How to predict the next hip neighborhood?

It’s one of the most frequent discussion topics during vibrant Berlin dinner parties: recent developments in the local neighborhood (Berliners fashionably call it “Kiez”), new restaurants and cafés opening up, galleries having their vernissage. At the same time, opinions diverge regarding the newcomers: which neighborhood might be the hippest place in the next few years? Wedding or Moabit? Especially in a city like Berlin, where a lot of the centrally located neighborhoods are still affordable, diverse and not rigorously planned by real estate moguls, gentrification is a very hot topic. Neighborhoods are changing, with all the associated up- and downsides. Researchers from the University of Cambridge have now come up with a model to predict gentrification – insights, which could be of special interest for city planners and urban activists alike.

Gentrification – it happens to the best of us

As in most cities, the socio-economic composure of districts is formed by its history. In Berlin, quite obviously, the existence of the wall had a large impact on real estate quality, prices and subsequently socio-economic setup of districts. It lead to the bizarre scenario that, after reunification, some of the most central districts of the city were inhabited by a rather low-income segment of the population. Gentrification describes the process, which oftentimes happens to rather poor, but still attractively located, neighborhoods: the appearance of urban culture, the slow rise of property prices and the subsequent sidelining of those people, who might have lived in the area for decades, but – at some point of time – just can’t afford living there anymore. While gentrification – when studied on a more macro level – leads to lower crime rates, a better social and commercial infrastructure, and – some might argue – a better quality of life in general, the term is oftentimes used with a negative flair. With rising real estate prices comes the arrival of mainstream culture, middle class families and the end of cultural, sociological diversity. In short, everything which might have made the neighborhood unique in the first place slowly disappears.

Approach of Uni Cambridge

Researchers of the University of Cambridge have been looking into the dynamics of gentrification processes and came up with a model to reliably predict the gentrification of neighborhoods in London. Their research departs from one core hypothesis: Socially cohesive and homogeneous neighborhoods have a tendency to be either populated by the rich, or by the poor. Those neighborhoods, which experience high social diversity but also relative poverty, are subject to gentrification. The essential questions, which had to be tackled then, was how to actually account for social diversity. Desislava Hristova, who led the research effort, eventually turned to social media data – over half a million checkins from Foursquare and Twitter – to conceptualize four measures of social diversity:

Brokerage: how often are people being ‘connected’ in places (cafés, restaurants, etc.), without having a prior connection
Serendipity: To what extent can a place induce chance encounters between its visitors?
Entropy: How diverse is the place in general in term of visitors?
Homogeneity: How similar are visitors in terms of social background and characteristics?

Generally, this set-up conforms with our intuition, that districts with ongoing gentrification bring together a more diverse crowd of people, given its regulars and those, which are attracted by the new, hip character of the neighborhood – or even tourists. Within this framework, the researchers were able to categorize places like cafés and restaurants and assess over time, how the social diversity index progresses. Given historical data, they conceptualized and back-tested a prediction model, which – in 2010 – determined a few London neighborhoods as the soon-to-be hotspots. And, fast-forward six years, their predictions turn out to be quite solid. How do such models actually help us?

Nice-to-have model or actual impact?

While a gentrification prediction model would certainly also do well for a story at the next dinner party, it might actually carry large benefits for city planners. While changing, vibrant neighborhoods are not a bad thing per se, the downsides of rapid gentrification ought to be mitigated by public authorities. City planners oftentimes do have an interest in slowing down certain developments, for the sake of conceptualizing valid alternatives for those who will be affected the most by the shifting dynamics. Identifying those neighborhoods where gentrification is accelerating is therefore a useful analysis, helping urban institutions to focus their efforts and resources accordingly. At the same time, of course, those fighting to persevere the socio-economic setup of neighborhoods get access to a solid blueprint, pointing them to those areas where their efforts (demonstrations, info, campaigns etc.) are most likely to be well received. Indeed, Hristova and her colleagues do plan to take their research further and build a smartphone application, which could assist urban planners and city activists alike. Another group might actually benefit as well: tourists, which aim to discover the city in its most authentic way. Because, as the app will point out areas of gentrification, it will subsequently also carry information about where city life has not yet fallen to urban mainstream culture.


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