The term gentrification means the process of improving or refining a neighborhood or place in a city in order to conform to a certain standard in terms of appearance and or upgrading buildings and infrastructure. By the time the term was invented many cities in the West were adopting new measures of sprucing up their cities to make them appear better. In USA most especially, shanty homes were razed to pave way for modern and better housing and infrastructure thus changing the entire neighborhood form. This seemed to be an immaculate action by authorities thinking that they would turn around the cities by removing the dingy structures which were inhabited by the urban poor.
Some writers equate gentrification to residential rehabilitation yet the main negative effect of it is that it leads to massive displacement of people. Since the term was coined in 1964 by the prolific writer Ruth Glass, it has been controversial with many urban scholars arguing that it is against wellbeing of the urban poor and is clearly discriminative in favor of the rich. Gentrification has been termed as unjust because it worsens inequality and rudely promotes capitalism moreover blindly without any regard to the disadvantaged and vulnerable persons living in the city. It also leads to widening class inequality and creates a distinction between the haves and have-nots in the process pushing people with low income groups further into the fringes of the city.
The debate about gentrification has been largely muzzled by the emergence of the concept of the right to the city. The right to the city presumes that everyone has a right to belong to the city and to enjoy urban life. This is undeniably in conflict with capitalism. Which is inclined to promote resource accumulation even at the expense of social justice. The view of URSSI is that social justice may not be adequately served in a fully liberalized capitalistic society. Free enterprise and socialism are two opposing forces which do not have any points of convergence at all. This is due to many reasons. First of all, land is one of the most scarce and most expensive commodity in a city. The closer one gets to the inner city, the more they are likely to pay for the land. Therefore land that is centrally located should have on it infrastructure that is commensurate with its very value and not less. Expensive land in the city should not continue to have poor structures because this in itself defeats logic and more so when the poor spaces that are occupied cover large chunks of land. It deprives the state of the much needed revenue from would be possible better housing infrastructure that would be standing in such places. In the case of countries like Uganda, slums and shanty places almost right in the middle of the city. To make matters worse, people who stay in these areas do not own the land on which the shacks are built. Such places include Katwe, Kibuye, Kisenyi, Kamwokya, Namuwongo, Lower Kisenyi and others. For the city to keep such places in their current condition is to commit the zones to eternal condemnation of all vagaries of deprived neighborhood such as poor sanitation and living conditions generally. These areas need urgent redemption and rehabilitation in a sequenced manner.
What needs to be discussed is how these places can be changed to make them better, but also go an extra mile to guarantee the current occupants that they would be assured to be given first priority when these places are improved and modernized. A challenge arises when a place is rehabilitated and given a better status that is way beyond that of would-be occupants. When a place gets a facelift with expensive buildings which do not match the underprivileged who are supposed to occupy the same, it becomes problematic about whether such class of people can live comfortably and sustainably in such conditions when their income levels are still far below the standard of the new improved place or area. In such a case, the poor people are likely to sell off the properties themselves and migrate to other places which they deem suitable to their economic status and modest lifestyles. Simply put, one cannot improve the housing conditions of the poor without correspondingly improving their incomes and general welfare yet hope that such a people would comfortably live in a gentrified place for long. Research shows that it is safer to start with income enhancement before housing. Increased incomes makes people yearn for better housing and living conditions. The reverse is not true. Better housing conditions do not necessarily lead to increased incomes to people living in such houses. Although it is the ultimate aim of every sensible government that all its people live and work in better conditions with good housing.
In early 1990s government of Uganda embarked on upgrading what was a big slum in eastern part of the city called Namuwongo. The area that was largely occupied by the poor was gazetted and earmarked for upgrading from a tumbledown neighborhood to improved housing units. Persons who were to benefit from the scheme were fully identified, plots of land subdivided and work begun in earnest. It was a well-meaning project for an overzealous government that was hell-bent on uplifting the living standards of its people. Looking back, one realizes that technocrats who came up with the project did not possess the hindsight to evaluate the likely consequences and outcomes of such an undertaking.
What was regarded as low cost houses were constructed with a target to house the poor people that had been inhabiting the area? This was supposed to be a pilot project which would be replicated in other slums of the city thereafter. No sooner had the new houses been completed, the would-be owners sold them out to the middle income groups. The project was therefore a complete failure since the goal and intention were largely not met. Meanwhile, the poor folks who sold the new houses migrated a distance lower in the neighboring wetland of Namuwongo along the railway line where they put up makeshift structures to live in. This later turned out to be one of the most monotonous slums in Kampala up to today. Therefore, although government was trying to solve the problem by upgrading the slum, it ended up with a bigger problem with the slum extending beyond what it was before. Some of the beneficiaries were in fact rich individuals in Kampala who bought the houses at give-away prices.
Every city is respected by what it presents itself to be. A city that has so many slums may not appeal to many investors and will tend to attract less Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) It is in the interest of every city to have better housing and less of slums. Gentrification and slum upgrading are, contextually similar even if one has a negative undertone than the other. They are different in purpose and implementation and therefore lead to different results altogether. We are however aware though that many cities in the developing world tend to use the term slum upgrading while indirectly or directly trying to achieve gentrification. Whichever way you may want to look at it, cities need to have a better appearance by clearing the obnoxious ghettos that continue to thrive amidst growing urban poverty and deprivation. Gentrification in itself may not be a bad option for the city, it only become wicked when a large number= of people are pushed out of their houses or business operating areas without giving them an alternative. Again, the poor too have a right to live near the city in order to carry out their activities freely. What some governments have been doing is to push them far away from the city into new places, an action that deprives them of the right to belong to the city. It also puts a strain on their resources since they have to pay higher travel costs to commute from far off places into the city thus further eroding their incomes and increasing their travel times
The delicate balance the authorities have to find is to ensure that their cities are continually becoming attractive while at the same time taking care of the interests of the urban poor. In the end, both the poor and the rich need each other in the city. A rich person will need a poor person to clean their office or wash their car because they cannot do it themselves. At the same time a poor person will need the rich person in the city because the latter has money and can pay for goods and services provided by the former. Every city will always have poor people and rich people. What is critical is to find a balance of how to ensure that the two groups live harmoniously with the poor working to move themselves up the ladder from the poverty trap to become middle income earners. This can be achieved by designing well thought out programmes that holistically uplift the urban people from poverty, working on their incomes, while concurrently improving their living conditions through either slum upgrading schemes or gentrification.