During my internship in D.C., the social phenomenon that has shocked me the most is homelessness. Although this was not my first visit to the District, coming here as a temporary resident introduced me to a new, sad facet of the city. When I asked locals about what had forced that many people to experience homelessness, most pointed out that the main reason was gentrification. Living in the northwest part of the city, I wasn’t a stranger to construction, but I had never questioned how it impacted on the livelihood and well-being of the ones displaced.
Gentrification is often simply defined as the transformation of neighborhoods from low to high socioeconomic status. It is a result of urban renewal policies implemented by cities, meant to improve physical, social, and economic gain within a specified area. Despite the seemingly positive outcomes that could result from these projects (like safer streets, better mobility, improved aesthetics, and stronger social cohesion), they also accentuate a gap between affluent neighborhoods and impoverished residents.
Washington D.C. is the city with the highest intensity of gentrification in the United States of America. The staggering value increase in housing and lifestyle has caused displacement of long-time residents and businesses, who have had to move to Virginia or Maryland because of higher rents, mortgages and property taxes. In the worst-case scenario, those who cannot afford to stay or leave find themselves on the streets or in local parks.
Even though it may seem like the deleterious effects of gentrification are crystal clear, there is still a lack of empirical research linking gentrification to health problems, or even on how gentrification is operationalized. Moreover, there is a lack of consensus on the appropriateness of any single definition of gentrification or on its exact parameters of measurement, which makes comparative studies considerably difficult.
However, new studies show that gentrification can lead to negative effects on social and physical environments, and ultimately health. Thus, there are some factors to consider in order to be able to draw conclusions on the relationship between gentrification and health.
In spite of the described ramifications of gentrification, more research has to be conducted in order to fully assess its impact on health. The findings so far portray a complex reality that includes the cumulative effects of different factors. Future studies should build on this relation by providing further evidence on how, why, and under what circumstances gentrification could potentially affect health. But for now, let’s answer the question: is a gentrified city a healthy city? It apparently depends on how wealthy you are.
The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.