Social Geography, Gentrification, and the Importance of Making Connections: An Invite to Future Researchers
As a new arrival – albeit a ‘returnee’ – to TCD Geography, I had wanted to write something about my interests, and particularly in a way that I hope would encourage current students to think about potential research projects. The following is just a quick invitation to research of sorts that is based on previous experience. One of the things that I have always found useful as a geographer is identifying connections between my everyday surroundings and the literature that I am engaging in. Sometimes this can take the form of analysing urban space and seeking clues as to the transformations that have taken place there in the past with a view to undertaking further analysis, such as for work I carried out on creativity and the city. Other times, it is drawing on resources such as film, newspapers, and magazines in order to make connections to wider urban transformations.
As my work has progressed, I have become increasingly interested in the relatioship between urbanization and social space, including associated forms of inequality. As well as being challenging in its own right, this has required that I be reflexive and try to understand the forms of inequality that are around me, that are part of the world in which I live. Recently, I have been following the redevelopment of a small part of a Victorian square in Dun Laoghaire called Royal Terrace. For me, this development raises questions about the connections between capitalist urbanization, social class, housing, and social exclusion, all of which are essential themes within social geography and other sub-fields of human geography.
The development involved the transformation of a former Children’s home called The Cottage Home for Little Children and into up-market housing. As such, from the outset, from a research perspective, there is potential to question the linkages between the historic transition taking place in terms of the shift in use of the building and the wider social transformations which produced such shifts in the first place. Such an endeavour would neatly tie together historical and contemporary approaches, including an analysis of the history of the square: who built it, who financed it, who lived there, and, subsequently, how was it situated within the historical ups and downs of capitalist urbanization. It is also feasible to use this Square to look at questions of colonialism and post-colonialism, as well as to inquire into the role of 19th Century philanthropists and social reformers in a particular place and time. Furthermore, a researcher could also ask how the Square transformed in recent decades. Here they could inquire into the relationship between the particularities of the new development, the economic crisis of last decade, and the recent role of international financial capital in buying and subsequently ‘flipping’ such properties.
The former Cottage Home, Dun Laoghaire after conversion
As both a point of departure, and, indeed as a means of understanding the dynamics at work here, it is feasible to undertake a critical analysis of this development from the perspective of its portryal in a recent article in The Irish Times Property section. In so doing, it becomes possible to see that these forms of representation and descriptions are not just passive commentary, but they play an active role in shaping urban space and, furthermore, are indicative of the active role played by newspapers themselves in urban change. As is commented in the piece:
“After 157 years, the third and final planned terrace of Royal Terrace North off Tivoli Road in Dun Laoghaire has been completed. It was originally started in the mid 1850s after the development of Dun Laoghaire Harbour, for the well-heeled to escape the contagions of Dublin city centre.”
From the outset, the article draws us into a socio-spatial imaginary of an elite seeking to ‘escape’ from the city, with the allusions to disease and disorder expressed in a matter of fact manner. For a researcher, the notion of a ‘contagion’ immediately raises questions about both the attitudes of the well-off from that period, and indeed, how they become reproduced and rearticulated in contemporary media representations. One task of the researcher is thus to examine this language and to seek to unpack it and understand its social significance. Through a critical lens, here we might ask about the ways in which social space is often rendered through metaphors, such as through notions of disease and wider articulations of fear of touching ‘others’. What is particularly important here is to recognize the role played here in reinforcing myths and social divides. Indeed, the Chicago School of Urban Sociology is famous, if not perhaps infamous, for invoking explanations that borrowed from the natural world. Notions of ‘invasion’ and ‘succession’ dominated this literature, notions that would be heavily critiqued in favour of a more structural explanation from the 1960s onwards from authors such as Manuel Castells, David Harvey, Neil Smith and others.
The second approach mentioned above becomes of key value in analyzing the meaning of a later comment in the same article: “In the 1960s many of these wonderful houses were converted into bedsits and in the past 20 to 30 years have been transformed back into elegant family homes.” Here, there are a number of key points. First, we see a generalized and broad-brush rendering of what has been one of the most significant elements of urban change over the last half a century, that of gentrification. From the perspective of the researcher, in drawing upon the work of the late Neil Smith and others, such as Tom Slater and Loretta Lees on gentrification, we can begin to ask what types of transformation were taking place here, and, indeed how these relate to earlier transformations in both the 20th Century and before.
It is crucial from the outset to understand that the forms of transformation being described in the article are not neutral or inevitable, but fully embedded within the dynamics of capitalist urban change more generally. For starters, in looking at the process of the houses being converted into Bedsits, we might look to see what actors were involved and how it fits within wider theories of urban change. What processes, both localized and more general, can we identify that brought about the change of this Square and others into these uses at this time? Who were the landlords involved in the conversion of the houses into bedsits? Indeed, for Neil Smith (1979a), the conversion to flats or bedsits occurs within such properties at a particular point in time – particularly during its second or third cycle of use. Furthermore, for Smith, the forms of under-investment or under-maintenance often associated with these and similar buildings during the middle of the 20th Century are an in-built aspect of urban capitalist development. Secondly, in linking our example to gentrification literature, we might be able to understand the connection between a ‘return’ alluded to in the article and the ongoing transformation of the Square back to upmarket uses in recent decades. Here, a researcher might think of drawing together a mixture of archival material and an on-site approach (interviews, historical documentation) that seeks to draw out the recent history of the Square. At the same time, they would need to look at the actors involved and their connection to wider shifts in terms of economy and society. Again, in drawing on Smith, it is crucial to tie the different elements together, both spatially and temporarally: “A broader explanation of gentrification must therefore take account of the regional, national and international capital movements, and the historical rythms of long waves and cycles in the capitalist economy” (Smith, 1979b, p.31). In short, understanding under-investment in an earlier period is thus just as important as understanding reinvestment at a later point in time.
‘Modern Living, Period Style’: New Build Houses, Royal Terrace North, Dun Laoghaire
It is also possible to ask about the forms of language being used within the above-mentioned property article and how it reinforces and reproduces social norms around the ideals of property, lifestyle, and taste. It is implicit, if not explicit that the conversion of the Square back to ‘Elegant family houses’ is ‘better’ than its use as bedsits? Therefore, we might ask for whom is this article written. How does it generalize and normalise both language and ideas that in reality are wholly oriented towards one social group. Thus, looking beyond the piece, we might ask what forms of exclusion are produced in the removal of bedsits and what its significance is the social structure of this part of Dublin, and indeed, the wider region. Here, caution is needed, as the task is not to defend poor quality accommodation, but more to understand how within a market-based system of housing, the less well-off and the poor are forced from one location to another at the expense of the better-off (see Lees et al. 2010 for further work on this).
Furthermore, in looking at the new-build houses, we might ask how social division becomes so deeply entrenched in reality, both in terms of the forms of the developments that take place, the architectural styles and tastes invoked, and the way in which they are mediated over time. It is worth reminding ourselves that the starting price of the most recently developed houses – a staggering €1.795m – is not something that just happens, but is produced through particular political economic conditions and property relations supported through policy. Thus, and in bearing in mind the current housing crisis, we might also ask under what social and political system the promotion and development of such disparities in housing becomes the norm and what this isolated example teaches us about divisions in housing more generally, both nationally and internationally. Such questions would necessitate us to move beyond the mediated notions of ‘supply and demand’ and question the ways in which such realities become manifest in urban space. This is where the link between the grounded research in a particular place and the literature becomes of crucial importance. By constantly seeking to make connections between the two, we begin to see the bigger picture and understand how different processes are interconnected and reproduced in space and time (See also MacLaran and Kelly, 2014).
As researchers, a key task is to understand how social processes are rendered as normal if not inevitable. For example, gentrification as a particular ideology only ever celebrates the outcome and renders a complex set of problems as though inevitable (see Smith, 1979b for a susinct and prescient appraisal of this). Yet, crucially, gentrification is an outcome of the workings of the wider dynamics of urbanization under capitalism. The task therefore becomes to understand these processes, who the actors involved are, and who benefits from such processes. There are literally endless possibilities to explore in this work and other related sub-fields within geography. It can be a very enjoyable and challenging experience, but one which is definitely worthwhile pursing.
Lees, L., Wyly, E.K. and Slater, T. eds., (2010) The gentrification reader London: Routledge.
MacLaren, A., and Kelly, S. eds. (2014) Neoliberal urban policy and the transformation of the city: Reshaping Dublin. Springer, 2014.
Smith, N., (1979a) Toward a theory of gentrification a back to the city movement by capital, not people. Journal of the American Planning Association, 45(4), pp.538-548.
Smith, N., (1979b) Gentrification and capital: practice and ideology in Society Hill. Antipode, 11(3), pp.24-35.
A few pointers on research:
Note 1: the ‘Society Hill’ paper is difficult to find online, but it is available in the Freeman Library. The Freeman is a great source of material, and a place you can literally begin a trawl that allows you to explore a never ending array of topics
Note 2: Lexis Nexis is a very useful source of information. As an example, through a quick search of ‘Royal Terrace’, I was able to find an article from 1999 in which very similar language is used to the one mentioned above.
Note 3: The Smith texts are both quite old. I have used these for two reasons. First, they are crucial texts in understanding gentrification. Secondly, the timing discussed is similar to that being discussed in the case of Dun Laoghaire (albeit this would need to form part of the analysis).
Note 4: Use the links and the references to expand your search for more work. There is a significant body of literature out there discussing the ideas presented here. Look to see who the authors cite and find out who cites them. Look them up and see what other work they are doing and how they are engaging in their research.