Excerpt: Global Cities Like Barcelona and Boston Reveal Health Risks of Gentrification

Re-posted with permission, this article is a collaboration of Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability (BCNUEJ) lab members Isabelle Anguelovski (a thesis reader for UEP MA ’18 Alyssa Kogan), Lucia Argüelles, Helen Cole, James Connolly, Kaitlyn Dietz, Melissa Garcia-Lamarca, Panagiota Kotsila, Tiphaine Leurent, Julia Mangione, Carmen Pérez del Pulgar, Galia Shokry, Margarita Triguero-Mas. An edited, Spanish version of this article was published on November 4th 2018 in ElPeriodico.

Research shows that fears of eviction and displacement resulting from gentrification are having serious consequences on the health of vulnerable communities, ranging from stress and depression to healthcare precarity and increased crime.

In major cities around the world, concerns over gentrification have moved to the top of local political agendas. Mass tourism, short-term housing rentals, real estate speculation and even re-greening processes have increased housing prices and the cost of living, leading cities like Chicago, Vienna and Barcelona to craft regulations and interventions to prevent displacement of long-term residents and vulnerable communities.

The capacity of progressive policy-makers and planners to address this problem is often constrained by legacies of urban segregation and inequalities, supra-municipal laws and regulations, and by the power of real estate investors, urban designers, and restaurant and hotel owners who promote the value of urban revitalization, gentrification and the “clean-up” of previously disinvested neighborhoods. And while some of revitalization schemes may enhance quality of life for some, urban regeneration — and the often ensuing gentrification — is seldom a benefit for working class, minority, and even middle-class residents, especially so in global cities embedded in large flows of international investments, transactions, and movements of citizens.

Our most recent research of this trend in Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella and East Boston reveals startlingly similar patterns of how gentrification is contributing to poorer health and well-being for long-term residents, increasing criminal behavior, and undermining security. Our research of these two cities, which forms part of a broader EU-funded study undertaken by our lab titled GreenLulus that researches inequalities and social impacts associated with urban greening initiatives, provides a marker of comparably global cities undergoing similar revitalization processes. Data we have collected in the form of interviews and observation in neighborhoods across these two cities, among others, shows a number of detrimental effects to residents ranging from stress and depression in adults and children to healthcare precarity and a rise in crime.

New high-end real estate projects in East Boston, bordering the greenway and the waterfront. Photo by Isabelle Anguelovski

Mental and physical health

Our field work found that gentrification contributes to chronic stress, depression, and suicidal thought patterns among residents threatened by eviction and displacement, even in neighborhoods that have become greener, more liveable, and more walkable.

In Barcelona, a recent study shows that 84% of men and 91% of women under threat of displacement have poor mental health, including anxiety and depression. In East Boston, many residents are losing access to community gardens being replaced by new infrastructure, housing, or up-scale gardeners, and reportedly avoiding new or renovated green spaces and sportsgrounds, such as the Lopresti Park in East Boston, because they feel out-of-place. In a long-time Latino and Italian working-class neighborhood in the area also undergoing green gentrification, a leader of a community organization said: “We just had a mass discussion about suicide. We have youth come to us and say, ‘I don’t know what to do, I feel suicidal.’ We have had to get training, and we have a teen hotline. We now have kids going to their primary physician for trauma and psychological support.”

Increased housing costs are also creating fears of displacement among working-class immigrant families that have already been displaced by war or conflict. In the context of stricter immigration laws under the Drumpf Administration in the US, immigrant families often decide to “self-evict” in order to avoid the courts and a possible eviction record. Moreover, they rarely denounce abusive landlords for fear of retaliation that would affect their immigration status, despite being documented, legal immigrants. These fears, coupled with feelings of erasure and unworthiness, are having significant effects on self-esteem and mental health.

Gentrification is also affecting physical health. In Barcelona and Boston, despite some residents benefitting from new green and public spaces, many also report sleep deprivation from air and noise pollution, much of it due to uncontrolled real estate construction and in other cases, to noisy visitors and tourists. In Barcelona’s Vallcarca neighborhood, where transit connections to the nearby Park Guell have made tourism the most frequent issue of concern, air pollution from construction sites has been shown to increase local risks of respiratory diseases such as asthma. In a previous study we conducted in East Austin, we found that Latino residents report high rates of asthma among children as a consequence of unfettered construction.

Finally, food gentrification in the form of food deserts and food mirages is also impacting health in working-class neighborhoods where residents encounter greater difficulty to find sources of fresh and affordable food. In East Boston in particular, youth and adults’ cardiovascular disease and obesity rates are on the rise because of poor eating behaviors exacerbated by high stress and the difficulty to afford healthy and fresh food.

Read the rest of the article here.