How do you see your future if you’re young and your area is gentrifying?

New research draws on experiences of young people in Hackney

The story of regeneration in London is one of gains and losses, community and hostility, and opportunities and barriers. Assessments of local reaction to regeneration – and the seemingly inseparable process of gentrification – have tended to focus on adult concerns – the middle-class protest groups against the professional developers or the long-term residents against the creative ‘hipsters’. New research led by Dr Melissa Butcher from Birkbeck's Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies drawing on the experiences and understanding of young people who came of age during the regeneration of Hackney (an east London borough) reveals how they understand and negotiate  the pressures created by rapid change in their area. Dr Butcher seeks to understand how it feels to imagine your future in an area where the familiar is changing at unprecedented speed and the new can seem strange and inaccessible.

Young people from Hackney were employed as peer research assistants and created a series of films addressing different elements of their lives and how these related to their sense of belonging. The films, material collected in their making, video and written diaries and online and face-to-face workshops revealed that gentrification in their area has created new concerns and amplified existing ones, such as access to the housing market, but reduced some worries, for example about safety in certain areas. As well as these specific issues, the changes happening around them created a more nebulous but pervading sense of ‘no longer fitting in’. This was exemplified by one young person’s story of his discomfort in a restaurant where customers paid at their tables, rather than paying at a counter as he always had in the fast-food establishments he was used to frequenting.

In an example of how the project revealed the ambivalence that young people can feel about gentrification, some declared that they liked the look of the new, modern buildings, and were curious, rather than hostile, about their new neighbours, but always with the knowledge that the area was becoming increasingly unaffordable for them, a place where they no longer belonged.  This revealed a new layer to a debate that is often framed as a clear-cut old versus new residents conflict.

The recurring question posed by the young people about the regeneration was “who is it really for?” with the underlying assumption that the new flats, shops and cafes were not really for them.

The project was a rare opportunity for those in one of the most-affected groups in the regeneration story to explore their own reactions to and feelings about their changing environment. The findings offer a new lens on the gentrification of Hackney and show the need for a more nuanced understanding of the way young people are impacted by urban transformation. Rather than straightforward antagonism, they are able to calculate both gains and losses in assessing the overall impact of regeneration. Taking into account young people’s responses to regeneration will be of particular importance as policy-makers and society continues to seek to understand intergenerational justice and the rights of young people who seek a place they can call home. 

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[Image: © David Holt]