2/ The Challenge of Overchoice in Gentrification Scholarship

In 1970, American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler identified the problem of overchoice. Overchoice is, Toffler argued, the central problem of societies who become defined by information overload and hyper-consumerism. In a world of overabundance, the freedoms of more choice become their opposite: unfreedom. Confronted with almost infinite choice, we decide not to choose. We simply lack the time and cognitive capacities to work through our choices, and so we refuse choice. The central paradox of information availability and affluence is therefore that they suppress freedom, reinforce habit and ensure dogma.

How then to construct a virtual special issue on gentrification? After all, from the mid-1980s onwards, which papers in Urban Geography have not directly or indirectly spoken to the topic? Although first observed as a minor urban phenomenon, gentrification quickly served as reason to question foundational explanations within the urban literatures. Centrifugal urban forces now had small, but growing, centripetal counters. Within this, new social groups and identities had emerged, new real estate actors began to flourish, and new policy concerns were forced onto government agendas. For almost anyone studying the city, gentrification had become a process to reckon with. Gentrification therefore took on, and continues to have, an oversized importance within urban geography.

Perusing through past volumes of Urban Geography to identify a collection of gentrification papers that continue to be relevant to contemporary readers is to face overchoice. Indeed, it is notable how many of the journal’s papers have played a role in shaping contemporary gentrification scholarship. If we understand contemporary gentrification as a state-led process of class-based urban restructuring implemented at increasing scale and scope, Urban Geography contributors have taught us a great deal about many parts of this process.

It is therefore necessary to restrict one’s choices. The rationale used here involved identifying previously published papers that might speak directly to contemporary gentrification issues, at least as I see them. This virtual issue is therefore not a greatest hits collection. Nor have I attempted to map my selection of papers onto, or make the selection representative of, the contemporary gentrification literature. The papers are mostly written about cities in the Global North and certainly revolve around Anglo-American theoretical developments. Although this reflects the fact that gentrification scholarship has a longer and more populous history in these contexts, the choice also reflects my own predilections as a scholar trained in Anglo-American geography with research interests in the Global North. In this sense, I have made no attempt to produce an objective or depersonalized sample of gentrification papers; if such a thing is even possible. The papers are chosen primarily because I thought they might stand a re-reading in light of two reflections. I would hope that when reading the papers in the context of these reflections, any reader, regardless of position, would similarly be able to produce their own useful insights.

The first reflection is economic and historical. Today it is hard not to be struck at the longevity of the Great Recession’s hangover. After almost a decade of economic recovery, few have dared to let the good times roll. Despite a historical run of economic growth, cities have remained fiscally cautious and most housing markets recovered slowly from the 2007-10 decline. There are many reasons for this, profound income and wealth inequality being those most often mentioned. Yet if any urban phenomenon has bucked this trend, it is gentrification. Recent literature suggests gentrification has barely missed a beat and, indeed, has continued to expand. This virtual issue therefore contains a selection of papers that explored the relationship between gentrification and economic cycles. I hope that these papers might inform a consideration of how gentrification is today connected – or not! – to cycles of investment. The second reflection is thematic diversity. Gentrification scholarship has become much more diverse and influential, informing scholarship on education, environment, gender and property law, to name just a few examples. I have tried to select some of the most effective examples of this topic transcending scholarship. Not only do these papers give a sense of how the field of gentrification scholarship has developed, they also show how the theoretical exports of the sub-field have become multifarious.

With gentrification now a staple part of the urban process, it is unsurprising that we have seen a diversification of gentrification scholarship. There is simply more to understand as gentrification occurs across more and more contexts. Whether the trend continues is a question for thinkers like Toffler. We are poised to see seismic changes in the urban process, with autonomous vehicles, energy transitions, and climate adaptation remaking the city. How gentrification, a process observed by Ruth Glass 54 years ago, fits into this picture is unclear. It is perhaps here where the virtue of the virtual issue exercise is most evident, since it is only by assessing how the gentrification literature has emerged that we can reflect on the inherited knowledges that we will inevitably apply, adapt, and make our own.

Mark Davidson, Graduate School of Geography, Clark University @mdavidson_geog


Nicholas Blomley (1997) The Properties of Space: History, Geography, Gentrification, Urban Geography, 18; 4 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2747/0272-3638.18.4.286

Bourne, L.S. (1993) The Demise of Gentrification? A Commentary and Prospective View, Urban Geography, 14; 1 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2747/0272-3638.14.1.95

Winifred Curran & Susan Hanson (2005) Getting Globalized: Urban Policy and Industrial Displacement in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Urban Geography, 26; 6 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2747/0272-3638.26.6.461

Christopher Gaffney (2016) Gentrifications in pre-Olympic Rio de Janeiro, Urban Geography, 37; 8 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/02723638.2015.1096115

Daniel J. Hammel (1999) Gentrification and Land Rent: A Historical View of the Rent Gap in Minneapolis, Urban Geography, 20; 2 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2747/0272-3638.20.2.116

Katherine B. Hankins (2007) The Final Frontier: Charter Schools as New Community Institutions of Gentrification, Urban Geography, 28; 2 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2747/0272-3638.28.2.113

Leslie Kern (2007) Reshaping the Boundaries of Public and Private Life: Gender, Condominium Development, and the Neoliberalization of Urban Living, Urban Geography, 28; 7 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2747/0272-3638.28.7.657

David Ley (1992) Gentrification in Recession: Social Change in Six Canadian Inner Cities, 1981-1986, Urban Geography, 13; 3 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2747/0272-3638.13.3.230

Ernesto López-Morales (2016) Gentrification in Santiago, Chile: a property-led process of dispossession and exclusion, Urban Geography, 37; 8 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/02723638.2016.1149311

Michael Porter (2010) The Rent Gap at the Metropolitan Scale: New York City’s Land-Value Valleys, 1990-2006, Urban Geography, 31; 3 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2747/0272-3638.31.3.385

Noah Quastel (2009) Political Ecologies of Gentrification, Urban Geography, 30; 7 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2747/0272-3638.30.7.694

Alan Walks & Richard Maaranen (2008) Gentrification, Social Mix, and Social Polarization: Testing the Linkages in Large Canadian Cities, Urban Geography, 29; 4 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2747/0272-3638.29.4.293