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Turning old into chic: The dichotomous field of gentrification

Virtually all major cities are confronted with the dichotomous field of gentrification and the opposing interests it entails. Gentrification drives refurbishments, spruces up older building complexes for new forms of use and gives entire districts a new lease on life: would we even have co-working spaces, penthouse parties, artist lofts and Parisian studios without gentrification? But there is a flip side to reinvigorating extremely run-down neighbourhoods: it pushes up the prices.

Gentrification: About the term

“Gentrification is the process of changing the character of a neighbourhood through the influx of more affluent residents (the ‘gentry’) and investment.’ (Wikipedia). Socio-economic structural transformation, increase in attractiveness and influx of more affluent residents: Just reading these words gives us some idea of the discussions and challenges associated with the trend towards ‘gentrification’. But we should bear in mind that the trend is by no means new.

Emergence and potential

London was being ‘gentrified’ as far back as 1888. This was a time in which middle-class families were increasingly moving into Islington, a neighbourhood originally inhabited by workers. The outcome: a significant transformation of the social structure and increased purchasing power, accompanied by changes to the buildings and infrastructure. But even that was just the beginning. In her 1964 analyses, the British urban sociologist Ruth Glass observed that similar developments had taken place even a century before. This was a time when the low aristocracy (gentry) moved back to the city centres – and in doing so coined the term.

From then on, the buzzword ‘gentrification’ became imbued with a more socio-political, combative meaning and a negative undertone, forcing the many positive aspects associated with this ‘wave of revitalisation’ into the background. But the gentrification process certainly comes with enough positive aspects: it is not uncommon for the actors, the ‘drivers’ of these processes, to be (sub)cultures with demonstrably high potential to bring progress in fashion, art, consumption, even in architecture and generally in an ‘unusual’ lifestyle. Among the hallmarks of ‘gentrifiers’ – which include protagonists of youth/countercultures, artists and the creative scene, homosexuals, fashion and architecture – are stylistic confidence and taste, as reflected in both the selection of ‘hipper’ districts or individual properties, and what happens to them next: the symbolism and aesthetics of a location seem to play a significant role in the gentrification process. Their typical architectural structures – some with significant interior fittings and considerable signs of use – are deliberately preserved and kept visible during the remodelling, hence creating a meaningful contrast to the new users and purposes. Quite frequently, the interiors of gentrified places are consciously furnished with historical, rural or punk items and objects to acquire a prestigious, anachronistic or non-conformist appeal. The new architecture in gentrified locations often draws on and references historical styles, construction methods and building forms. This approach to creating fresh uses – with increased value and preservation of the building stock – is certainly not a disadvantage.

Paris, Berlin, Munich, Düsseldorf, Vienna, Athens

Whether the city is known as a hub of fashion, art, industry or tourism: all urban centres around the world are undergoing gentrification processes. Indeed, the list of examples is long and would probably never be complete. ‘Artist districts’ in particular are undeniably attractive for businesses and tourists, aside from their inspirational and cohesive appeal. The ‘non-conformity’ of their residents as mentioned above, their stylistic confidence and the focus on structures that deserve to be preserved are clearly positive aspects that enrich the occasionally neglected areas and increase their attractiveness.

But the following still applies to gentrification, as it does to every form of location and project development that prioritises revitalisation and refurbishment. everyone involved must proceed prudently and carefully weigh up the various viewpoints and opportunities. If done correctly, this will create a vibrant, productive blend of uses and a lively cityscape.

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A detailed look at gentrification

Gentrification case Athens:

Trend terms in the construction industry