Slowing down urban food gentrification

  • Local food policies are not socially neutral : they can contribute to gentrification or slow it down
  • Gentrification impacts the entire food system by pricing out the existing food production, transformation, transport and retail economies
  • Land use and urban design policies should also be on sustainable food advocates’ plate!

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Gentrification the urban phenomenon in which local people are priced out of their neighbourhood. In a policy brief published in 2018, Nevin Cohen, from CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute in New York, usefully reminds us that food policy can play a role in this process.

First, the trendy restaurants and the healthy supermarkets…

How does gentrification happen? It is the result of urban policies that signpost low-income neighbourhoods for investment. Investors are attracted when potential land value greatly exceeds existing value. They build houses that existing inhabitants cannot afford but that attract wealthier city dwellers. And then the vicious circle starts… Policies that increase potential land value include zoning for higher density, or providing amenities such as public transport or cultural amenities.

Even well intended policies can have adverse social consequences. Researchers have even coined a phrase to capture this phenomenon: they call “green gentrification” the process through which improving the quality of life in a neighbourhood can end up having negative impacts on its inhabitants.

What does this have to do with food? Well, food facilities are part of the amenities that attract upper and middle-class people to gentrifying neighbourhoods. Hence, supermarkets, renovated public food markets, and even some community markets play a role in gentrification. As new residents move in, coffee shops and trendy restaurants settle in. Green supermarkets that target “ethical consumers” (generally well-off households) also contribute to the “Whole Foods effect”, named for the tendency of the US-based healthy supermarket chain to raise real estate prices surrounding their new stores.

Prices are only part of the equation. Gentrification also has a symbolic dimension. Indeed, these new food amenities signal to low-income households that they are not welcome here anymore by promoting new cultural codes that are not theirs. For instance, cafes that are geared towards independent white-collars might feel very different from longstanding coffee shops.

Pricing out the existing food economy

Gentrification then creates a spiral that impacts existing food retailers and restaurants. As rent prices go up, existing businesses cannot afford to stay. The problem is that historic inhabitants still need such businesses. If these disappear too quickly, then people may be trapped into a “food mirage”, i.e. a neighbourhood where food is widely available, but not necessarily affordable.

Gentrification also impacts the entire city food system. Spaces earmarked for food production, processing or transportation are also priced out, as residential and commercial uses take it all.

Ensuring food security in gentrifying neighbourhoods

What can urban food policy advocates do to mitigate the adverse impacts of gentrification? Nevin Cohen points out that very practical action can be taken. For instance, policies can foster or even create food businesses that meet the needs of people who stay in these neighbourhoods. Zoning can promote retail diversity and slow down the impacts of gentrification on the food environment. Another idea is to work with new supermarkets to make sure than they provide jobs for the community. Or to avoid turning food markets into tourist attractions, and make sure that some spots are safeguarded for businesses that serve the local people.

The author also highlights the need for sustainable food actors to become more aware that food policies are not socially neutral and that they can contribute to / or slow down gentrification. Even policies that are conceived to increase access to food can be double-edge swords. For example, incentives for supermarkets to settle into a neighbourhood can increase access to fresh food, and, at the same time, send the signal that the place is moving up the social ladder.

Last but not least, this paper shows that there is a wide array of “hidden food policies”, especially in urban planning, that have an impact on people’s ability to access food they can afford in their neighbourhoods. Working on food security at the local level therefore means not only working on policies that explicitly tackle food. Land use and urban design policies should also be on sustainable food advocates’ plate!


Albane GASPARD – February 2019

Urban Food Futures would like to thank Nevin Cohen for his inputs and comments.

Source : Cohen, N (2018), Feeding or starving gentrification: the role of food policy, Policy brief

Picture credits: Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

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