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Neither Natural Nor Inevitable: How Language Masks Gentrification

Leslie Kern on Biological and Evolutionary Metaphors in Urban Planning

I love following Instagram accounts dedicated to historical photos of my hometown, Toronto, and I especially enjoy before-and-after images contrasting the old (anything before 1990, these days) and the new. It is fascinating to see how much has changed, and even more interesting, what is simply layered over the remnants of the past.

In being drawn into these images, one could be forgiven for interpreting the changes as part of a natural growth process, one that seems organic and perhaps even predetermined by some kind of urban DNA. The city spreads out, it grows upward, it becomes increasingly dense, it moves more quickly. Like the growth of any organism, it seems to be fulfilling its natural destiny. Indeed, the idea of the city as organism is an attractive one, allowing us to superimpose its beating heart, nerve centers, arteries, and veins over our own.

Unfortunately, the transfer of concepts from the natural world to built environments can mask the all-too-human foundations of the places we call home. Evoking natural processes feels like a useful way to make sense of a complicated beast like a city, but it is also an effective way to make power relations invisible.

The first story about gentrification in this book, then, is one that has done a lot of damage and requires pushback. Thus, I counter the idea that gentrification is a natural (read: expected, inevitable, normal) process by asking, who wins and who loses when we say, “but isn’t it just natural?”

Evoking natural processes feels like a useful way to make sense of a complicated beast like a city, but it is also an effective way to make power relations invisible.

It is not hard to understand why it is so tempting to grasp at evolution, the laws of physics, and anthropomorphism (attributing human characteristics) to help us get a handle on how cities change. Humans are fond of metaphor. For one thing, metaphors let us make connections between different sorts of objects and ideas and allow us to see them in new ways. As a writer, I cannot argue against metaphor. But a metaphor is not the same thing as an explanation, and this is where things start to get slippery when we talk about, for example, cities as evolving organisms.

Evolution is a powerful theory that helps us explain—to make sense of—the dizzyingly complex and dynamic living world. There is comfort in an explanation. It gives a measure of stability, predictability, and certainty. The “laws” of evolution bring a perception of order to a constantly changing environment. It is no wonder we are eager to apply these laws to other elaborate systems, including our cities.

In an informal way, we will often the use the word “evolve” as a synonym for change. However, evolve, in its casual use in English at least, also connotes some kind of positive or desirable change, such as an increase in complexity (of organisms), efficiency (of technology), or knowledge and wisdom (human emotional growth). In other words, it is not a neutral signifier. Perhaps more importantly, though, it is inextricably connected to the theory of how species change and adapt in response to their environments. The theory of evolution has been applied to cities, and to gentrification processes in particular, in ways that go well beyond synonym and metaphor.

Proponents of this way of thinking are not necessarily subtle about it. “Gentrification is a natural evolution” was a 2014 head- line in the Guardian for a piece in which opinion writer Philip Ball drew on the work of scholar Sergio Porta to argue that “troubled” London neighborhoods like Brixton and Battersea were undergoing an evolutionary process, taking them from crime- and drug-ridden to bohemian and trendy. Ball describes cities as “natural organisms” and the gentrification of “edgy” London areas as “almost a law of nature.” Porta and colleagues, writing in the peer-reviewed and intriguingly named journal Physics and Society, claim to have found a formula that predicts gentrification.

Focusing on physical attributes of a neighborhood, they claim that the likelihood of gentrification can be quantified by calculating the geometry of the street grid and its connectedness to major thoroughfares. The argument is that cities obey certain natural laws and these take primacy over the intentional interventions of planners, politicians, and developers: “Looked at this way, the researchers are studying city evolution much as biologists study natural evolution—almost as if the city itself were a natural organism.” Based on these assumptions, Porta concludes that gentrification is actually healthy for cities, suggesting “it’s a reflection of their ability to adapt, a facet of their resilience.”

Long-time Brixton and Battersea residents might view their resiliency in a different way, as a facet of their ability to survive against a wave of changes that have threatened these Black, multi-cultural, and working-class boroughs in different ways across decades. Indeed, the language of evolution and healthy adaptation is particularly galling given the racialized context, where people of color are being displaced by and for white gentrifiers.

Residents and local businesses fear rising rents and displacement as multimillionaire foreign investors buy up spaces like Brixton Market and blanket Battersea in luxury high-rise developments. Brixton market store owner Folashade Akande told the New York Times: “All the local people, ethnic minorities, are being driven away […] I’ll try to stay as long as I can.” In the much-lauded (by conservative politicians) Vauxhall-Nine Elms-Battersea “opportunity” area, luxury flats owned by speculative buyers sit empty while those in the “affordable” buildings and shared ownership units enter their flats through segregated “poor doors” and face “the noise and dust of the construction site for London’s new ‘super-sewer.’”

Justifying displacement by naturalizing it as part of ecological and/or evolutionary processes contributes to the overall naturalization of gentrification.

The “gentrification is natural adaptation” story assumes that the actual people in these neighborhoods matter less than the physical environment—or perhaps not at all. It is as if the changes happening are driven by laws of location, street configuration, and building type rather than by decisions made by real people, and that these changes are experienced in an abstract, spatial way rather than by human beings whose daily lives and physical and mental well-being are threatened.

Despite the protestations of those fighting displacement, there is a lure to the natural evolution story, a way in which it appeals to a deep-seated cultural need to reduce what we observe to a set of cause-and-effect relationships guided by immutable laws that we have no control over. It makes things so much simpler! After all, what is the point in trying to challenge the physics of the city? Might as well defy gravity.

What is interesting to me is the work this story does. I find it helpful to keep the effects, intended or otherwise, of “natural law” claims at the front of mind. First, these claims absolve us of responsibility. If something like gentrification is just a law of physics, then it is no one’s fault, and no one should feel responsible for trying to do anything to change it. Second, the word “natural” tends to connote good and right. So not only are these changes inevitable, they are beneficial in the long term. In western worldviews, change itself is seen as progress, and progress is good, always moving us toward a better future. Third, these claims release us back into the comforting arms of the status quo. We can be reassured that the way things are happening is the way they should be happening.

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Naturalizing the city extends back much further than accounts of gentrification. It is not hard to find writers comparing cities to organisms, as living entities with beating hearts, nerve centers, circulatory networks, waste and digestive systems, and cycles of growth and decay. Influential planning critic Jane Jacobs’ ideas about emergent urban change arising from complex, everyday urban processes are often characterized as holding to an organic view of the city in contrast to top-down, master-planned modernist visions.

Long before Jacobs’ writing in the 1960s, nineteenth-century thinkers like Patrick Geddes were interested in applying biological concepts like evolution to both society and the city. Geddes believed that town planning would put into practice the insights drawn from understanding how “man” interacted with his environments. He also used metaphors of “surgery” and “weeding” to describe his approach to slum preservation, wherein the worst of the houses would be surgically weeded out to allow more light and air into the remaining tenements and courtyards.

Famous twentieth-century urbanist Lewis Mumford, who was heavily influenced by Geddes’ work, used organicist metaphors to make his case that unchecked technological- and economic-driven urban growth was destructive and required a regional conception of planning that understood cities and their surroundings as inter- connected organic entities. Mumford likened the ideal city to a cell, which would form a new central nucleus and new cell rather than grow too large or exceed its ability to function as designed.

If you are going to look at the city like a body or part of a body, you are probably going to talk about what can go wrong in that body. Thus, disease and medical metaphors are common. Unchecked growth might be likened to a tumor, while lack of growth could be a sign of decay or latent disease. Disease and similar medical metaphors are regularly used to talk about social problems, and social problems are all-too-readily mapped onto urban geographies.

The theory of evolution has been applied to cities, and to gentrification processes in particular, in ways that go well beyond synonym and metaphor.

Communications scholar Júlia Todolí writes about the use of disease metaphors in urban planning to justify certain kinds of urban interventions targeting poor and working-class communities. In a case study of a redevelopment project in Valencia, Spain, in the early 2000s, Todolí found that architects and planners used phrases like operation, major surgery, sanitizing, amputation, metastasis, killing the patient, and performing surgical operations to describe what “needed” to be done to complete the project.

Todolí argues this use of language forms a smokescreen of metaphors to hide the true purposes and effects of city plans. It also helps to frame and define a problem that presupposes a certain kind of solution. After all, if something is diseased or infected, it requires some combination of sanitization, surgery, or even amputation. Planners and architects symbolically take on the authority of surgeons, who have a higher social standing and public trust.

Some of the most influential urban scholars of the first half of the twentieth century, in what came to be known as the Chicago school, borrowed the language of evolution to portray the city as a kind of natural system. Indeed, the Chicago school is also known as the ecological school. Working out of the University of Chicago’s sociology department from about 1915 to 1935, researchers such as Ernest Burgess and Robert E. Park, among many others, were keenly attentive to patterns of demographic change along lines of class, and to a lesser extent race, in their largely blue-collar, immigrant-rich city. They rejected hypotheses that suggested people’s life chances were determined by personal characteristics or genetics. Instead, they focused on social structures and the environment as the critical factors shaping things like criminality and social mobility.

Burgess’s theory of urban growth made use of many concepts drawn from the increasingly accepted theory of evolution popularized by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in the late nineteenth century. He suggested that major cities, like Chicago, experienced growth through the outward expansion of concentric circles or zones that included different social classes. The central zone of business was surrounded by “slums” (or “transition”) areas, then “workingmen’s homes,” residential areas, and finally bungalow or commuter areas.

In general, the size, cost, and quality of housing improved as one moved outward through each zone. Burgess suggested that as communities achieved some longevity and upward mobility in the city, they moved outwards, replaced by newer immigrant groups. For example, Italians and Jews who once crowded the area known as the Near West Side eventually made their way to suburban zones such as Cicero, Berwyn, Oak Park, Evanston, and Highland Park.

The processes through which these zones interacted and groups shifted were described with terms like invasion and succession. The metabolism of the city powered these changes as the city evolved and adapted. Because the city was an ecosystem, the principles of ecology dictated that issues in one place or one system—for example a failure of educational institutions—had consequences for other parts of the city or the system. This more holistic approach to understanding the city and its challenges was a departure from mainstream views that preferred to locate urban problems within the moral, racial, or genetic failings of individuals and groups.

The legacy of a biologically informed urban discourse has outlasted the finer nuances of their contributions.

This brief explanation is obviously a simplification of the work of dozens of scholars over many decades. My aim is not to suggest that Chicago school members were themselves reductionist or seeking to simplify urban processes into neat biological categories. They clearly recognized that the “natural forces” they discussed were very much human-driven. However, the legacy of a biologically informed urban discourse has outlasted the finer nuances of their contributions. Indeed, a biology-laced understanding of cities has gone well beyond metaphor and worked its way into actual policy and practice. For example, in the 1990s several US cities adopted a program called “Weed and Seed,” which aimed to “weed out” crime and “seed” favorable economic development activities.

Geographer Tim Cresswell argues that the program’s use of ecological and bodily metaphors worked to denote some groups of people as “out of place” in ways that then serve to justify their displacement. Cresswell writes,

The “Weed and Seed” program referred also to the government’s prescriptive goal of ridding problem areas of undesirable inhabitants (weeds) and planting them with the proper inhabitants (community centers, job schemes, and police stations). This connotation of out-of-place people is attended by a host of other less obvious implications based on the characteristics of weeds. These out-of-place people may be viewed as weak but cunning, as reproducing quickly, as “fugitives” always on the move. All of these reinforce a representation of “aliens” invading the proper order of the American city.

Here, the notions of invasion and succession are mobilized through the everyday metaphor of the weed. Who has not battled a weed? When framed in this way, we know what the solution must be: you pull up the weeds and plant good seeds. This is a long way from the theories of the Chicago school, but within it we can hear the distorted echoes of their work.

Justifying displacement by naturalizing it as part of ecological and/or evolutionary processes contributes to the overall naturalization of gentrification. Although gentrification had once seemed counterintuitive (and perhaps unnatural), because of the well-established, outward-moving model put forth by the Chicago school, terms like succession and invasion were readily applied to gentrification when it was first named and described in the 1960s and beyond. Casting gentrification as an ecological process, with a little evolutionary flavor built in around competition for urban resources, works well to foster the idea that the displacement of certain groups is to be expected and that the normal trajectory of urban development is toward increasing concentrations of wealth.

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Excerpted from Gentrification Is Inevitable and Other Lies by Leslie Kern. Copyright © 2022. Available from Verso Books.

Leslie Kern
Leslie Kern
Leslie Kern, PhD, is the author of two books on gender and cities, including Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World (Verso). She is an associate professor of geography and environment and director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University, in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. Kern’s research has earned a Fulbright Visiting Scholar Award, a National Housing Studies Achievement Award, and several national multi-year grants. She is also an award-winning teacher. Kern’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, Vox, Bloomberg CityLab, and Refinery29. She is also an academic career coach, where she helps academics find meaning and joy in their work. Kern’s next book project is an intersectional guide to gentrification, forthcoming from Between the Lines Books in 2022.





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