The Shapes of Spaces — Gentrification

The introduction of ICT-linked capital, among other things, may be a catalyst for the physical and economic transformation of urban spaces. Here, Montreal’s Plateau Mont-Royal displays some of the physical traits of gentrification.

Technopoles, whether global or second-tier, have been encouraged to attract the all-important “cyber’ capital through strategic investment by local governments and even smaller “corporate-controlled bodies like Business Improvement Districts (BIDs)” (Mosco, 1999). In some first-tier “cyber” cities like the City of New York, governments provided pre-wired buildings, access to high-bandwidth networks, dedicated generators or generator farms, and housing for the highly-educated, highly paid employees of technology firms. This investment has always come at the expense of more widespread infrastructure maintenance across whole urban areas, as Mosco (1999) points out. Strategic new construction, whether New York City’s Battery Park City located a short walk away from Silicon Alley, or Montreal’s Cite Multimedia, the centerpiece of a purported cluster of technology and high-end residential development, reinforces the development of high-income enclaves around ICT-intensive industries. These enclaves are often cut off from the surrounding urban fabric (Battery Park City is a good example) but sometimes encroach upon them, accelerating the process of gentrification that has been altering North American urban centres in the past two decades. When wealthy employees of technology companies move into traditionally poor areas, the economic and social effects are often remarkable and visible.

Solnit and Swartenberg (2000) describe the colonization of the SOMA (South of Market) area of San Francisco during the 1990’s by millionare technology workers, who drove out the poor and those who were engaged in non-lucrative pursuits such as art, social activism, or social service. This influx of highly-paid commuters, who travel to suburban Silicon Valley for work, intensifies the pressure on a neighbourhood that has already seen significant changes in its demographic makeup throughout the previous twenty years . The dot-com boom, and the association of SoMa with “cyber-cool” escalates the impacts on the shape of the city. Solit and Swartenberg report, “All over the city, buildings are being torn down and replaced with bigger ones, long-vacant lots are being filled in, condos built and sold, old industrial buildings and former nonprofit offices turned into dot-com offices and upscale lofts” (2000, p.14). The immense amounts of capital associated with the IT industry fundamentally reshaped the physical and social city. Although the process occurred first, and perhaps most obviously in San Francisco, the physical and social traces of ICT and dot-com economies are visible across North America. In Montreal, the Plateau Mont-Royal area has been fundamentally altered by many factors including the influx of new capital (much of it connected to the burgeoning software development industry), with higher rents, lower vacancy rates, and other symptoms of “the Darwinian nature of unfettered capitalism” (Solnit & Swartenberg, 2000 p.16).

This unfettered capitalism creates the perfect prerequisite for continued urban splintering. As the poor are forced out of neighbourhoods in central cities, they often move to more distant suburbs, dependent on crumbling transportation infrastructure and often outside of the zones in which companies consider it beneficial to upgrade telecommunications infrastructure. This establishes newly constructed or newly gentrified areas as “islands of privilege” (Graham and
Marvin 2001) and, in addition to destroying or undermining traditionally diverse proximal communities, small businesses, and neighbourhood services, often means that the former members of those communities often end in areas underserved by basic infrastructures. In addition, gentrifying neighbourhoods with active commercial areas often witness the growth of BIDs, which begin to control the maintenance of intrastructure (including public spaces). These districts, whose boards of governors represent the interests of local businesses, appear to be growing in power and influence, especially in cities where capital moves into certain areas. Like other symptoms of splintering, the increasing importance of BIDs in managing public space and civic services risks undermining established universal service infrastructures. However, because local politics determine the priorities of BIDs, their activities cannot necessarily be universally dismissed as problematic. Recently, some BIDs have begun providing wireless internet connectivity, a development that will be more closely considered in the chapter on Community Wireless.