creations of new green spaces, ‘green neighbourhoods’ programmes, new sports and cultural facilities ; the new paths of the ‘Nuit Blanche’ operation and the extension of ‘Paris Plages’ in the North-East are also an explicit public support for gentrifiers investing areas still on the fringe of the process. In addition, (...) the latter are often among the first ones to express their opinions in neighbourhood councils established by the left-wing municipality to promote citizen participation in urban policies” (p.11 – my translation). As this quote reveals, analysing the Paris’ case shows the particular importance of two specific fields of policy intervention in promoting and directing gentrification, that is : on the one hand, the refurbishment and beautification of public spaces, and, on the other hand, cultural policies – including both investments in new art consumption and production facilities (such as “Le Cent quatre” in the 19th arrondissement) and art or cultural events (such as “Paris Plages”, “Nuit blanche”, and multiple festivals). Furthermore, this quote is also indicative of the role played by state-sponsored participatory governance frameworks (public auditions, forums, citizens platforms, etc.) in giving a strong voice to middle-class demands to recast the urban environment according to their values and aspirations.

10Finally, housing policies also play a crucial role in the Paris’ case, notably through the granting of subsidies to private renovators in selected neighbourhoods (i.e. OPAH programmes) in a context of weak rent control regulations since the mid-1980s. Even social housing policy is used here to promote gentrification, notably through the prioritisation of “social mixing” in new or existing projects over the expansion of the supply of units specifically dedicated to low-income groups.

11Rousseau (2008 ; 2010) outlines a similar pro-gentrification coherence across different policy fields in Roubaix. However, the precise combination of ingredients here is not exactly similar to the ones outlined in Paris, for there are obvious social, economic and spatial discrepancies between the latter and Roubaix, a city ranked among “losing cities” by Rousseau – i.e. cities heavily hit by deindustrialisation and where the transition to a growing tertiary economic base has been weak. The author points out here the chief importance of economic development policy (notably via the designation of most of the municipal territory, including central districts, as tax-free zone – i.e. “Zone Franche Urbaine”), targeted legislative developments including the lowering of tax levels on loft conversion projects, investment in new transport infrastructures (i.e. the metro linking Roubaix to the rest of the Lille agglomeration) and a new art museum (“La Piscine”), the refurbishment of public space, and even tourist policies (i.e. organisation of “I loft Roubaix” guided tours dedicated to show recent projects of loft conversion of disused industrial buildings). The overall coherence of these various measures lies in the strong political wish of the municipal authorities to attract new middle class residents to Roubaix in order to foster the transition of the local economy to an advanced tertiary economic basis (business services, cultural industries, higher education,...). This strategy very closely resembles the “creative class policy solution” promoted over and over again by Richard Florida (Peck, 2005).

  • 5 VESPA is for Vastgoed- En Stadsontwik­kelings bedrijf Antwerpen – literally : Real Estate and Urban (...)

12In Antwerp, Loopmans (2008) traces the history of gentrification becoming a coherent hegemonic project in the early 2000s. The author develops a diachronic perspective on contemporary gentrification policies, shedding light on how and when gentrification moved centre-stage, and under which precise political circumstances. Among his key findings, one can point out the observation that the rise of gentrification as prime common ground for urban policy revolves around an intended and strategic re-organisation of the structures of local government and administration, empowering certain actors while disempowering others, and installing new coordination frameworks among state actors or between state and non-state actors. In the Antwerp’s case, the creation of VESPA5, a semi-autonomous company strongly supported by the Mayor team appear as a key element in this re-organisation. This new company was given the task to co-ordinate existing urban development programmes and launch new ones with an explicit mandate to get closer collaboration with private real-estate operators and channel more attention and capital towards state-sponsored projects. VESPA’s projects are designed to attract new middle-class residents and appear deliberately geographically concentrated in “opportunity-rich areas with depreciated, but valuable 19th-century bourgeois mansions and warehouses, such as the Haussmannised zone bordering the more deprived, homogeneous working-class areas” (p. 2513). In addition, the planning cell within the City’s administration was reinforced in order to ease this pro-gentrification policy orientation, and a new cell for “Integral Security” was created in order to develop a new approach to the social aspects of urban development articulated around targeted policing interventions (e.g. interventions against street prostitution, against illegal immigrants,...).

13Eventually, Loopmans also point out the new legitimacy of gentrification policies in Antwerp, for “(with) safety now also taken serious as a policy issue, connected to the goal of gentrification, and with the enhanced liveability of already-gentrified areas acting as a lure for aspiring residents in other neighbourhoods, the gentrification policies of VESPA also succeed in securing legitimacy from the local electorate” (p. 2513). This point on legitimacy is of uppermost importance in a city like Antwerp, for the actions and discourses of the local political elites have been heavily challenged since the late 1980s by the successive electoral victories of the extreme-right, racist Vlaams Blok party (now Vlaams Belang), which came close to holding an absolute majority of votes at municipal level in the late 1990s. Equating gentrification with “urban liveability” enables the city’s ruling political elites to meet both local residents’ groups claims for a safer, cleaner, and more controlled urban environment, and demands from real-estate developers seeking for new investment opportunities in the upmarket residential segment outside previously gentrified areas (i.e. the medieval city centre and the central waterfront area).

Setting pro-gentrification policy agenda

14A transversal appraisal of these particular case studies suggests that following a pro-gentrification policy agenda practically means activating three (inter-related) categories of tools, that is, combining actions on (1) demand and (2) supply of gentrifying / gentrified spaces, and (3) on the production of legitimating representations of gentrification as something positive for all.

15On the demand side, what is at stake is to develop a new middle-class demand for living in central, working-class or industrial neighbourhoods, that is, to “open up” spaces long excluded from the common middle-class mental map as possible new living, working or shopping environments. Organising place-based cultural events or developing new cultural infrastructures first designed to bring external clientele to selected neighbourhoods, helping selected retailers to settle down, refurbishing public spaces,... are becoming classic categories of policy action in that respect.

16Moreover, these actions appear closely related to the supply-side field of policy interventions, for a new museum, new “trendy” shops or refurbished public spaces can represent positive externalities took up by property developers or landlords eager to tap in the production of new spaces for the better off. Rent gap theory (Smith, 1979) remains the most powerful tool to grasp such mechanisms (Van Criekingen, 2010). Programmes providing subsidies to private investors (either individuals or companies) such as renovation grants or tax cuts on loft conversion, as well as targeted changes in land-use regulations and the direct production of new housing units for middle-class households (via PPP or not) are additional – and indeed quite frequent – policy tools fostering reinvestment in central, working-class or industrial neighbourhoods.

  • 6 Hegemony is read here in its Gramscian sense, that is, referring to “the situation whereby rule in (...)

17Furthermore, following a pro-gentrification policy agenda appears to urge authorities to build a new hegemonic representation of gentrification as a solution to a series of social problems like e.g. spatial concentration of poverty, economic competitiveness in informational or knowledge-based sectors, attractiveness vis-à-vis mobile investment – notably real estate capital, etc.6 For that matter, the political endorsement of gentrification is usually disguised as the promotion of either “urban liveability / safety” (in Antwerp) or “urban revitalisation” (in Brussels), “quality of life”, “social mix” in working-class districts (Bridge et al., forthcoming), etc. The leitmotiv of “urban sustainability” is increasingly mobilised in this vein as well (e.g. Dubois & Van Criekingen, 2006 on the Brussels’ case). At stake is the building of a legitimate rallying “vision” around which the operations of multiple (public, semi-public and private) stakeholders can be articulated, and one that can appeal to a majority of voters.

18However, shedding light on the precise content of pro-gentrification policy agendas is not sufficient, for such policy agenda – as any others – has to gain a prevailing position in governance practices. As the works in Paris, Roubaix and Antwerp show, the arrangement of a pro-gentrification policy agenda is a social construct, involving uneven but potentially shifting power relations among social groups. This construct requires a strategic (re-)organisation of urban government structures in order to build an actual capacity to implement this policy agenda and keep its coherence. The Antwerp’s case scrutinized by Loopmans (2008) is particularly evocative in this respect, while very similar trends can be documented elsewhere – i.e. creation of public-funded urban development agencies detached from the existing planning Administration, drawing part of its specialised staff from private businesses and organisationally designed to establish or strengthen a common ground around pro-gentrification projects to be shared by diverse sectional public bodies and private actors, real-estate operators in particular (see e.g. Van Criekingen & Decroly, 2009 on Brussels).

  • 7 There is no space here to discuss theoretical and empirical differences between these notions – see (...)

19More generally, case studies in Paris, Roubaix and Antwerp commented here suggest that one can bring out key insights in this matter if (re)mobilizing notions such as “growth coalition” (Molotch, 1976), “urban regime” (Logan & Molotch, 1987 [2007]) or “historical bloc” (Jessop, 2005). Although not being strict synonyms and rooted in partly different theoretical backgrounds7, these three concepts have been introduced in order to investigate how a capacity to govern the city is concretely assembled and sustained. Accordingly, these concepts have the potential to act as powerful analytical tools to explore issues related to the social construction of a pro-gentrification coherence in urban policies – and ought to be (re)considered as such. In particular, they could help shedding more light on why and how local state actors in diverse urban contexts are driven into gentrification-as-policy “solutions”. The answer is not precisely the same everywhere, for inter alia histories of class alliances and struggles since the collapse of the Fordist-Keynesian model, levels of fiscal capacities of the local state or intensity of middle-class suburbanization are crucial contextual elements that substantially differ from one city to the next. Paying attention to these contingencies is required in order to strengthen the empirical foundations of the gentrification-as-policy argument. Regarding the three cases detailed here, one can stress that the adoption of a pro-gentrification policy agenda in Roubaix appears very much linked to the history of deindustrialisation and the concomitant absence of transition to a growing tertiary economic base whereas in the Paris’ case, a city doted with a much stronger economic base, gentrification is strongly pushed into the policy agenda in the wake of the colonization of central working-class neighbourhoods by new middle class households insistently calling their representatives to recast the urban environment according to their values and aspirations ; in Antwerp, finally, a specific linkage appears between the rise of gentrification-as-policy and the political response addressed to the rise of the Vlaams Block/ Belang. Furthermore, the rise of a pro-gentrification policy rationale in Brussels is specifically linked to the wish of policy-makers to strengthen the city’s fiscal basis by offering middle-class households appealing alternatives to suburban living (for suburban municipalities are located outside the administrative boundaries of the city). This rationale is notably expressed in the presentation of the principles commanding the co-subsidiation by the Belgian Federal authorities and the Brussels Regional government of a new middle-class housing scheme close to Brussels’ South Station :

20The production of the first housing units for middle-income groups would play an important role as ‘starter’ of the stimulation of this key neighbourhood alongside the country’s biggest railways station. (...) Keeping [social and functional] mix at a reasonable level (...) implies that housing for middle-income populations would not be forgotten. Unfortunately, the current sociological profile [i.e. working-class and migrant] of the neighbourhood and the still high land prices make this project difficult, if not impossible, unless public money is injected into it. Public money will be recovered on the long run thanks to the enhancement of the tax base associated with the attraction of new inhabitants into the neighbourhood, as well as with the attraction of new retail businesses and services which usually come with these new inhabitants” (Federal State and Brussels Capital Region, Beliris Agreement, Annex 8, February 2003 – my translation) (Van Criekingen, forthcoming).

21Quite obviously, however, bringing middle-class households to live and consume in existing working-class districts is not the single and only possible way to strengthen a tax base.


22This paper has argued that contemporary gentrification ought to be conceived of as a powerful, though place-specific policy strategy, and further investigated as such. This argument breaks with common views of gentrification as a mere process of neighbourhood change, one among many others. The point here is – quite obviously – neither that gentrification is not a process of urban change anymore, nor that is not a socially divisive process anymore. Rather, the point is that there is today much more about gentrification than common understandings such as “Poor people move out, rich people move in. Fancy English word for common stuff” (Sambale & Eick, 2007). What is “more”, specifically, is that diverse gentrification processes are increasingly considered as key objectives and leading rationales of urban policy, hence urging one to consider a gentrification-as-policy layer. This promotion of gentrification by policy-makers as a profitable and workable solution to face diverse “urban challenges” – e.g. consolidating the city tax base, fighting urban sprawl, building a “knowledge-based” urban economy, etc. – ignores in turn the mass of academic literature and grassroots reports that have repeatedly brought out the inherent socially divisive and spatially segregative nature of gentrification processes for more than four decades now (Lees et al., 2008).

23The paper has mainly built on findings brought out by some among the – still too limited – set of studies putting forward the gentrification-as-policy argument as their central research object, and developing ways to empirically nuance it. These studies are stimulating, for they help strengthening the empirical foundations of the gentrification-as-policy argument, and developing practical methodologies to do so. At stake is to test whether one can document the emergence or consolidation of a pro-gentrification coherence across recent changes in diverse policy fields (e.g. housing, cultural, planning,... policies) and explore the depth of this coherence, its chronology, the precise categories of actors involved, etc. – in different and at least partially singular urban contexts. To put it another way, the challenge ahead is to fully decipher, document and map the leading role of policy-makers in fostering gentrification, in different urban contexts. I believe this is an important task for research on contemporary urban change to take up, and indeed a necessary one if one seeks to add to the capacity of gentrification to act as a “strategic tool”, that is, “a powerful means of organising, focusing and mobilising diverse individuals and interests around central questions of social justice” (Wyly & Hammel, 2008, p. 2644).

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1 “(...) l’idée étant d’utiliser la vertu transformatrice de la présence d’artistes pour infléchir l’image du quartier. Dans ce sens, la gentrification est offerte comme une “fenêtre” pour un quartier dont on dit qu’il se morfond dans ‘l’assistantialisme’ (sic)“.

2 Precisely : “a process involving a change in the population of land-users such that the new users are of a higher socio-economic status than the previous users, together with an associated change in the built environment through a reinvestment in fixed capital“ (Clark, 2005, p. 258).

3 To some extent, Smith put here new emphasis on a point that he already stressed in his earlier works, for the statement that state actors play a crucial role in the advancement of gentrification was already included in his discussion of gentrification as “a back-to-the-city movement by capital, not people” in the late 1970s (Smith, 1979).

4 See e.g. the anticipated impact of recent cuts in housing benefits included in Mr. D. Cameron’s austerity policy on low-income households living in London. This reform could cause a “Kosovo-style social cleansing” of the poor from central London, according to the city Mayor, Mr. B. Johnson (The Independent, October 28, 2010).

5 VESPA is for Vastgoed- En Stadsontwik­kelings bedrijf Antwerpen – literally : Real Estate and Urban Development Company Antwerp.

6 Hegemony is read here in its Gramscian sense, that is, referring to “the situation whereby rule in the interest of a dominant social group is seen as legitimate by subordinate classes or groups because this particular interest is presented (and accepted) as equal to or at least supportive of the ‘general interest’” (Loopmans, 2008, p. 2501).

7 There is no space here to discuss theoretical and empirical differences between these notions – see e.g. Mossberger & Stoker (2001).

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Mathieu Van Criekingen, « Gentrification as policy – empirical frontiers »Belgeo, 1-2 | 2011, 65-74.

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Mathieu Van Criekingen, « Gentrification as policy – empirical frontiers »Belgeo [En ligne], 1-2 | 2011, mis en ligne le 04 décembre 2012, consulté le 21 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Mathieu Van Criekingen

Université Libre de Bruxelles,

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Belgeo est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

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