Posted by: jillianglover | March 25, 2013

Gentrification and the Suburbs

BY Katie Stowe

A synopsis of Suzanne Lanyi Charles’ lecture / SFU Urban Studies

Gentrification has long maintained its status as a critical social issue in Vancouver, our beloved yet unaffordable city. However, in recent weeks this issue has reclaimed the limelight as several small business owners and developers trying to set up shop and build condos in traditionally lower income communities like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, are facing strong resistance from local residents, via protests, hunger strikes, and vandalism.

Through the lens of this recent turmoil, I attended the March 19 lecture “Gentrification and the Suburbs”, part of SFU’s Gentrification and the City speaker series. The lecture was presented by Suzanne Lanyi Charles, Assistant Professor, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan. The lecture focused on gentrification in the context of a study of residential redevelopment in the inner-ring suburbs of Chicago.

Despite my limited urban planning knowledge, it became clear that Prof. Charles’ concept of “gentrification” was not gentrification in the way that I’ve come to understand it as a Vancouver resident. And then I realized – that’s the point. Prof. Charles challenged us to reconsider classic definitions of the concept, beyond our own intimate experience, and recognize that this is an issue that stretches much further than urban environments like the Downtown Eastside.

Prof. Charles study describes how inner-ring Chicago suburbs are undergoing major stylistic changes, with old post-war bungalows being replaced by new mega-homes or “McMansions”. It looked like the dawn of a new ideal suburb, which reflected how the local residents’ values, tastes and preferences had changed over time (e.g. clearly house size was valued over green space). But there was little change to the demographics within those neighbourhoods, with residents stating that their new neighbours “seem like us” – members of the same ethnic group, with similar income levels and family composition.

Prof. Charles outlined the proven upsides of gentrification in these Chicago suburbs, including increased land value, more funding for local schools, and the prevention of suburban sprawl. But the downsides have been more numerous and very similar to classic gentrification, including displacement and significant loss of affordable housing, with people being pushed to “outer fringe” areas. There has also been negative physical consequences to consider. These McMansions have an overwhelming, daunting and invasive presence – creating shadows on once open and airy streets and paying little homage to the history of the neighbourhoods or days gone by. Worse still, the financial crisis has left a scattering of half-completed redevelopments, leaving streets that were once full of families with vacant, boarded up homes – enter symbolic tumbleweeds.

As part of her study, Prof. Charles spoke with several developers in the area to get their perspective and help explain the spatial patterns she was seeing. Why was this gentrification happening in some neighbourhoods and not immediately adjacent areas? Turns out that developers have a significant influence on this. She found that developers often started with incumbent upgrading, rebuilding their own houses, which then set a new precedent for their neighbourhood and attracted the interest of other developers in a natural “follow the leader” process. She also noted that developers are also more likely to initiate multiple developments in the same area, especially if they experience success with an initial project.

Beyond this insight from developers, Prof. Charles also determined other factors that impacted whether development was likely to occur in a neighbourhood. What she found was that all of the following factors were highly significant:
• Older, smaller houses with higher floor area ratios
• Closer to the Chicago Central Business District, rail stations, or express way access
• Lower property values compared to the average
• Located in an area with lower proportion of African American and Hispanic residents (after controlling for many factors, this was still significant)
• Located in higher quality school districts (2.5 more likely if in top 10 school district)

There is also the huge impact of the “rent gap” to consider. When the difference between original use or value and the most profitable current-day use becomes large enough, redevelopment is a near certainty. Likely a scenario that holds true despite the neighbourhood, city, or suburb in question.

To provide some historical context, Prof. Charles also outlined the “waves” of gentrification, indicating that we now find ourselves well in the mist of the daunting 4th wave:
• 1st wave – sporadic, small neighbourhoods (pre 1973)
• 2nd wave – anchoring (1978-1988)
• 3rd wave – gentrification returns, crossing city boundaries into suburbs (mid 1990s)
• 4th wave – gentrification expands and we start to see new models, such as new-build, super-gentrification, rural, commercial and touristic

Which leaves one wondering… how will this all play out in Vancouver?

Enter Elvin Wyly, Associate Professor, Urban Geography, UBC. Full of incredible pull quotes (“no man who owns his house can afford to be a communist” – Levit), Prof. Wyly suggested that Vancouverites don’t yet know where this reconfiguration will end up. He contemplates “can we turbo-charge this scenario any more? Can we make any more money in this?”

Which I have to assume are questions that sit in the bay window of Vancouver homeowners’ minds.

Prof. Wyly speaks of today’s real estate environment where the mundane is being capitalized and individual homes are the “growth machines” of our economy, simultaneously acting as our safety nets, where we are protected. This led me to reconsider a conversation I had a few years ago with a friend who was visiting from London, who was astonished at how much Vancouverites talk about real estate in their day-to-day interactions. “Is this honestly all you talk about? You’re obsessed”.

And she’s right – we are rather obsessed. Reflecting on this conversation, I began to imagine the day when rather than debating the market and our next move in the real estate chess game, we instead focus on living and breathing the everyday, savouring the beauty of our city – our community – and our home (whatever shape, size, or colour it might be).

Until that day, we’ll just continue living in Wyly’s SITCOM (single income two children oppressive mortgage).



  1. Reblogged this on Urban Studies and commented:
    Great post and outline of the recent Gentrification and the Suburbs lecture hosted by SFU Urban Studies

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