‘Gentrification’ is a Linguistic Weapon Hurting Us All

As the challenges of community development have evolved and become more complex especially over the last decade, the language used to frame and define those challenges has failed to change in step, becoming ever more stilted, hollow, and dysfunctional.

Of all the tools housing activists and others in the industry employ to achieve their goals, the language of the trade is the least transparent and least subject to critique—almost a given.

That is problematic.

It has contributed to a set of circumstances in which the industry finds itself cast adrift, unable to confront past errors and shortcomings, therefore unable to break out of the confining parameters of past practice. Three terms illustrate the subtle, yet determining power of inexact, obfuscating, terminology to subvert the impact and outcomes of community development. They are illustrative of a professional practice that has become increasingly inward looking, guild-like, clunky, and unresponsive to changes in the social and economic environment of this emerging century.

Gentrification. This term is perhaps the “poster word” for what can go wrong when language associated with social transformation is reified, taking on a life of its own. Used pejoratively to describe the process by which urban neighborhoods in particular experience changes in economic and demographic make-up, the term has become something of a rhetorical spear, the go-to weapon in ideological combat over control of what are perceived to be contested city blocks and parcels.

But this use of the term abstracts away from an undeniable fact: cities are dynamic landscapes and communities are always changing with individuals, classes, and segments of population shifting in response to the unpredictable lure of opportunity, imperatives of technology, and simple cultural preferences. In a capitalist society those with access to resources have the greatest range of options in navigating this shuffle board of constantly changing places.

When neighborhoods become more alluring due to macro economic influences, they are subject to resettlement, simple as that. New arrivals over time supplant the established population. The question for community developers is not whether this should occur—it is going to happen—but how it should occur. Community development should acknowledge resettlement as an inevitable, historically constant phenomenon.

The salient issue is whether a given process of resettlement is just or unjust. If unjust the appropriate response is to propose measures—activist, interventionist, regulatory, or otherwise corrective—that can be brought to bear so that the welfare and interests of those who stand to suffer are protected. This requires legitimate community engagement, thoughtful analysis, innovative remedies, and a capacity for sustained and accountable negotiation. Spear chucking pejorative terms doesn’t get the job done.

Harold M. Barnette is a writer, developer, and consultant specializing in sustainable development strategies.


  1. Gentrification is the odd sort of pejorative that is sometimes described as a good thing. That’s because it’s usually not just something that “happens” but a deliberate strategy, and some planners are willing to frankly promote it, and for some of the same reasons their predecessors promoted urban renewal. “Resettlement” indeed.

  2. Well said. I live in Vancouver where there housing activists have engaged in picketing restaurants. The resulting fallout has been that more people now have less sympathy for the very real concerns of unchecked development.


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