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General Definition

The British Sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term in the early 1960s and described the movement of higher-income groups (the ‘gentry’) into lower-income, possibly ethnic, neighbourhoods and in so doing the replacement of latter groups. It has subsequently been used to describe the process of re-evaluating urban spaces in the Western world. The process involves social change as well as a physical change and renovation in the area and leads to higher prices in rent and/or a general transition from renting to owning property. In the last fifty years the definition has been widened and is now also applied to the Global South and thus the Americas, which has consequences for the core principles of the definition.

Gentrification Research – Schools of Thought

Research on the topic of gentrification has mainly been inspired by events in the 1980s. As the notion encompasses the connotation of class takeover, there were initially attempts by supporters and profiteers to replace “gentrification” through terms as “urban renaissance” or “neighbourhood reinvestment”. The concept challenges the more traditional theories of urban social structure that e.g. did not stipulate the return of the wealthy into once abandoned neighbourhoods, seeing suburbanization through middle class movements as the final evolutionary stage within the industrial city. Hamnett (1991) points to the fact that the debate from its origins exposes a political controversy which is also somewhat reflected within the scientific debate: While some discovered decay upon “white flight” in central city areas and present gentrification as saviour, others describe it as threatening working class areas, while displacing poorer households in favour of bohemian lifestyles unaffordable to the former.

Sociological research centres on two main competing sets of explanations: The question of structure versus agency is crucial for the debate on gentrification. While the consumption or demand side theory (liberal humanist according to Hamnett 1991) stresses the role played by choice, culture, consumption preferences and the role of so called “gentrifiers” who impose their aesthetic conceptions within a neighbourhood, the production or supply side theory (dubbed as structural marxist by Hamnett) stresses the role of capital, production and supply, taking dynamics upon housing and land markets, the role of capital, and investment strategies of corporate actors, e.g. of the building or finance industry as explanation approaches. Causes and Explanations of Gentrification.

Three main explanations for gentrification are related to demographic change and are assigned to the increase in demand for housing in the city centers. General explanations are 1) the post-war baby boom in the 1960s and 1970s resulting in an increase in first-time-homebuyers, 2) a reduction in household size through changing social and family structures and 3) the attractiveness of reduced commuting costs (Ley 1986: 522). All of these arguments may explain the timing of inner-city resettlement in the Western cities but give very little detail on the reasons. Therefore, other factors must be considered.

Among explanations based on dynamics within the housing market is the increase in prices for suburban homes, which in turn increased the attractiveness of living in the city. Still, living in the city was often not chosen as a compromise for financial reasons but for the diverse opportunities of inner-city living. An alternative supply side variation of the housing market thesis is based on the “rent gap”, according to which the disparity between the potential ground rent with redevelopment and the actual present ground rent motivates public and private institutional actors to invest in the reshaping of urban spaces (Ley 1986: 523). The third strand of explanation is related to values and lifestyles, captured in terms as “the new middle-class habitus” (Bridge 2001) or “Latte Machiatisation”. Explanations focus on consumption patterns, stressing middle class’s preferences for niche markets expressive of personal style, experimentality and adventurousness.

Low rents especially in neighbourhoods with a specific character and self-identity, e.g. based on historic developments or on social or ethnic diversity, first attract the so-called pioneers of gentrification, artists and creative classes with rebellious lifestyles, usually low incomes but high creative and cultural potential. These revaluate the neighbourhood attracting the new middle classes or obtain themselves access to better-payed jobs and change their consumption habits. Thereby, living and working conditions as well as overly exotic ethnic commodity supply adopts to the new middle classes’ aesthetics and consumer power (Erbacher 2011).

Also, recreational and cultural amenities—e.g. the proximity to parkland, and better jobs with high wages—can make a neighbourhood attractive (Ley 1986: 254). Urban administrations commit public funds to these amenities, and environmental aesthetics to increase the attractivity of some urban areas.

A fourth dynamic used for explaining gentrification is based on qualitative changes in the labour market: Economic restructuring and the growing orientations towards post-industrial white-collar service employment, especially producer services, took place particularly in cities and city centers. These jobs are often better paid and bred the gentry. Newer approaches to gentrification try a combination of these different explanation approaches to the phenomenon in a more systematic manner.

Expanded Gentrification

Since Glass’ coining of the term “gentrification” in the 1960s, the definition has been extended: Many scholars agree that gentrification is expanding – and as Brown-Saracino (2010: 67) points out not only within the urban centres in which it was first observed, but also across the globe, being no longer confined to big western cities as London or New York. In the debate about why gentrification is expanding some scholars see the cause in public politics, while others point to the expansion of the ‘new middle class’, or, more generally, to globalization (Brown-Saracino 2010: 67; Atkinson and Bridge 2010: 51) and the emergence of global cities with new international global divisions of labour.

Gentrification cases vary across both time and space. Hence recognition of gentrification as an expanding process reinforces the debates about the concept by raising questions about the malleability of the definition(s) (Brown-Saracino 2010: 16).

The traits of gentrification – influx of capital, social, economic, cultural, and physical transformation, and displacement (on which most scholars concur, even if they sometimes disagree about who is displaced or how much capital…) – have to be examined in their idiosyncratic context.

Gentrification in the Americas

Gentrification is a concept that was created within and for cities in Western or industrialized countries, so that Northern America includes numerous examples where the concept can be observed in practice (e.g. Schaffer & Smith 1986). Originally it was a residential process within working class areas but, becoming more broadly based, it also became to include industrial area redevelopment as in New York’s SoHo, while nowadays there seem to be no waterfronts within Western cities that have not undergone the process. Usually gentrification includes commercial redevelopment and the renewal of recreational facilities. While taking on different forms in different places, it is not unusual that neighbourhoods where immigrant population has settled become targeted (Kaltmeier 2011). Chinatowns in the United States present an interesting case of heterotopia while simultaneously being intricately connected and related to the surrounding place: while othered for their perceived cultural difference and their air of dangerousness and filthiness in the 19th century, nowadays, Chinatowns evolved into places produced for flaneurs, cultural voyeurs and tourists as commodified ethnic places (Li Bindlingmaier 2011).


The concept of gentrification was only rather recently adopted for describing processes in cities in the global south or post-communist countries (Atkinson and Bridge 2010: 52). In Latin America, urban policies, urban regeneration and therefore gentrification processes are closely related to the (partially contradictory) processes of political democratization, economic and institutional neoliberalization and globalisation, which has made an impact within the subcontinent since the 1980s (e.g. Walker 2008, Kanai and Ortega-Alcázar 2009). Smith (2002) identifies a worldwide change in the agents of gentrification, from originally being wealthier immigrants into a poorer neighbourhood to nowadays being an ambitiously planned and highly capitalized process by governments, public-private partnerships or corporations, especially real-estate developers. He sees cities as being engaged in a global interurban competition.

While gentrification in Latin America and the global south might be taking place to a lesser extent through processes of adaptation to the incoming new middle-classes’ consumer power and aesthetics (e.g. Jones & Varley 1998), similar dynamics of displacement through revaluation can been observed: With regard to Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, dos Santos Oliveira (1996) points not only to a historic tradition of government removal campaigns but moreover explains the displacement of extremely poor people from more stable favelas by incoming impoverished people with lower- and middle-class incomes. Releasing the concept from its narrow meaning of housing rehabilitation, Jones & Varley (1998) show how federal and State agencies, while successfully pressuring for Mexico’s Puebla to become a World Heritage Site with UNESCO recognition, they simultaneously displaced thousands of informal street vendors. The city center was than renewed with cultural centers, private education institutes and establishments for touristic use, as hotels, restaurants, cafés, bars and souvenir shops. In the analysis of this process, the authors mention that gentrification here happens without inner-urban migration movements but instead takes a more defensive form which serves the middle- and upper-classes to symbolically and practically reassert their authority. Therefore gentrification here seems to be happening without gentrifiers, if these are defined as incoming residents, while the actors of gentrification are constantly present within the space where the process of gentrification takes place. Gentrification processes in Latin America intersect with social dynamics of “ethnicity” and “class” as well as within the imbalanced distribution of resources in urban spaces and within walls, gated communities, chic places versus “non-chic”, dangerous or no-go areas, which also point to power differences within Latin American cities and societies (Zarazúa Villaseñor 2011).


Since its inception, the meaning of gentrification—inner urban migration by wealthy people into poor neighbourhoods with the consequence of displacement of the latter due to increased prices—several explanatory approaches have been developed and the term has been conceptually broadened. There are different understandings of gentrification, some centering upon the demand side while others upon the supply side. This could be dubbed agency level versus structural level. While the concept was coined within a British context and consequently transferred to other Western style urbanities, including Northern American cities, more recent expansions of the concept were acquired while it was simultaneously applied in expanded geographic contexts as in Latin American where the concept obtains new context and topics, while others fade away.

Anne Diekjobst, Alice Froidevaux, Lara Jüssen

Please cite as:
Anne Diekjobst, Alice Froidevaux, Lara Jüssen. 2012. “Gentrification.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/g_Gentrification.html.


Atkinson, Roland, and Gary Bridge. 2010. “Globalization and the New Urban Colonialism.” In: The Gentrification Debates: A Reader, ed. Japonica Brown-Saracino, 51-61. New York: Routledge.

Bridge, Gary. 2001. “Bourdieu, Rational Action and the Time-Space Strategy of Gentrification.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 26, no. 2: 205-216.

Brown-Saracino, Japoeica, ed. 2010. The Gentrification Debates: A Reader. New York: Routledge.

Erbacher, Eric C. 2011.”(re-)Constructing the Ethnic Neighbourhood: Gentrification in the United States and the Longing for a Unique Ethnic Identity” In: Selling EthniCity, ed. Olaf Kaltmeier, 245-260, Burlington: Ashgate.

Hamnett, Chris. 1991. “The Blind Men and the Elephant: The Explanation of Gentrification.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 16, no. 2: 173-189.

Jones, G.A., and A. Varley. 1999. “The reconquest of the historic centre: urban conservation and gentrification in Puebla, Mexico.” Environment and Planning A 31: 1547-1566.

Kaltmeier, Olaf. 2011. “Introduction to Part IV: Gentrification and the Politics of Authenticity.” In: Selling EthniCity, ed. Olaf Kaltmeier, 239-244, Burlington: Ashgate.

Kanai, Miguel, and Iliana Ortega-Alcanzár. 2009. “The Prospects for Progressive Culture-Led Urban Regeneration in Latin America: Cases from Mexico City and Buenos Aires.” International Journal of Urban Research and Regional Research 33, no. 2: 483-501.

Ley, David. 1986. “Alternative Explanations for Innter-City Gentrification: A Canadian Assessment.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 76, no. 4: 521-535.

Li Bidlingmaier, Selma Siew. 2011. “Spaces of Alterity and Temporal Permanence: The Case of San Francisco’s and New York’s Chinatowns” In: Selling EthniCity, ed. Olaf Kaltmeier, 239-260, Burlington: Ashgate.

Rojas, Eduardo (Con la colaboración de Eduardo Rodríguez Villaescusa y Emiel Wegelin). 2004. Volver al Centro: La Recuperación de Areas Urbanas Centrales. Washington D.C.: Banco Internacional de Desarrollo.

Dos Santos Oliveira, Ney. 1996. “Favelas and Ghettos. Race and Class in Rio de Janeiro and New York City.” Latin American Perspecives 23, no. 4: 71-89.

Schaffer, Richard, and Neil Smith. 1986. “The Gentrification of Harlem?” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 76, no. 3: 147-365.

Smith, Neil. 2002. “New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy.” Antipode 34, no. 3: 427-450.

Walker, David M. 2008. Gentrification Moves to the Global South: An Analysis of the Programa de Rescate, A Neoliberal Urban Policy in México City’s Centro Histórico. PhD diss., University of Kentucky.

Ulises, Zarazúa Villaseñor. 2011. “No-Go Areas and Chic Places: Socio-Spatial Segregation and Stigma in Guadalajara.” In: Selling EthniCity, ed. Olaf Kaltmeier, 239-260, Burlington: Ashgate.

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