Gentrification has undergone considerable changes in its meaning since its coinage in 1964 by British sociologist Ruth Glass. Most of these changes are related to larger economic and political considerations where governments get involved with cities redevelopment with the primary aim of capital investments and increase in tax revenue through privately owned premises. Many scholars have different views on the meaning of gentrification. Regeneration of these houses means the replacement of some old, decaying and dilapidated houses with more modern and efficient houses for existing and future tenants.

This paper discusses the meaning of gentrification and the changes it has gone through in recent times as seen by various scholars. This also takes a case study of the state-led gentrification in London’s Dockland area citing the benefits and costs that come along with gentrification.

In addition, this paper concludes the real issues on the process of a proposed state led gentrification as a phenomenon in Robin Hood Gardens and whether existing residents were offered new homes in Blackwall Reach, Docklands.


According to Parkins and Smith (1998), gentrification was originated in ancient Rome where large villas substituted small shops in the 3rd century, AD. This consisted an illegal expansion of metropolitan Rome that had a trend to use a strategy to gain successful urban land that was a phenomenon.

Gentrification has seen a transition in its meaning since its introduction in 1964 by sociologist Ruth Glass. The process has moved from being defined as an insubstantial urban process that affects residential neighbourhoods to broader definition. That includes commercial redevelopment that view gentrification as being part of the wider restructuring of various urban spaces. Recent definitions of gentrification have classified it as true urban process affecting both big and small urban centres globally. Gentrification has existed for several decades and Ruth Glass, a British Sociologist, coined the term in 1964. She did this while referring to the changes she had observed in the social structure and housing markets that were taking place in various areas of inner London. Therefore, the very first definition of gentrification can be derived from Ruth Glass’s observation that described it as:

One by one many of the working class quarters has been invaded by the middle class- upper and lower…Once this process of ‘gentrification starts in a district it goes rapidly until all or most of the working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed (Glass 1964, xvii).

This early definition of gentrification by Ruth Glass laid more emphasis on the residential housing market and the rehabilitation of existing properties.

There have been considerable arguments on how to define gentrification, whether to consider it as only residential rehabilitation described by Ruth Glass or to widen it to encompass large-scale production of urbanism for middle class involving new-build developments on vacant land. In recent years, this definition has expanded to accommodate vacant lands which is usually in the prior industrial set up and the newly built designer neighbourhoods and not forgetting the neighbourhood of working-class housing (Smith, 2002). Gentrification depicts the social class imbalances and injustices stemming from the capitalist land markets and policies. It brings about the undesirable effects to people such as rising house expense, which is an enormous burden on low-income earners and the working-class households. There are also the more serious effects such as displacement, eviction, and homelessness emanating from the creation of urban environment aimed at serving the needs of capital accumulation, which overlooks the social needs of home, community and family (Smith, 2002).

Local authorities in London shifted from social governance to neoliberal models concerning urban governance through economic development initiatives, which has seen states get more focused on shaping its social and economic infrastructure of cities (Hackworth, 2002). London embarked on strategies to attract capital in the form of corporate interests, and many political agendas have been focusing on building sustainable cities. In the quest to increase the tax base by cities, state interventions and government programs have taken centre stage recently with the aim of moulding inner-city redevelopments. Social mixing initiatives that are concerned with decentralise poor working class and attracting the middle-class back to city life has been a key strategy for solving the problems.

Urban regeneration is some key examples of government support for city improvements. Policy makers consider gentrification as an avenue for improving deteriorated neighbourhoods and bring together residents from various social, economic backgrounds and bringing life back to deserted or previously decrepit neighbourhoods (Freeman, 2006). Gentrification has also been crucial to bringing an increase in property tax revenue as more middle-class and affluent residents replace the low-income residents. Despite such benefits, state-led gentrification has found criticism and many scholars have argued that it facilitates further social-spatial polarisation; exacerbating some of the problems it intended to solve in places such as Heygate Estate and Aylesbury Estate. For instance according to Atkinson (2002), gentrification comes along with several adverse impacts, which include displacement, harassment and eviction of residents, homelessness, conflicts, loss of affordable housing, social displacement, crime, changes in local service provision and loss of population. Residents of Heygate Estate guaranteed new homes as part of the regeneration project, but these had not been built by the time they were decanted off the estate in 2007 by Southwark Council (Hatherley, 2011). Such Many have also seen gentrification as jus a tool being used by the government to increase tax revenues in pride of redevelopment of cities.

Docklands is one of the former port areas in England, which is located to the east of the centre of London on both sides of the river Thames. Gentrification in this area began as early as 1980s and is now mostly complete. Thatcher’s government politically initiated the development of this area. The first intentions of such redevelopment were for just urban regeneration but now been characterised with development-led gentrification (Slater: 2006). Gated developments, private security, and surveillance, top-notch transport and infrastructure development and increased revenues from privately owned estates now characterise the area.

Architects Alison and Peter Smithson designed Robin Hood Gardens and completed in 1972 (RIBA, 2013). Despite the success in noise reduction, they failed in delivering adequate standards of living for residents. The residential estate was apprehended for a difficult site when architects were thinking about Post war city living. Big debate whether Robin Hood Gardens should be listed, but 20th Century Society refused to list the building (Powers, 2010). This created an enforced state led gentrification that is a wave of demolition of council housing estates in London such as Robin Hood Gardens. London Borough of Tower Hamlets (LBTH) plans to replace an astonishing communal space in the estate with better homes and urban environment, but for both private and existing residents.

This paper seeks to offer different overviews of gentrification by various scholars as discussed in the literature review section of this essay. The paper takes a close look at gentrification in London city and particularly on London’s Docklands area citing benefits and costs in the process. This paper also investigates the practical scenario on how the process of gentrification in Robin Hood Gardens proposed a new regeneration project called Blackwall Reach Regeneration Project. This explores the mechanism of a proposed state led gentrification as a phenomenon tool for existing residents in Robin Hood Gardens. They will have a guaranteed option to stay in the area, with an offer made of a permanent move to a new home with Swan Housing partnership. Or choosing this option will become assured tenants, but with their key rights of secure council tenure preserved by the new landlord.

Literature review

An earlier definition of gentrification was documented in ancient Rome where this type of gentrification is far from distinguishing where academics classified this term as ‘re-urbanisation’ (Archibugi, 2004). This was more focused than a residential movement, where this effect only in small urban city centres that is part of an intricate urban infrastructure. The process is old in cities, but become particularly prominent in the last 100 years.

Nevertheless, the definition of gentrification like that of Ruth Glass in 1964 focused on residential housing market and the rehabilitation of existing properties. In her book In London: Aspects of Change, Ruth Glass observations were that the social status of many residential areas was being upgraded as the middle class shifted to middle class or into working class space, taking up residence, opening their own businesses and being in the forefront in demanding for infrastructure improvements. She felt there was a great deal of displacements taking place and those who could not own their own homes, the small enterprises and the low-income earners were being pushed out from the areas undergoing developments. However, recent work has widened the earlier definition of gentrification. Recent research continues to highlight the challenges facing the current scope of gentrification towards its conceptualisation (Slater, 2004).

According to Smith (2002), gentrification has widened up and has become the new form of neo-liberal urban policy. While the original definitions of gentrification focused on the middle class householders rehabilitating their homes, recent work have also focused new-build developments, often in new areas such as beside water or in other notable places in the city. From initial studies, it shows that gentrification was initially confined to the western cities but in recent years, it has spread globally and has also moved away from the central cities since its it is being used to describe the changes taking place in the suburbs of various cities. Therefore gentrification studies should not only focus on major urban centres.

Philips (2004) has been on the forefront in criticising many gentrification researchers and scholars for their narrow analyses and focus of gentrification on urban set ups and their ignorance of other traces of gentrification in different locations. Nevertheless, it commonly takes place in urban areas in places that were not well developed in the urban infrastructure creating opportunity for profitable redevelopment putting more weight on the needs and concerns of the business and policy makers at the expense of the residents in such areas. It has also experienced vast growth in areas that have experienced loss of manufacturing employment and has seen an increase in service employment that has led to an increase in the amount of middle-class workers which are more attracted to city living (Slater, 2004).

Smith (2002) considers post-recession gentrification as a global urban strategy to create new urbanism. The concept of gentrification has been mass produced, mass marketed and mass consumed in various parts of the world. Significant areas of the globe have experienced urbanisation, and there is an increasing desire for urban lifestyles resulting to spread of the process of gentrification even to the third world cities, first world suburban and rural areas. Many studies of gentrification have failed adequately to problematise the locations of gentrification (Smith, 2002). Traditional forms of gentrification have changed with time. Traditional forms such as an individual gentrifier who renovates areas not invested or old dilapidated houses through sweat equity or by hiring private developers and interior designers to develop middle class neighbourhoods and the displacement of low-income earners residents as defined by Glass’s book are increasingly taking other directions.

Recently, gentrification has been state-led where national and local governmental policies have sought and advocated gentrification, for instance, in London (Atkinson, 2002). Third-wave gentrification no longer gives emphasis on residential but is also commercial. In addition, it is not only focused on disinvested neighbourhoods since some neighbourhoods that already went through gentrification and reinvestment have also been candidates for reapplying gentrification, and there are also new-build gentrifications (Lees, 2000). For example the presence of new-build corporate developments in marginal locations, the construction of new-build housing in gentrified areas and developments in inner-city of Newcastle in England which was built over razed public housing demonstrating the strategic attempts by the Newcastle City Council to attract and bring back the middle class back into the various locations in the city centre (Lees and Butler, 2006).

Considering work from three scholars, the meaning of gentrification can be viewed in three explanations. Firstly, Ley’s work (1986, 1996) (cited in Hamnet 2003) considers gentrification to stem from the altering of industrial structure in the main cities of the world. This argument gives consideration to the changes in manufacturing based industries to service industries in the inner cities that results in a simultaneous shift in the occupational class structure of residents from that of people mostly based around the manufacturing working class people to that increasingly dominated professionals involved in office jobs and whose financial, cultural and service industries are found in the major cities that are undergoing gentrification. Secondly, Ley’s work (1980) and Butler’s work (1997) (cited in Hamnet 2003) considers gentrification as the restructuring of industries in inner city areas.

According to this argument, because of the changes in class composition, changes have also been experienced in the cultural orientation, preference and working patterns in the middle class working in these industries and this has pushed them to live in inner cities as opposed to commuting from leafy suburban areas. In addition, the purchasing of properties in the inner city was catalysed by individual preferences and demand as opposed to Smith’s work of gentrification on a larger scale. The movement of women into new working class and the expansion of smaller adult oriented households that is well suited to central neighbourhood also fuelled this.

Finally, Smith’s work differs from other scholars’ definitions of gentrification. According to Smith (2002), gentrification is the movement of capital and not people. The pushing factors of gentrification was the growing difference between the potential value of inner urban properties and their actual land values opening up what he termed as rent gap which has been taken up and exploited by the activities of property based capital, estate agents and private developers who have taken up the action of gentrifying the undervalued inner city housing for major profits. Therefore, it can be concluded that it is difficult to have a single definition of gentrification as many research works as considered it in different views as discussed.

State Led Gentrification in London Housing Estates

Hackworth (2002) definition of gentrification capitalises in the production of urban space for progressively affluent users. In other words, it involves the movement of middle-class residents to a predominantly working class and in many cases displacing the original inhabitants. This movement brings changes to the area’s social and economic composition not forgetting its appearance and the usage of newly built housing.

Gentrification in London has its roots before the first World War period where plans were set aside to deal with the declining inner city population and look at the outward movement of the population to areas outside the Green Belt. Award-winning Pepys Estate in Deptford, Lewisham, built in the late 1960s showed the concept of state led gentrification as Lewisham council advertised Aragon Tower, to housing associations without informing existing tenants, and started to decant residents out of the Estate in the late 1990s (Lees, 2014). The large-scale clearances and developments initiated were aimed at removing the continuing spatial concentrations of poverty, unemployment and ill health. In 2002, Aragon Tower sold to private developers Berkeley Homes Plc. for over £10 million and became a gated development called ‘Z apartments’. Later, the threat of clearances and other city problems saw massive depopulation of inner London, which was also facilitated by growth of new towns outside the Green Belt. People left behind mostly included those who lacked the ability to move (Hamnet, 2003).

Gentrification later emerged from such context where the once working-class areas started to get uplifted socially and economically with the migration of middles class groups into such areas. A few reasons can be considered to have facilitated gentrification process. Most people cannot afford to live in a new place. Heygate Estate was demolished between 2011 and 2014 as the former residents displaced to areas near the area, which was recorded in a studied created by Loretta Lees (Lees, 2014). She produced a map of residents that lived in the Heygate Estate displaced outside of London, as they can no longer afford to stay in London. This process also breaks these communities where they lived together for years. When residents claim that social cleansing is going on some estates, are actually contesting an issue whether the place needs an improvement, with local authorities and the government have made false promises (Lees, 2014).

One is that the inner city disinvestment, which brought about the economic gap between property values and the underlying land values. These have a financial beneficial return to the city (Smith, 1979). Another consideration is the preference of the middle-class residents whose new culture and economic status pushed them to living in inner cities as opposed to the models of suburban living (Ley, 1996). They felt the inner city would offer them the necessary space in their social diversity and other pleasures absent in the suburbs. These middle-class groups were restoring houses in areas once threatened by clearances.

From recent research and observation of gentrification, it can be seen in the wider context of globalisation and London’s status as a world city. Thus by initiating and providing centrally located and architecturally distinct enclaves would make London continue to attract the highly skilled classes, which in return would aid in promoting the city’s functional role in the global economy (Butler, 1997). In many places of London, a space for these developments has been created from the remains of London’s industrial past. In recent years urban industries have declined in their economic significance. Therefore, even the buildings used for manufacturing lost their intended purpose. There is demand for new space both residential and commercial (Hamnet, 2003).

Gentrification in London is being supported by private developers and encouraged by the UK government policy (Atkinson, 2002). London’s development strategy places more weight on the importance of housing density and utilising maximum capacity out of these developments aimed at increasing housing supply to the required unit on a yearly basis. It is encouraging the new changes in the use of industrial and commercial buildings to residential estates through the concept of urban living as phenomena. Notting Hill Housing and Southwark Council proposed on a regeneration project of the Aylesbury Estate in South East London. The proposition is to provide 3,500 new homes, 50% of which will be affordable, 75% of which will be for target rent and 25% for shared ownership (Southwark Council, 2014). This ensured better community facilities and improved open spaces for local people experience the social and economic benefits of regeneration, such as employment, education and health. Land is scarce in London; therefore, these projects represent sustainable and efficient ways to providing additional housing. But, 50% might be affordable housing, but the definition of ‘affordable housing’ that has changed so much under the present government meant 75% of market rent (Wiles, 2014).

In addition, maintaining the character of the area and the return of resident to inner city as residential areas. There has occurred great diversity in the gentrification process the theme of pioneer gentrifiers has been lost and replaced by an architectural aesthetic. Current gentrifiers are concerned with buying physical environment of the neighbourhood without considering the local social integration implied in the mixed community ideals of the past gentrifiers and contemporary policy makers (Forrest and Kearns, 2001).

The Process of Gentrification Phenomenon in Robin Hood Gardens

Robin Hood Gardens is a public housing project in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets consisting of two hundred and fifty flats contained in two slab blocks facing each other across a landscape open space (The Architecture Review, 2014). It is a residential estate that was designed between the late 1960s, and its completion came in 1972 (Peter Stewart Consultancy 2007). Robin Hood Garden has faced heavy criticism as has been considered by many a failed social housing scheme in the recent years. The process of gentrification in this area involving demolition would offer a better room for improvement than refurbishing the area.

Swan Housing, London Borough of Tower Hamlets and the Greater London Authority worked with the local community to regenerate the Robin Hood Gardens estate and the surrounding area (Blackwall Reach, 2013). The regeneration aims to deliver a maximum of 1575 new, high-quality homes for existing and new residents alongside community facilities, shops, improved open space, an enhanced school and improved links to surrounding neighbourhoods. This serves the needs of the existing close-knit community and businesses and improves quality of life.

The reasons for advocating demolition as opposed refurbishment include the fact that refurbishing the building would be very costly yet it would not guarantee the existing residents quality homes and to live in an improved area. Secondly, it would jeopardise the opportunity to wholly improve the place by providing an extended school, providing a more open space and other new community facilities for the residents (Blackwall Reach, 2013). Building of new modern homes would meet energy efficiency required in these homes something that Robin Hood gardens would not offer. Residents in the area suffer from overcrowding that exerts pressure on other community facilities such as over-subscribed primary school and inadequate worship places like small mosque. Another point to consider is the fact that refurbishment would bring along high costs to the leaseholders who instead would have been recharged for their share of these works and finally the condition of these housing needs more than just maintenance for instance the leaking roofs and unsafe street sky (Peter Stewart Consultancy 2007).

New development in the area would come up with over one thousand five hundred new high-quality mixed-tenure homes for existing and new residents. In addition to new homes, it would also create community facilities, commercial properties such as a new park, an enhanced school and improved connection with the neighbouring neighbourhoods. Demolished Robin Hood Gardens would be replaced with more modern sustainable developments including energy-efficient homes, designed open places and local shops (Peter Stewart Consultancy 2007).

Docklands has experienced beneficial effects stemming from this regeneration, which is now seen as a phenomenon of gentrification. The place has experienced environmental benefits such as creation of pedestrian bridges and new open spaces (Blackwall Reach, 2013). Economic benefits include rise in employment, transport revolution and other community facilities. Social benefits, on the other hand, include improvement in the housing units, gentrification of the old warehouse to new homes and development of social amenities. Gentrification of London Docklands came with the creation of finance districts. This shows the replacement of estates and housing, privatisation of public space, improved security and surveillance not forgetting the creation of new transport systems and infrastructure (Minton, 2012).

Demolition of estates such as the Robin Hood Gardens is considered a displacement of a community, but the new development is meant to attract a better class of residents’ thus foreign investors. This also means that the current residents promised to be either maintained or returned (Blackwall Reach, 2013). Mayors and the local councils back developer who argues to providing better housing for Londoners with various incomes. The process of state-led gentrification is peruses these policies of demolition and rebuild and the sorts of people who live in the area that do change. There is a demographic change where critics classify this process as social cleansing. Advocates would say this is improving the area. There is a invariably displacement of the poorer working class residents replaced by middle class higher earning residents as that process of displacement is an example Ruth Glass demonstrated (Lees, 2008).


From the discussions in this paper, it is clear that it is not easy to come up with a single accurate definition of gentrification since many scholars have used the term differently. Many scholars have viewed gentrification to constitute of essential elements, which includes the reinvestment of capital, the social upgrading of locale by incoming high-income groups, landscape changes, and direct or indirect displacement of low-income groups. Therefore, it can be concluded that gentrification at glance is an economic restructuring, social reconfiguration and physical transformation that involves the displacement of existing residents. However, gentrification has brought a phenomenon in Robin Hood Gardens, where existing residents are still involved in the regeneration proposal. Some scholars have focused on the meaning of the term while others have laid emphasis on the causes and consequences of the process as discussed in the paper. The UK government has been embarking on improving its cities, for instance, the improvement experienced in Docklands, which is one of the former ports in the country. Gentrification of cities comes along with advantages as well as disadvantages. Key benefits include the overall improvement of the area and provision of improved houses and other community facilities not forgetting the development of capital investment by the government. The price for this kind of development is mainly the displacement of people and breakdown of communities as discussed, but regenerate a phenomenon of communities for existing residents in Robin Hood Gardens.


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