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At the Bilbao Urban Innovation and Leadership Dialogues (BUILD) in 2014, I discovered that ‘equity’ in communities wasn’t what I understood the word to mean. In the international context it meant equality and inclusion, rather than a financial investment instrument. At BUILD 2015, the word for me was ‘gentrification’.

Politics vs people

After his plenary session, I asked the former mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa a question about the long-term effects of urban transformation and how gentrification relates to equitable communities. In doing so, I was exploring the ability of city leaders to gaze over the horizon and whether anyone was thinking hard about the long-term economic and social impact of today’s urban planning.

Villaraigosa’s response—that gentrification was about opportunities for social progression—was not what I expected. Unfamiliar with his politics and with an inclination to seek out any political agenda, I contemplated his response. Was this a right-leaning justification for the ‘American dream,’ where social mobility is the potential of all not the few, reflecting Villaraigosa’s family’s journey? Or did his comment add a different spin to what the left-leaning in the U.K. have labelled ‘social cleansing,” where rising city rents and a recent cap on housing benefits squeeze the poor and low-income earners out of their own communities?

Irrespective of the politics, as global cities fill and overspill land becomes scarcer and values soar. In the U.K., the displacement of urban communities creates an opportunity for commercial investors to capitalise upon land released for development. Wholesale makeovers are undertaken—gentrification—providing a ripe opportunity to promote regenerated stock to an international seller’s market. But aside from the disruption to community networks and cultural bonds, there are potential counter-commercial and counter-creative risks we should consider. A culturally diverse city creates an attractive buzz for those who want to shop, eat, and be entertained as well as live and work there. And cities depend on clean streets and offices, well-maintained transport and infrastructure, and a thriving hospitality sector; like it or not, these are the jobs often undertaken by the very people the city is ejecting. In the U.K. it’s no longer the problem of major cities either; Oxford’s plight should send a warning to those aspiring to be like the big boys.

Melting pots and cauldrons

At the extreme a diverse urban melting pot can quickly turn into a cauldron, where a flashpoint incident swiftly brings to a head the suppressed emotion of a community that is deeply inequitable.  I’d argue that both the cause and effect of these events are central to BUILD. For example, major U.K. riots have led to some of the most contentious periods of gentrification, with a knee-jerk post event investment in an area’s social and capital infrastructure. Thirty years after the Brixton Riots, the community is up in arms about the wholesale gentrification of the area. People are protesting. And the ‘riot effect’ is already causing consternation amongst small business owners in Tottenham, just over four years after buildings were ablaze.

When equity is overlooked, communities take their future into their own hands; this video shows how one Brixton community is responding. Poverty, poor race relations, and lack of opportunity run like a rusty thread through many of these urban neighbourhoods. But there is often a golden thread which binds them and enables them to manage their socially excluded lives, often a ‘sense of community’ or shared struggle. A recent blog by the American Initiative for a Competitive Inner City  even sets out a possible positive impact on these communities where: ‘Neighborhood poverty rates decreased in gentrifying neighborhoods from 2002 to 2014, in contrast to an overall increase in the poverty rate of non-gentrifying neighborhoods’.

But back to Villaraigosa’s response. I had assumed it was a simple case of misinterpretation and thought I would dig deeper. I was relieved to find that gentrification in America (2015) concluded a similar definition to the U.K.:

A new class of more affluent residents is moving into once underinvested and predominately-poor communities. Development has followed, typically accompanied by sharp increases in housing prices that can displace a neighborhood’s long-time residents.

Replication or reinvention

How we deal with gentrification may therefore differ from city to city. As many of the speakers at BUILD all described, we may too readily seek to draw upon and replicate each other’s responses to these urban challenges, without paying sufficient attention to political structures and cultural contexts and a city’s unique set of assets and challenges. As city leaders we should still ask ourselves some searching questions which return us to the central theme of equity. Have we actively engaged the indigenous population and considered its contribution to the unique city brand? What are the vested interests of each of the arguments you will hear? Do we see our multi-national neighbourhoods as a door to international trade? Do we seek to create city clones or keep the city’s soul?

As a Brixton blogger, in the wake of significant post-riot attention succinctly put it: ‘It is, though, ironic that the new inward investment did not come when an altogether different demographic was in the majority!’ The challenge for city leaders is to be able to blend the old and the new, future-proof the masterplan, and champion equitable investment today for a sustainable tomorrow.

This guest blog post is the winning entry of the BUILD 2015 blog competition, originally posted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMFUS)’s-word