Supporting Neighbourhood Responses to Gentrification

EBCDA's Community Development Director Jonny Currie outlines some of the challenges that gentrification brings to East Belfast, and how the negative impact can be mitigated through a renewed focus on existing community assets. 

Local news website Belfast Live recently shared details of a luxury Upper Newtownards Road property on the market for £699,950. The thoroughfare stretching from the Queen’s Bridge at the edge of the city centre to provincial Newtownards has always been a road of great contrasts. The average difference in life expectancy between from end-to-end can be as high as twenty years. Recent statistics also show the postcode disparity in Covid-19 deaths. 

Meanwhile, the east has been attracting attention for its renewed cultural and tourism offer. City centre redevelopment and rates rises have pushed an underground arts sub-culture further east for cheaper rents and fresher spaces. The Visit EastSide brand is also reimagining this part of the city as an alternative tourist destination with notable food, drink and cultural attractions. 

These welcome developments bring many benefits, while helping to challenge negative perceptions of East Belfast and broaden local horizons. Yet without checks and balances in place may exacerbate or encourage ignorance of an already existing range of complex socio-economic challenges. Changing the character of a neighbourhood through gentrification doesn’t address these problems but can hide them from view under a curtain of aesthetics. 

The ongoing community response to the Coronavirus pandemic in East Belfast has highlighted the strengths of local neighbourhood networks despite the challenges of long-term multiple deprivation. Communities that are often seen by policy-makers as problems to be (at best) fixed or (at worst) ignored, have led the way in understanding where need lies and what is needed to address it. 

In the language of asset-based community development, this response has been built on the following questions:

1. What can communities do alone?
2. What can they do with help?
3. What do they need done for them?

Cormac Russell describes these three levels as like lanes on a highway. If we’re going to keep the flow and progress (or "flourish forward fairly") we need to indicate before we cross over lanes and wait to be invited in. 

Part of EBCDA’s role in East Belfast is drawing the attention of local neighbourhood groups to decisions that they should be involved in, whether that’s the Belfast Agenda, the redevelopment of the Sirocco site, or even the Northern Ireland Programme for Government. Within these processes, local citizens are consistently responding to challenges rather than setting the agenda themselves. As a result, increasing disengagement and cynicism can be significant barriers to often meaningful changes proposed by central government or local authorities.
John McKnight, Emeritus Professor of Education and Social Policy and co-director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University, advocates for a more pro-active response - neighbourhood impact statements. 

“The neighbourhood is a social environment where the proposed institutional intervener should have to demonstrate in advance positive impacts measured against local community standards. Instead of the local citizenry having to depend on institutional decisions as to those questions for engagement, the burden of proof would be shifted so that citizen standards would be the given and the institutional impacts would be assessed against them.”
A Neighbourhood Impact Statement could be developed in collaboration by a coalition of local community organisations. They would define the areas of potential impact and the standards to be used to evaluate the impact. 

McKnight uses the following template as an example, focussing on three major kinds of intervening institutions: businesses, charities, and Government. For each of these, a set of values and standards could be created by a local partnership of community groups. 
What will be the effects of the intervention on exiting local enterprises?
Effects on local employment as well as new jobs
Effects on public social life
Effects on the physical environment
Effects on local newspapers and community based media
Not-For-Profits (or charities)
Will the initiative replace or support neighbourhood functions?
Will the intervention enhance local jobs and enterprises?
Will local citizens have the final decision regarding the intervention?
Will the intervention identify and utilize local assets?
What will the job and enterprise impacts be?
Will the intervention increase capacity of citizens to perform functions?
Will citizens have the power to veto the intervention?
The measure of the difference a Neighborhood Impact Statement can make would be its effect on the status and functions of local residents. 

There has been no shortage of community-based research in East Belfast over the years. EBCDA has been involved in many of these: from the comprehensive Leading from Behind agenda for change in 2001, to the Neighbourhood Renewal strategy, neighbourhood based research in partnership with groups in Ardcarn, Sydenham, Bloomfield, Walkway, Short Strand, Knocknagoney, Lower Castlereagh and Clarawood, and an East Belfast response to community planning. It could be argued that this rich body of work has, at times, been more deficit-based than asset-based in its analysis. 

Neighbourhood impact statements are one example of how we can re-imagine and rekindle meaningful socio-economic change.
The experience of responding to a pandemic has been a reminder that local neighbourhood groups’ assets should be the starting point for any future regeneration work. People build communities and EBCDA is committed to supporting the community sector in East Belfast to develop locally-based solutions to the challenges of multiple deprivation.