Central Europe gets a facelift

European Daily

Taking pride in your neighbourhood and encouraging positive development that attracts investment are worthy goals most people would agree with. But cities throughout Europe often struggle with the sometimes dirty word ‘gentrification’. How to keep a city’s soul while revitalising rundown areas?

Dr Barbara Schönig is a professor for urban planning at Bauhaus Universität Weimar in Germany. She lays out the typical stages of neighbourhood gentrification: “Pioneers (students, artists, creatives) come into an underused urban quarter, attracted by the empty spaces and cheap rents. At the same time, they create an atmosphere that successively starts to be a hotspot for culture, media, etc. Others start to live there who have more money and want to share the culture of the urban quarter but prefer to live in renovated apartments; these are the ‘gentrifiers’.”

Following the gentrifiers come shops offering exclusive services the newcomers demand. Next up, developers catch on to the growing popularity and prices for apartments, offices and retail space increase. Schönig says this is when you really start to see the changing face of the neighbourhood: “Ultimately, those who (originally) lived in the quarter have become gentrifiers themselves and stay or have to move out due to high rents. Affected, however, are not only the pioneers but especially those who have been living in these neighbourhoods before pioneers intruded: elderly or poor people, migrants.”

Gentrifying neighbourhoods need hip new shops and restaurants to meet new residents’ demands. According to Schönig, the original inhabitants’ culture and services are usually the first to go. “Migrant stores, bars for working class people, unemployed hanging around in the park usually find no way to stay and feel well within these neighbourhoods,” she says.

But a neighbourhood with fresh buildings, a variety of restaurants and shops should be an attractive place for residents to stay and spend their money, and should appeal to other city residents to spend an afternoon or evening. But as Rob Stevens, a senior lecturer in economic development and city planning at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, makes clear, it is difficult to say whether gentrification is good or bad. Bristol, England has undergone a massive transformation in the last 30 years. The industrial section of the neighbourhood near the dock area has been transformed into new residential, office, cultural and leisure spaces. While the process at times was controversial, Stevens says, in the end he believes the city reached a balance that worked.

“In the best cases, it creates a new holistic dynamic where you have people living, playing, working and communicating in spaces where they were not before,” Stevens says. “In the worst cases, it can on the one hand create ‘soulless’ atomised apartment-only zones in previously industrial areas, which are under-supported by retail, leisure and public services, or on the other can destroy the fabric of pre-existing connected, cohesive low-income neighbours by supplanting these populations with wealthier, less interactive incomers.”

In Central and Eastern European cities, the process of gentrification often came fast and furious in the 1990s. Led by developers, many city officials let the plans be market-driven. Igor Kovacevic, an architect and co-founder of the Centre for Central European Architecture, believes that not only do city officials need to step in to govern their cities, but citizens need to be more proactive when it comes to their neighbourhoods.

“When people have a problem, they join together and initiatives are born from that need,” he says. “The next step is not to be reactive but evolve into a civic society. In the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, people are starting to initiate things.”

One example is the Józsefváros neighbourhood in Budapest. Close to the city centre, it’s an area with lovely 19th-century structures and empty plots attractive to developers. Here, though, concerned residents stepped forward.

“Hungarian architects, NGOs and the local community created a feeling of belonging,” Kovacevic explains. “It’s a favourite place for artists, students; cheap and close to the centre. Budapest invested in different economic initiatives for everyone to be welcome. Building social infrastructure – centres for the elderly, Roma, schools – keeps people there.”

Kovacevic contrasts that with the Prague neighbourhood of Karlín. Close to the city centre, the district was working class. Developers were beginning to show interest in it when the disastrous floods of 2002 all but destroyed the neighborhood. “Because of the floods, a lot of people were forced out and only people with higher incomes could afford to come back,” Kovacevic says. “In Karlín, there was no artistic occupation, only developers. This is extreme gentrification.”

Urban renewal, renaissance, upgrading, gentrification – whatever the process is called, the actors involved need to step up and take responsibly for their roles as city planners, developers, architects or residents. As cities continue to evolve, the hard-to-define pros and cons of improving neighborhoods will continue to be debated.

“Neighborhood upgrading without people being pushed out of the area should not be called gentrification,” Schönig says. “Gentrification occurs in places where property markets are thriving and the demand for apartments is high. But I think it is really necessary to differentiate between an upgrading process that is being performed together with inhabitants and one that ultimately results in their removal from the neighborhood.”