Brownfield sites are abandoned or underused urban areas, generally dating from the first phase of industrialisation. Industrial technologies changed, road transport displaced rail transport, and port zones moved seaward. These sites were then available for urban development projects, usually with negative effects - gentrification. This comment examines the conversion of a former coal-gas plant in Amsterdam, the Westergasfabriek, and the new park surrounding it. Last changes December 2004.



Urban policy in Europe tends to follow urban trends, rather than steering them. The most general urban trend, at least in western Europe, is urban dispersal from each city into surrounding region - 'suburbanisation' and all that followed it. This dispersal is however concentrated in residential development near smaller urban centres, often with 'heritage value'. There is continued road construction, upgrading the entire road network rather than concentrating on main routes. There is a convergence of theme-park, heritage park and nature park developments, and these three are converging with new residential developments. In the older urban cores gentrification of central city areas is the norm: either in the historic core, or in residential neighbourhoods adjoining it or both. In larger and older cities, especially those with an industrial past, brownfield sites are developed as office zones for the financial services sector, and as prestige cultural/retail developments. (Large retail developments themselves show convergence with theme parks).

In eastern Europe much of this is irrelevant: there is a general population decline, and almost all cities are losing population by demographic losses alone. New construction is limited to suburban single-family houses for the new rich, some new farmhouses on re-established farms, and a few urban office centres for the financial services sector. In Latvia, total residential construction fell by more than 80% from 1985 to 1999. In 1985 state and public organisations built 88% of new residential floorspace, now it is 99% private. One-third is in Riga county, which includes the outer suburbs of the capital. (Figures for the Statistical Yearbook of Latvia 2000). There may be huge reserves of brownfield sites, but there is no money to develop them (and not enough rich people to live or shop in the developments). Only a few successful cities have a range of urban processes comparable with western Europe, including gentrification - see Changes in the spatial structure of Prague and Brno in the 1990s.

The term 'brownfield' arose by analogy with 'greenfield development' - the relocation of employment to the suburbs, after the first wave of mass motorisation. The term indicates the attitude to the existing urban pattern: a source of development land. Developers want land - preferably flat, dry, and with no legal restrictions on development. After they have developed it, they will try to give it urban and heritage connotations, but that is advertising. Brownfield development takes the principle of greenfield development into older urban areas. Even if existing buildings are renovated, it is not a rehabilitation or renaissance of the existing city. The city of 50 or 100 years ago, is not being re-created. However, it is not an opportunity for dramatic urban innovation either. Brownfield sites are integrated in the process of urban dispersal, into the general urban trends. Economic and cultural pressures effectively specify in advance, what happens to such sites.

Typical for brownfield developments is their isolation from adjoining residential areas (if these have not already been cleared). Historically, these areas housed the workers in the former factories, rail yards and dockyards. The remaining residents of these areas may have no reason to visit the new development: they are socially distinct from its target market. However, it visits them: the development itself often drives gentrification, in surrounding residential areas. This is what is happening around one brownfield project in Amsterdam, the former coal-gas plant Westergasfabriek. It is an example of a pattern of brownfield-related gentrification. I will look at who supports the project, its political legitimisation inside a liberal democracy, and how decision-making is closed and inaccessible, despite promises of participation.

An important aspect of the project is the attitude to the low-income population, often considered unfit for normal productive work in fast-changing technological societies. Too many to be permanently unemployed at state expense, they are treated as a new servant underclass. In labour-market terms, the unemployed are being replaced by the working poor. But they are not just poor, they are caste poor, with hereditary employment in low-grade service functions. The attitude includes an explicit rejection of the ideal of social equality, and a belief that no further social mobility is possible. Instead, a section of the population would be condemned to permanent status as chauffeurs, security guards, car-park attendants, park guards, and dog-walkers. This vision also influences national and European Union social policy. It does not, in itself, imply an urban gentrification strategy, but the beneficiaries are the same. The 'gentry' in the term gentrification - the high-income households, tertiary-educated adults in full-time work, with or without children - are also seen as the creators of wealth. Employment policy, educational policy, and urban policy, are intended to benefit them - and to disadvantage the others, who might continue to live in the same urban areas, but with the collective status of servant.


Definitions and trends

Gentrification is the unit-by-unit acquisition of housing, displacing low-income residents by high-income residents. Gentrification is independent of the structural condition, architecture, tenure, or original cost level of the housing - although the housing is usually renovated for (or by) the new occupiers. In the classic gentrification pattern, upper-middle-class buyers bought individual units, from working-class owner-occupiers, or from small-scale landlords. In the course of 5, 10 or 20 years, the original population was replaced by a population with a different social class, culture, income level, and lifestyle. This typically happens in older urban residential areas, but there is also rural gentrification around large cities. Gentrification implies displacement: building new luxury housing on an empty site is not gentrification. The market in expensive houses, selling from the rich to the rich, is not gentrification either.
Use gentrification is a term for the unit-by-unit acquisition of industrial or commercial property for art, cultural, fashion or other high-status use. It affects primarily industrial areas in decline - possible future brownfield redevelopment zones. The conversion itself, and the acquisition, may be illegal: this category includes squatting ('art squats').
The sequence of gentrification includes a first phase where art and culture are prominent - the first art gallery in a working-class neighbourhood is a classic sign of imminent gentrification. Later these activities (and the associated population) may themselves be displaced - by an older high-income population, and by office uses. In the newest gentrification zone of Amsterdam, the northern docklands, this pattern has been institutionalised. An 'alternative' arts centre will be financed by the city, as a driver for the redevelopment. After 10 years, when redevelopment is complete, the lease will terminate, and the artists are officially expected to move on, to the next gentrification zone.
Brownfield redevelopment means new building on former industrial and transport sites, or complete renovation of existing plant for non-industrial use. Until recently, this was usually for the service sector: many offices, some shops, hotels and conference centres. Subdivision of old industrial plant, for new industrial users, is not brownfield redevelopment.
Brownfield residential redevelopment is a new pattern, in regions with relative land shortage (South-East England, Netherlands). Usually, it implies a suburban style of development on a cleared site, but with higher density than outer-suburban housing.
Docklands projects imply a coordinated plan for former port areas - with many brownfield sites, classic gentrification, and use gentrification. The project usually covers several square kilometres, with several separate developers, it may last a generation, and the city government is essential to plan and co-ordinate it. Some docklands-type projects are not in port areas at all, but there is no general name for them.
Urban regeneration is the name usually applied by planners and politicians to brownfield redevelopment, from single sites to docklands. It also covers a wide range of social policies, and may be used as a euphemism for gentrification.
Social cleansing seems to be the appropriate name for deliberate policies aimed at removing a section of the population - a criminal underclass, or simply those with low incomes. It is often inspired by a belief that a city (and its administration) has failed, if such people live there. The emergence of active policies to change the population mix in an entire city is related to the neoliberal idea that cities are a sort of business, competing in a global market of cities, and that successful cities have successful inhabitants. Unlike gentrification, social cleansing is always government-initiated.
Low-income bans are a legal instrument, introduced in the Netherlands to restrict the numbers of low-income households in specified areas. The limit at present is 120% of the national minimum wage. They can accelerate the process of gentrification, by ensuring that no new low-income tenants replace those who leave. Rotterdam, where Pim Fortuyn's local party triumphed in the 2002 local elections, has pioneered the use of legal restrictions to alter population composition. Again this is inspired by the neoliberal idea, that a successful city has no poor. What could be simpler than sending them somewhere else? Low-income bans can be seen as post-gentrification policy, where the population mix rather than the property is central. In practice, in the Netherlands, the low-income bans are primarily anti-immigrant measures. At first Rotterdam wanted to simply ban all foreigners, but that would have been unconstitutional.


The Westergasfabriek and gentrification in Westerpark borough

As the names imply, the original 'western park' and the 'western gas factory' were laid out at the western edge of Amsterdam, in the 1880's. The gas plant was the main supplier of coal-gas to the city. The original park filled a triangular space between the Haarlem road, the Haarlem railway, and the gas plant. After conversion to natural gas, the municipal energy company used the plant as workshops and storage. It was slowly abandoned, and the whole site was available by the early 1990's.

During the 1980's, a second level of city government was created in Amsterdam: the stadsdeel. It is an administrative equivalent to the German Stadtbezirk: the most accurate English translation is 'borough'. One of the new boroughs, with about 34 000 inhabitants, surrounds the old Westerpark, and it was named after it. In 1990, this new Stadsdeel Westerpark opened its offices, in a former workshop building between the park and the gas plant. So, from the beginning, the borough had an interest in developing the site. At that time, the gas factory was the only possible site for a prestige redevelopment, the rest of the borough is largely pre-1914 housing - at least, if you count the zones available for development.

In fact there is a surprising amount of non-residential land in the borough. There is even a farm, only 3 km from the city centre: it is run as part of the park. It survived because it was cut off behind rail lines, for about 100 years. All rail traffic to Haarlem, Den Haag, and Rotterdam, to the airport, and to Belgium and France passes just north of the Westerpark borough offices. The complex of heavily-used rail junctions, and a train maintenance depot, cut the borough in two, see this aerial photograph. It is now technically feasible to put these lines underground, but it would cost so much, that no estimate has been made, and the idea is not even mentioned in plans.

A long strip, between the rail lines and the old main road to Haarlem, is designated as a regional green zone: it is not available for clearance. It coincides with the expanded park, described in more detail below. On the western edge of Westerpark borough is the central food market, developed in the 1920's. It has a regional function, and is not available for redevelopment until a replacement site has been found. A few smaller clusters of light industry and warehousing have been cleared, in the last ten years. They are located along a canal for inland shipping, Kostverlorenvaart, in other words on quayside sites. These 'brownfield residential' projects have become increasing luxurious, the latest (220 units) is designed by Rob Krier, the Meander block.

The quayside projects have about 50 to 200 units. Total housing stock in Westerpark borough is 19 000 units, so even this level of development can bring in about 3% of new high-income households. The brownfield developments also accelerate gentrification in the older stock, in surrounding streets. The social impact at borough level can be substantial. Most of these developments are carried out by housing associations, perhaps in partnership with a private developer. Formally they include a quota of 30% 'social rental' housing, but tenants qualify for 'social housing' with an income up to € 40 000. Of course, developers will set rents as high as legally possible - to make the most money while meeting the 30% quota - so these new 'social rental' units probably house few low-income households.

The northern edge of Westerpark borough is classic docklands. The port function has ceased here: the borough boundary was drawn to exclude the functioning port zone. Some of this area was historically part of the city centre: it includes some warehouses with early 'use gentrification' along van Diemen straat. Het Veem, a former warehouse, was squatted in 1981. Such 'art squats' typically preceded docklands gentrification in Amsterdam. Nearby is a former grain silo, Graansilo Korthals Altes (1896). Its history is exemplary for docklands gentrification. it had been disused for many years, and demolition was planned. In the late 1980's it was squatted, partly by artists for use as studio space. They lobbied to save it, and it was declared a protected architectural monument in 1996. Because of its location and its heritage status, it became an attractive object for developers. So the original squatters were then evicted, and the building converted to prestige apartments, with the best harbour view in Amsterdam. Two local politicians (from Green Left and the Labour Party) allocated themselves apartments there: both resigned when their corruption was publicised.

The largest single project in Westerpark borough - 950 units - is the former timber harbour, Houthaven. This too will be prestige docklands housing, part of a long-term plan to redevelop the entire riverfront of the IJ river. The dock basin will be re-excavated, and the housing built on artificial islands, or as floating houses. This time the 'gentrification effect' is pre-planned. In adjoining 1920's social housing, 600 rental units will be cleared and sold off. Units will be combined before sale - a type of gentrification typical in Dutch cities. In the Westerpark borough, 60% of housing units are one-room or 2-room, but that is only considered acceptable for students. Combining units for sale reduces the older housing stock, and all newbuild units are expensive, even the so-called social rental units. Inevitably, there will be displacement of lower-income groups out of the borough, as the older housing stock shrinks.

No comparable replacement housing is being built. Since the 1990's Amsterdam has simply abandoned construction of social housing, in the sense of new construction for less-than-median income. There is substantial new construction in the region, including a new suburb of 45 000 people on artificial islands (IJburg), and these new housing projects sometimes include a nominal quota of 'social rental housing'. However, as in Westerpark, this is beyond the reach of households with the official minimum income (or less). Median-income households could live in IJburg, but only by structuring their lifestyle to pay the rent Realistically, the new housing is simply not intended for them.

In fact there is a general low-income displacement strategy in Amsterdam, and policy in Westerpark Borough reflects this. Borough policy is to reduce the number of low-income households, with income under € 1090 per month. Between 1998 and 2003, about 13% of the borough's households dissappeared in this way, while high-income households rose from 21% to 30%. However, official statistics apply to legal adult residents, with legal incomes, in legal housing. In reality, there is a group with much lower incomes: a 20-year-old squatter, for instance, would receive only € 190 per month in Social Security benefit. Illegal immigrants, of course, qualify for no state aid. These 'sub-minimals' will probably suffer the most displacement.

A local regeneration plan, in one part of the borough, illustrates the policy. The area around the Fannius Scholten straat is the local 'problem area', with a high rate of illegal occupation and some drug dealing. The housing stock was originally 2 113 units, about one-tenth of the borough's housing stock. Policy is to cut that to 1 877 units, with the greatest loss is in the cheap rental sector. That means the real cheap housing, with monthly rent under € 180, not the fake 'social housing' in the new apartment blocks. Before regeneration there were 1547 cheap units, after regeneration there will be 698, a loss of 849. The number of expensive units rises dramatically: there were just 8 units with a rent above € 315, on completion there will be 281 such units. This is not a comprehensive redevelopment, there is only limited demolition - otherwise the effects would be much greater.

To implement such policies, Stadsdeel Westerpark has seven ways to get rid of cheaper housing - neatly listed in the borough housing strategy Ontwikkeling van de Kernvoorraad-plus 2003 tot 2008:

  1. demolition and newbuild (of expensive apartments)
  2. upgrading of Housing Association units (into expensive rental apartments )
  3. upgrading of privately-owned units (into expensive rental apartments)
  4. sell-off of older social housing
  5. sale of single rental units by private landlords
  6. removal of units from the housing stock, for instance by combining smaller rental units into larger units for sale
  7. simply increasing the rent.
Loss of cheap housing is considered a positive development - to be stimulated and coordinated by the borough. The Westerpark strategy does not say what will happen to those displaced, but it will not be simply natural population movement. Some form of forced eviction is the only way to clear houses for demolition in Amsterdam, often by cutting off gas, water and electricity. This is usually sufficient - police evictions are typical only for well-organised large squats. Another tactic is used especially to pressure illegal immigrants out of housing - combined inspections by police and housing inspectors.

Moving on, to other illegal housing, is the traditional answer to eviction. However, when the official strategies take effect, this option will disappear from the borough. The displacement of low-income population will be final, at least within the borough. That could be described as the push factor in the gentrification strategy. The pull factor, to attract 'the gentry', is the Westergasfabriek development.

The Westergasfabriek development coalition

In general, Amsterdam is over-supplied with brownfield sites: the eastern dock basins are the best-known example. There was also an eastern gas plant: contamination has delayed development there. There are redundant dock areas along the northern edge of the borough, and many more on the other side of the river IJ, where development has now begun. General development pressure in Amsterdam is greatest towards the airport, south-west of the city. However, not all development zones come on stream at the same time. There is, for instance, a gap between the almost complete eastern docklands projects, and the bulk of the new northern docklands projects (after 2005). This has increased pressure on the Westerpark borough, and the pace of gentrification has increased in the last five years.

In the early 1990's, rapid conversion into an office or retail centre was not an option for the Westergasfabriek site. For planners and politicians, 'culture' soon became the main development strategy. At the same time, formal and informal users of the site began to form an art-centre lobby. These two parties - Stadsdeel Westerpark and the arts lobby - in practice determined the choice for a city-level cultural centre on the site. (There was a deliberate decision not to designate the site for local use).

In addition there was pre-existing pressure for 'neighbourhood' facilities (although not specifically at the site). There was a small pressure group advocating a park extension, the 'Friends of the Westerpark'. Before Stadsdeel Westerpark was established, this last group had secured a political commitment, to an extension of the old park onto the gas-plant site. The new borough inherited this commitment. The politics of the area added another set of pressures: for a time the green-left party GroenLinks was the largest party in Westerpark, and they are still the second party. In Amsterdam GroenLinks, like the Green party in Germany, is the party of the NGO's, 'green' business, so-called social entrepreneurs, and new media people. It is certainly not a party of the socially disadvantaged - despite its origins in a merger of the Communist Party with environmentalists.

GroenLinks was influential in promoting an 'eco-neighbourhood' at a former water plant, just south of the gas plant. The project was promoted as 'car-free', but the young double-income green-friendly career couples park their cars just outside the development. Indeed, extra on-street parking space was provided for them, as part of the 'car-free' project, and in 2002 a new car park was opened nearby. The project is primarily an example of gentrification: only the image is 'green'. Precisely because of the gentrification, the residents there are typical Green Left voters - young professional singles and double-income households. In Westerpark and similar boroughs, it is usually the parties of the left, which drive 'regeneration' policies.

All these of these lobbies together suggest the outcome for the gas plant site: a brownfield prestige development at the gas-plant site, of a 'cultural / art / new media' type, perhaps with some 'community' facilities, set in a model eco-park with an art-and-culture emphasis.

And that is exactly what is planned. The missing element was a project developer, willing to renovate the industrial-heritage buildings on the site. That issue was resolved in January 2000, when the developer MAB took over the site, to renovate the buildings within the plan set by Stadsdeel Westerpark. They paid less than € 5 million for the complex - a suspiciously low price, which suggests corruption among officials and/or politicians. In 2003 MAB asked the borough to guarantee a loan of € 25 million, with the buildings as security. If they are worth € 25 million during a recession, why were they not worth € 25 million in 2000, when the regional property market was overheated?

MAB will also receive subsidy for the renovation - perhaps more than they paid for the site in the first place. The subsidy is related directly to the 'brownfield' nature of the site: it is contaminated with tar and other residues. Although this was known beforehand, the extent of the problem was underestimated, leading to delays in the project. The park was 'officially opened' in September 2003, but it is far from complete. The parts nearest the municipal offices were finished first: from the mayor's window it looks like a park, but further on it is still a construction site. Renovation of the buildings for the future cultural centre started in late 2003: completion is unlikely before 2006.

The development coalition of lobbies, local government and developers is not unusual in urban policy. In fact, they are a standard object of research in urban studies, often labelled with the innocuous word 'community'. This particular coalition covers a range of sectors, yet the reality is that only a few hundred people are involved. How is this kind of decision-making by elites legitimised, in a liberal-democratic political system?

Public space and politics

The political legitimisation rests on the principle of unitary government, which is central to nation states, and on the democratic process itself. If party A wins 60% of the votes, and party B wins 40% of the votes, then party A controls the government. The idea of splitting the country on a 60-40 basis, is totally alien to the principles of the nation state. Even in federal systems, the principle of unitary government applies, down to the lowest level. No matter how federal the national government, there is only one of it. The idea of divided cites is particularly abhorrent to western political culture (although European states once ruled cantonised colonial cities). So, a unit of local government like Stadsdeel Westerpark, controls its entire territory, and yields no executive power to other territorial entities.

As a result, public space in cities is not 'public' in the sense of a space for all inhabitants. It is more accurate to describe it as majoritarian space. The typical pattern is neither 100% consensus, nor urban warfare, but coalitions backed by a large majority - imposing an urban vision on minorities. Public space in European cities is indeed an expression of the 'European urban values' so often quoted in EU policy documents. However, these values are not those of all Europe's inhabitants. They are the values of national elites in each nation, backed by a majority of the national population, and related to the dominant political philosophy. The prominent role of 'culture' in central-urban public space is a good example. This type of 'culture' was once an elite concern, but opera houses, libraries and theatres became standard items of national and civic identity in the 19th century.

The uncritical acceptance of values such as 'culture' and 'heritage' obstructs urban innovation. They create a political inertia, by their endless repetition and implementation, yet they are not eternal truths. Remember that accepted ideas such as democracy and human rights, were once minority views. Conversely, no European city would now accept slave gladiator fights, or human sacrifice (last recorded in Uppsala). The idea, that 'culture' is a self-evident necessity, is one of these historically specific beliefs. Nevertheless, it has become incorporated in the underlying political culture, as a semi-sacred value. That explains why local politicians and officials see criticism of the Westergasfabriek plans, as an attack on democracy itself. Councillor Jeroen van Brederode commented on the project: "In a democracy, the majority decides, and the minority must accept this". Councillor Sigrid Raben was equally emphatic: "A democratic decision has been taken, and it can not be reversed".

A very limited coalition decided the future of the Westergasfabriek - lobbies, political parties and developer. Nevertheless, they see themselves as the democratic majority: this leads to an often absolute rejection of criticism. Formally, the borough is indeed entitled to negotiate and consult: this style of government reflects the Dutch political tradition of inter-elite collaboration. However, it remains a closed circuit, a few hundred people at most. It certainly excludes opposition to the principles of the development, or to gentrification as such: ethics is off the agenda. The political legitimisation of the project is approximately this:

A democratically elected majority, in the local government unit, claims to legitimately control all public space within its boundaries. It insists, that minorities in a democratic society must accept majority decisions, whatever the ethics. The design of the park and cultural centre is an expression of this principle of majority rule in a democracy, and the non-recognition of the ethical objections of minorities. That design is intended to support a policy goal, namely to attract higher-income groups to the area. Local government claims the right to designate public space for cultural activities aimed at a specific group, even if other sections of the population do not participate or benefit. In this case, the design of the centre and the surrounding park are intended to attract higher-income visitors from the whole Amsterdam region, regardless of conflicting local interests.

So the transfer of public land to a developer, and the transfer of design control to advisory committees, is presented as a 'public good'. Opposition to the project is labelled 'unelected' - although obviously the developer, the designers, and the advisory committees are equally unelected. The project has transferred a 13-hectare site, from public utility use 20 years ago, to a de facto private facility: a landscaped cultural centre, for an upper-income market. The political legitimisation is fundamentally false. Such urban regeneration projects use the state for private advantage: they are morally equivalent to the plundering of state funds, by clan-and-crony regimes. Yet this is not the result of military repression: the Netherlands is a model democracy. It is made possible by the extreme and increasing marginalisation of disadvantaged groups in the liberal-democratic states. An elite needs no army to repress an underclass: the fact that it is an underclass is sufficient repression.

The underclass and 'our kind of people'

In practice then, the project is not subject to influence from outside the local elites. The people least likely to benefit from the development (unemployed, low education, low incomes, no political expertise) are also the people with the least influence. For them, the park and the cultural centre mean workfare and menial jobs: maintenance, cleaning, park guards. Their life will be structured into a service role for an elite, in a project which they can not influence.

Setting minorities to work on the public projects of the rulers, is a traditional method of publicly humiliating them. After his victory in the Spanish civil war, General Franco forced Republican prisoners to build his tomb. In Westerpark, unpaid work on the park and cultural centre is used as a punishment for criminal youth, specifically for ethnic-minority offenders. The annual report of 'Stichting Herstelling', which administers these projects, gives an insight into the attitudes: "We forcefully reject the victim role which our trainees have learnt from social work agencies... We accept no debate about our rules or working hours, and certainly not about our style of leadership. Our youth needs authority, as much as it needs food."

The design of the park itself, and its integration with the cultural centre in the buildings, is the logical result of this mentality. In a closed competition, with an appointed jury, the Stadsdeel chose the architectural office Mecanoo, with a 'young-and-new' image, for the buildings at the site. For the 'park design' - in effect the landscaping of the cultural centre - they chose the Anglo-American bureau Gustafson Porter (Kathryn Gustafson). Consultants Ove Arup, specialised in brownfield sites, are specialist advisors to Gustafson Porter. All these are prestige bureau's with an international reputation: Gustafson designed elite projects in France, where there is a strong tradition of using public space to glorify the rulers. However, she was largely unknown outside the profession until July 2002, when her design was selected for the Diana memorial in London.


Kathryn Gustafson

Kathryn Gustafson is a stereotype made real: the arrogant talented artistic rich kid. A Topos magazine biography says: "Kathryn Gustafson was born in 1951 as the daughter of a surgeon in Yakima, Washington (population 50 000) at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. She grew up 'among apple trees and horses.' She went to the University of Washington in Seattle at 18, in the applied arts department, and at 19 to the School of Fashion in New York City, where she studied textile design and fashion for three years. In 1972, at 21, she flew to Paris for the first time, on business. There she met a Frenchman in advertising. They got married a year later, and moved around together: Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Mexico. In 1975 they returned to Paris."

She worked as a fashion designer, but later changed career: to landscape architect. Her major projects, from the late 1980's, were for government and business in France, including headquarters for Shell and L'Oréal. In London she re-designed the Crystal Palace park: here too, former public space was converted into landscaping for a commercial centre. Her way of working is autocratic: "I leave no questions open. I am therefore often reproached that my projects are too rigid, leave no room for discussion. This is true, but it is the only way I can leave the work to my co-workers when I go away." This attitude rules out serious public participation in her projects - more so, if the public are not the talented children of surgeons.

Some of this attitude is reflected in the design: the unity of design reflects the monopoly of design granted to her, in turn reflecting the unity of public space imposed by political ideology. Individual design elements, such as a water garden, are ethically neutral, but on a planet of equals, there would be no prestige cultural developments, and no landscaping for them either. There is no doubt that Kathryn Gustafson supports inequality on biological or quasi-biological grounds. By definition, participation in a closed competition, on the basis of talent, implements a monopoly claim of the talented to design. Explicit belief in some form of personal superiority is standard in the design professions. (I never heard of a competition where the least talented designer was given the commission). Nor has Gustafson yielded this unjustly obtained monopoly - for instance by allowing 'untalented' people to design part of the park. In designing the park alone, or with her own elite of talented assistants, she makes an unjust design. No matter what elements it includes, it is an imposition of inequality.


Under such conditions, claimed 'public participation' was no more than propaganda. External influence on the project was limited by bureaucratic obstruction, by the elitist design process, and by cross-party support for the project in the borough council. For the design of the cultural centre, there is no public participation anyway, real or fake. The architects work for the developer MAB, and for the developer only.

Bureaucratic obstacles include the difficulty in obtaining information. A characteristic of urban regeneration projects is an excess of public-relations material, and a lack of substantive information. The 'definitive design' for the park was first presented in 1998, but no copy was available during the 'public participation' exercise. The project office denied a paper version even existed, which might have been true at the time, because the only complete version was on the computers at Gustafson Porter. (Even getting that denial, took five calls to three separate departments). Obviously no-one can participate in a design process which is hidden from them. When the public participation was over, and the deals all done, a complete version of the design was made available. The real consultation process was the informal one, among the local elites and lobbies.

The upper-middle-class, English-language culture of a firm such as Gustafson Porter, is itself a formidable obstacle for public participation. Design professionals share high standards, acquired during their professional education, and are unwilling to accept criticism from non-professionals. Ethnic and social differences are also serious obstacles to participation. Gustafson Porter would never employ, for instance, an immigrant from rural Morocco with only 5 years of primary schooling. If local residents with this (or comparable) background tried to influence the design, Gustafson Porter would treat them with contempt.

The elites see themselves as more talented, more aware, and more cultural, than the low-income groups in the area. Yet they may feel that they are helping them, by giving them a culturally interesting project. In the case of a cultural centre, the elite may feel that any criticism is an attack on art and culture itself - 'fascistic' or 'barbarian'. Once such an attitude has been adopted, it is almost impossible to change, since that would be a 'surrender to fascism'. At worst, a siege mentality develops, out of all proportion to the generally weak opposition.

In summary, the Westergasfabriek project is a majoritarian imposition of an elite cultural policy, linked to an explicit gentrification strategy. The social ethics of such urban regeneration projects are unacceptable. Yet ethics issues are rarely considered, partly because they are seen in isolation from urban policy in general. At the Westergasfabriek, issues common to other European cities are visible: gentrification, cultural development strategies, majoritarian urban design, and the marginalisation of alternative strategies and urban visions.

The ethics of gentrification

Gentrification is not a normal market phenomenon, and it is not normal in historical perspective. There have always been rich, and there have always been poor, but the rich did not usually move into the poor people's houses. The stable long-term outcome of a housing market is, that the housing fits the income groups. There are small shabby houses for the poor, and large opulent houses for the rich. This is the 'pre-gentrification' state of affairs, in historical perspective. Gentrification is an episode, and after gentrification the long-term historic pattern will re-appear. One single factor can explain most gentrification episodes: growing income inequality. Because of the distribution of income, the gains at the top are much more than the losses at the bottom. There are many poor and only a few rich, generally speaking. The poor might see their income fall by 10%, but the upper incomes might double, treble, or quadruple. They rich can then acquire a disproportionate share of the existing housing stock - unless they all choose to build new villas on greenfield sites.

The ethics of gentrification are primarily about displacement, but also about the type of community which is being created. Amsterdam's new suburb of IJburg was labelled a 'yup ghetto' before a single house was built. There is no displacement, except of fish, since it is all on new artificial islands. There are no directly adjoining areas, and only one bridge to the city centre. Although it is not a 'gated community', it will have similar social characteristics. The people who move to IJburg will be relatively young, with tertiary education, and it will be a 'white' enclave in Amsterdam, where about half the population is from immigrant minorities. There is evidence from electoral geography, that such enclaves vote for the right, as you would expect. Long-term movement of upper-income migrants into an area - as on the south French coastal resorts - creates right-wing strongholds. In the May 2002 general elections, similar effects appeared in Dutch electoral geography: the 'white-flight' suburbs around Amsterdam and Rotterdam were strongholds of the racist Lijst Pim Fortuyn. IJburg will almost certainly be such a right-wing suburb.

The question is, should such places exist at all? And, to return to the displacement issue, is it not even worse to create them, by displacing other people? In other words, 'white-flight' suburbs are an indication of the end result of the gentrification process: right-wing upper-middle-class concentrations. In fact right-wing attitudes seem to be inherent in gentrification. The gentrifiers are usually aware of their own status, especially the pioneers of the first phase: they have conscious attitudes of 'urban colonisation'. They see themselves as better than the indigenous population - because they are better educated, more socially active, more culturally aware. There may be a conscious attempt to 'upgrade' the population, and that idea is finding its way into official policy. Pro-gentrification attitudes are usually combined with pro-workfare attitudes. The logic is to view the poor as an inferior group, who must give up their homes to the rich - and then work for them in menial jobs. This underlying mentality is in itself an ethical objection to gentrification.

The most concrete harm caused by gentrification is displacement. In Amsterdam, there is little vacant stock, so new occupiers displace someone else. Some other cities do have a huge stock of empty and abandoned buildings - but no city has complete empty neighbourhoods, available to accommodate gentrifiers. There is always an 'associated displacement' - collateral damage, as they say at NATO. Displacement means force. It means harassment, violence and even murder, especially of tenants. In Amsterdam's demolition projects, unwilling tenants are forced out, by starting the demolition of the block where they live. The water, gas and electricity will be cut off, in taller blocks the lift shut down. Noise and dust from demolition work make it almost impossible to live. The demolition workers often smash the windows of the remaining occupiers, all of this with police connivance. Most tenants, of course, don't wait that long: they abandon any resistance and leave, they take rehousing if it is offered, or move in with friends or family. Larger groups of squatters are simply evicted by the riot police, as demolition starts. In Moscow during the Yeltsin years tenants were murdered, to make their apartments available for lucrative rental contracts, to foreign businessmen and diplomats. This is what gentrification means: to defend gentrification is to promote violence and terror against the socially weak.

There is a clear collective guilt, by the gentrifiers, for the forcible displacement. By initiating gentrification, they create the potential for landlords to displace tenants. Imagine: in a street with 100 buildings there is one apartment block owned by a slum landlord. The other 99 buildings are empty factory sheds. Then, fashionable artists buy or rent them, and open 99 art galleries. What does the slum landlord do? He evicts his tenants as fast as he can, to capitalise the sudden new value of his property. He bears the prime guilt, but the artists are guilty too. Gentrification is a harm done to the existing population by the incoming population.

It is morally deceptive to justify gentrification in terms of social mix, or harmony, or community. If you put sheep together with wolves, you don't get harmony, you get sheep carcasses. Rich and poor can not live together in harmony, and high-income professional households can not live in a 'community' with low-income households. As high-income professionals move into a neighbourhood, they bring disproportionately large disposable incomes. The retail sector will see an accelerated displacement, since commercial tenancies are rarely rent-controlled. Local shops with standard products will be replaced by up-market shops, with the emphasis on luxury items - Gucci handbags instead of vegetables. Services move upmarket also: an influx of young professionals will put the local child-care centres out of reach for low-income households - child-care costs can exceed 100% of the minimum wage. The arrival of the rich, in other words, destroys much of the infrastructure which the poor rely on, to live cheaply. The 'social mix' argument is especially fraudulent, because there is no attempt to rehouse the poor in the richest suburbs. In the case of Amsterdam that would be the suburbanised villages of the Gooi region. The influential residents of such areas - judges, managers, and surgeons - would be furious, if a centre for the homeless was planned beside their houses. It is the rich who are intolerant of social mix. When they proclaim their support for it, they mean that lower-income households must hand over their neighbourhood, in part and then usually in whole.

Gentrification always reduces the cheaper housing stock, and that ultimately forces the poor into more expensive housing - reducing their real income. This effect is not confined to the area which is being gentrified. It is clearly visible in Amsterdam, where much social rental housing is being demolished to build new apartments for sale. Almost all existing social housing will be cleared of its present occupiers, at some time in the next 15 years. Some tenants will be offered rehousing, but almost always at substantially higher rents. (Illegal immigrants get no rehousing). In older stock, typical Amsterdam gentrification involves the combination of small rental units, into larger units for sale to smaller, richer households. The housing stock is halved, and the unit price is more than doubled, so even if all the original tenants moved back, they would still be disadvantaged. This problem would be far worse, if all high-income households competed for the existing older stock. Fortunately, most of them prefer suburban housing.

In a longer-term perspective, reducing the cheaper stock blocks social mobility. It was the traditional housing of the newly arrived immigrant, and young people who moved to the city. It is also wrong in itself, to remove the possibility of living a sober and simple lifestyle. It is wrong to create high-cost high-stress cities, where a 70-hour work week is the norm. It might be acceptable, if all the residents had freely chosen that lifestyle, but of course that is not the case. The constant pressure to move into more expensive housing - a result of the rolling gentrification programmes in Amsterdam - is a form of forced consumption.

Criminalising gentrification

One response to pro-gentrification ideologies is concrete proposals to stop the process. There is no reason to be ashamed of being against gentrification. It is normal in politics, to demand the end of unwanted social developments: opponents of drug use, for instance, are not ashamed to demand prohibition. Opponents of gentrification should not be ashamed to make similar demands. Gentrification can simply be criminalised, by targeting the individual gentrifying occupiers. It should be a crime...
  1. to occupy a housing unit, knowing that the previous occupants were illegally evicted, or assaulted, threatened or intimidated, to force them out.
  2. for a person, with an income more than twice the median income, to rent a housing unit, if a previous tenant with less than this income left against their will. (This criminalises displacement of low-income groups within rental housing, even if the evictions were legal).
  3. for any person to purchase a housing unit which was previously a rental unit, without the written consent of the last tenant. It should be legal to request payment for this consent. (This would give tenants a de facto veto on privatisation of rental housing, except when it is sold to the sitting tenant).

These measures would apply to individual houses, and individual occupants. However, it is also possible to use the criminal law at neighbourhood level, by selective residence prohibitions. Areas undergoing gentrification, or threatened by gentrification, could be declared restricted zones for the gentrifying groups. Illegal residence by members of these groups should then be a crime. If the area is already gentrified, this should be retroactive, for a period of several years. In other words, recently arrived gentrifiers could be forced to leave using this measure, but long-term residents would be unaffected. The simplest restriction is by occupational social class. Residence in a vulnerable zone could be criminalised for persons in professional and managerial occupations. Some specific sectors, which are closely associated with gentrification, should also be targeted. Vulnerable areas could be placed off-limits for employees in, for instance, new media and advertising: this restriction would terminate 'dotcom gentrification'.

Gentrification links

What is gentrification?: quotes the first use of the word, by the sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964. With a review of gentrification theory, and a bibliography.
Gentrification links

Changes in the spatial structure of Prague and Brno in the 1990s.. L. Sykora, J. Kamenicky, and P. Hauptmann (2000).
Economic and social restructuring and gentrification in Prague. L. Sykora (1996).

Kreuzberg: Mieter protestieren gegen Vertreibung, Indymedia Deutschland 29.01.2004.
"Im Zuge der Privatisierungswelle verkaufen Berlins gemeinnützige Wohnungsbaugesellschaften auf Anweisung des rot-roten Senats ihre Häuser. Ganze Strassenzüge stehen zum Verkauf. Viele Wohnungen werden nach Luxusmodernisierung in Eigentumswohnungen umgewandelt. Im Zuge der Umstrukturierung des Kreuzberger Kiezes in luxeriöse Wohnquatiere für die Mediaspree-Yuppies sind die Leute hier besonders betroffen."
Politische Aktionen gegen Wohnungsnot und Umstrukturierung und die HausbesetzerInnenbewegung in Düsseldorf von 1972 bis heute, 3.3, Gentrification. Diplomarbeit von Volker Rekittke und Klaus Martin Becker.
Sozialverträgliche Gentrification? Hintergründe, Hindernisse und Perspektiven der temporären Raumnutzung, Scheinschlag.
Die Wiederbelebung der Yuppie-Debatte der 80er Jahre

Romanof - 'youth gentrification' in Amsterdam. A classic gentrification and social cleansing project: one of the last surviving blocks of cheap, unrenovated 19th-century housing in Amsterdam, is being rebuilt as lofts and maisonettes, for up to € 280 000. Yet this project is aimed at 'students, young career-makers and singles' according to the website. The neighbourhood, along the Czaar Peter straat, is now the fastest-gentrifying area in Amsterdam. It is separated only by a railway viaduct from the eastern docklands redevelopment.
Gentrification Overzicht Amsterdam

NordRhein Westfalen - Route Industrikultur: the Ruhrgebiet is a huge collection of potential and completed brownfield sites.
Ferropolis: oder vom Umbau der Industriegesellschaft
Nordsternpark, Gelsenkirchen, former coal mine transformed as the site of the German national garden show in 1997. A project comparable to the Westergasfabriek.

Oude Rijkswerf, image gallery of the old naval dockyard in Den Helder. Heritage dockland redevelopment: nautical theme park and other 'family entertainment'.

Kathryn Gustafson: Sculpting the Land, Review at Land Forum.
La Villette, huge conversion of a never-used abattoir site in Paris into a Science City. One of the great French prestige projects of recent years: includes a Kathryn Gustafson design, a greenhouse.
Monument to Diana 'is mediocre', The Guardian, 01 August 2002.

Limiting Urban Futures
An Urban Ethic of Europa