Book Review Preview: Planetary Gentrification

By Dennis E. Gale

Loretta Lees, Hyun Bang Shin and Ernesto Lopez-Morales. Planetary Gentrification. (Cambridge, England and Malden, Massachusetts: Polity Press, 2016)

This book argues that gentrification is not limited to advanced nations in the English-speaking world or in Western Europe. It appears in parts of South America, Africa and South Asia, taking on many variations from place to place. Informative  case studies, ranging from Santiago and Rio de Janeiro to Hong Kong and Shanghai to Cape Town and Soweto, are presented. Gentrification, a term coined by Ruth Glass in the 1960s, referred to the renovation of older urban housing by artists and middle-income newcomers in London. Unlike government clearance-and rebuilding projects, gentrification was largely a private market phenomenon. As this process spread, commercial interests and state actors interceded and fanned the flames of reinvestment. Gradually, poor and working class households (often minorities) were supplanted by middle- and upper-income households.

Early studies of gentrification in the more economically advanced countries generally observed Glass’s original definition. By the 1990s however, the G-word was being misapplied by some scholars to almost any form of urban reinvestment. Planetary Gentrification too, takes the concept well beyond its “Glassian” origins. As their study progresses however, the authors grow more doubtful about their use of the G-word. Not surprisingly then, the book concludes referring to “planetary urbanization,” a phenomenon encompassing not only building renovation and reuse but demolition and rebuilding, too.

The book shines in its discussion of several examples of urban development across the globe. The authors deftly disentangle the roots of commercial and state intervention and the erasure of favelas, barrios, or clandestinos. These communities were replaced by mega-projects largely targeted at middle- and upper-income home-seekers or investors. Where subsidized housing for original residents was included, demand far outstripped supply and prices and rents frequently exceeded the means of original residents. Some of the worst aspects of the slums — predatory gangs, drugs, and life-threatening health conditions — were vanquished but the poor were often disenfranchised. Consequently, social justice goals were subservient to the interests of affluent people.

The full version of this book review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

Dennis E. Gale
Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University
Lecturer, Stanford University