Friday, 24 January 2014

Hybrid gentrification in South Africa: Theorising across southern and northern cities

Charlotte Lemanski, University College London
The contemporary comparative ‘turn’ in urban studies, calling for urban theories to be open to the experiences of all cities, has come as no great shock to those undertaking research in cities outside the global north and in particular the Anglo-American sphere. However, the epistemological and methodological logistics of implementing such an egalitarian approach have hampered practical application. Based on research undertaken in South Africa, my recent paper in Urban Studies develops the concept and methodological approach of ‘hybrid gentrification’ (where‘gentrification’ could be replaced by any other urban theory historically entrenched in western experience) to demonstrate how non-northern urban experiences can and should create and refine urban theory.
To give some personal context: after a decade of research in urban South Africa, I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the utility of existing urban theories, many of which seemed only marginally relevant to my empirical work. Much of my research has focused on state-subsided housing projects, particularly addressing a specific settlement in Cape Town (Westlake village).Whilst not the primary focus of my original research, over time it became evident that a number of beneficiaries were selling their state-subsidised houses on the private (sometimes informal) market. In many senses, this was hardly surprising – eligibility for state-subsidised housing requires very low household income, and the provision of a house does not alleviate daily poverty, but merely creates ‘asset rich, cash poor’ households with an obvious mechanism to alleviate their cash poverty.Indeed, the re-sale of state-subsidised houses has been a national trend, but what has been significant in Westlake village is the high class/income profile of property purchasers, the majority of whom are local employers seeking accommodation for staff.At first glance, this appeared to resonate with theories of ‘downward raiding’, where the new indigenous middle-class, unable to afford property in the city, ‘raid’ low-income (often informal and/or state-subsidised) areas.However, in this South African example there was a clear income and class distinction between purchasers (commercial companies and elite households), occupiers(regularly employed un/semi-skilled workers), and vendors (mostly under- and un-employed) that did not match traditional urban theories of gentrification or downward raiding.Consequently, this unusual (according to traditional theories) process of class-based residential change has provided an empirical example and methodological approach from which to initiate theoretical analysis that is driven from the southern city.
In the paper, I argue that comparative urbanism’s call for a more egalitarian urban theory can be implemented by taking context-specific empirical trends and theoretical resources as an analytical starting point (rather than applying theories rooted in one context to another) from which to challenge existing, and create new, urban theories.In the specific case discussed here, the ways in which property sales in South Africa’s state-subsidised market provide distorted echoes, rather than identical duplications, of both gentrification and downward raiding, result in this paper coining the phrase ‘hybrid gentrification’.The hybrid gentrification concept and method serves as a model for expanding urban studies beyond its northern bias, as well as for theorising across northern and southern cities more broadly. By demonstrating the ways in which using diverse and unexpected empirical examples can develop and challenge theoretical labels and accompanying debates, hybrid gentrification provides a template for analysis that bridges the north/south theoretical divide, allowing ‘northern’ urban theories to be reshaped and refined by southern’ practices (and vice versa).