Gentrification or Urban Renewal? Brisbane’s Cultural Hubs at Risk of Homogenisation

Toby Rowen

Shortly after Premier Campbell Newman rolled out his ‘New World City’ plans for Brisbane in 2009, Brisbane Lord Mayor Graham Quirk commissioned his twenty year Economic Development Plan. The chief goal of the plan was to, rather optimistically, transform Brisbane into a ‘top-ten lifestyle city’ and bring over 300 000 jobs to the region by 2031. Additionally, the development plan predicted a population boom: over 800 000 new residents in the next 20 years, coupled with 150 000 new dwellings within the Brisbane metropolitan area, particularly in the inner city suburbs. The Brisbane City Council, in partnership with the State Government, appear to be committed to transforming Brisbane in accordance to its New World City ideal, tabling their 12.4 billion-dollar plans for seven mega-developments including the Queen’s Wharf Casino.

Such mega-developments are emblematic of the so-called ‘urban renewal’ already occurring throughout many of the historically working-class culture hubs of inner city Brisbane. Naturally, an increase in population begets an increase in housing infrastructure. However, given the demographic employment swing from labour-based jobs to professional and creative careers over the past few decades, higher demand for upper-market housing solutions in culturally significant locations close to the city centre have spiked property prices and created an opening for infrastructure developments by investors. What does this mean for the original residents in such areas, and for the fabric of the city as a whole?

West End, where the population is set to quadruple in the next 20 years as a result of government urban consolidation policies, is perhaps at the forefront of Brisbane’s urban renewal versus gentrification debate. Dr Peter Walters, an urban sociologist and researcher for the University of Queensland, says that West End is unique in that it’s experiencing what he deemed “the classic gentrification process”.

“Stage one is where students and artists and musicians – so renters, basically – move into an area,” he says. This demographic, given their lack of economic influence, don’t really affect an area too much in terms of “development and commodification of space”, however they do, according to Dr Walters, start to “affect the culture”. Once an area has been made “cool and hip” by this demographic, affluent professional couples start to move in and buy and renovate houses, triggering a sweeping demographical change and shift in retail. “This is the point where property values continue to increase to the point where the abstract capital starts to come in like property developers,” says Dr Walters. This process describes what Dr Walters refers to as “bottom-up gentrification – carried out by owner-occupiers, interested in preserving the heritage value of existing working-class properties”.

This differs from “top-down” gentrification, which has also begun to occur within West End. A 2014 case study of West End and its gentrification, authored by Dr Walters, found that “architecturally unsympathetic and opportunistic developer-led house demolitions and rebuilds” are, quite literally, on the rise in the area – which the study suggests “is simply  an exercise in the re-zoning of former industrial sites for market-led high-density residential development” with little commitment to social, cultural and recreational factors.

Dr Natalie Osbourne, whose primary work revolves around urban planning and critical human geography, says Brisbane is seeing more ‘top-down’ gentrification, such as West End’s West Village – marketed as “a picturesque residential and lifestyle village set against the historic backdrop of the old Peters Ice Cream Factory”. Deputy Premier Jackie Trad approved the West Village developers to build nine towers of up to 22 storeys when the site was originally zoned for a maximum of 15 storeys. “The West Village development is symbolic of a top-down gentrification process; a large development, considered out-of-scale and intrusive by many local residents, disrupting and destroying some beloved spaces and uses, and replacing them with apartments and retail out of the reach of many existing residents,” says Dr Osbourne.

The ‘out-of-reach’ nature of such developments don’t just mean original residents are unable to pursue property in the area or make full use of the public space; it also directly contributes to their marginalisation and in many cases, displacement. A joint study conducted by RMIT University and the University of Queensland found that West End’s ‘‘top-down’’ gentrification process “led by capital and the state planning policies” ultimately introduced policies that were in favour of urban consolidation to concentrate the population. The study found that the arrival of higher income households and the resulting spike in property prices and rental rates forced lower income households, particularly tenants, to relocate to more inexpensive pastures – usually the outer suburbs.

Greens Councillor for the Gabba Ward, Jonathan Sri, says the study is just “one of thousands of case studies around the world, all proving what we already know: gentrification and its associated negative effects is encouraged by the treatment of housing as a commodity for speculative profiteering”. Cr Sri, who has been vociferous in his condemnations of both the West Village and the Queen’s Wharf Casino developments, says gentrification “tends to exacerbate class stratification, with poorer people concentrated in low-status suburbs that are underserved by essential infrastructure, and wealthier residents concentrated in well-designed suburbs, usually closer to the city centre”.  According to Cr Sri, this means a “skewed” view of social realities is developed alongside a “loss of empathy” for people of different demographics and backgrounds. It also “undermines the cultural vibrancy of a city by reducing cross-pollination and collaboration between different social groups and sub-cultures,” he added.

Dr Erin Evans, GP by day and president of the West End Community Organisation by night, says the West End she knew and grew up in is “being torn apart right before my very eyes”.

“Increasing rent and property prices in both residential and commercial sectors has changed the accessibility for many West Ender’s: there is wholesale displacement of many types of people – musicians, artists, students, the homeless and working-class – who have lived here but can no longer afford to,” Dr Evans says. Single parent and low-income households have also failed to escape the grip of gentrification, which Dr Evans says has resulted in “a loss of diversity in the community, as most new occupants – residents or business owners – come from a similar situation and background”.

“The existing culture here is focused on diversity and tolerance,” says Dr Evans. She describes community members as “anxious,” increasingly living with less certainty that they will have affordable accommodation in the future. Residents worry West End will lose its vibrant alternative culture: “Street art becomes vandalism pretty quickly as an area gentrifies,” says Dr Evans.

Dr Osbourne says social stratification and the homogenisation of former culture hubs such as West End may “break down social networks” as people leave their neighbourhoods. According to Dr Osbourne, people may lose access to community spaces and infrastructure that have been important to their social life, sense of belonging, and wellbeing. They may lose track of people and hobbies, and may have to face longer and more expensive transports. She posits that gentrification may be an example of “collective trauma”, which describes a kind of damage inflicted on the social fabric of a community, which may include a “loss of shared identity, the fracturing of relationships, and a weakening of civil society”.

“Gentrification, particularly the displacement it is associated with, can contribute to the sense of alienation that many feel in modern cities – where people don’t know their neighbours, where they don’t feel connected to the place they live in, its history, its environment or people,” Dr Osbourne says. Gentrification, especially top-down driven expansion that emphasises large-scale redevelopment projects, can have a “homogenising effect on the urban landscape – in terms of people, in terms of design, and in terms of commercial activity.” In addition to “displacing people and destroying homes”, a gentrified area runs the risk of being “a little dull”.

“Cities allow diversity to happen,” says Dr Walters. “If you get rid of that in your city, you’re getting rid of a very important part of what makes a city a ‘city’. People who have different lifestyles, sexual preferences, cultural tastes and political views – they need space,” explains Dr Walters. He warns that if cultural hubs have their diversity extricated “you end up with a homogenous city – a boring, nothing, vanilla city”.

While the State Government and the Brisbane City Council continue marketing Brisbane as a ‘New World City’, one can’t help but think the approach may be slightly counter-intuitive. When the destruction of all that makes a city interesting – culture, diversity, art, heritage and the weird and wacky – ensues, questions are raised regarding how the city markets itself as special in the first place. Expensive buildings certainly aren’t anything ‘special’ – flagrant displays of vast capital accumulation are, after all, a pillar of neoliberal Western society. Realistically, it would seem the gentrification versus ‘urban renewal’ battle is an ideological one at its core: the intrinsic relationship between capital and political power buttressing the prioritisation of profits over people.

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