Can neighbourhood investments exacerbate health inequity? Studying the health effects of gentrification

Who benefits from urban investments, and what happens to those who don’t

Université de Montréal’s Campus MIL

When Université de Montréal’s new Campus MIL opened last year, it was amidst protests from neighbouring community groups, concerned that the transformation of Outremont’s former railyard would accelerate gentrification processes and threaten the social fabric in neighbouring Parc-Extension.

As Montréal Durable 2016–2020’s flagship project, the Campus MIL promised new urban design features: one of the city’s first raised protected cycle tracks, over four hectares of park and public spaces, and a new pedestrian overpass connecting the campus to transit and neighbouring areas. The benefits of these green amenities would spill-over into neighbouring areas, revitalizing the urban environment and increasing residents’ quality of life.

A year in, community groups in Parc-Extension, one of Montreal’s most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, and Canada’s second poorest neighbourhood, are reporting that rents are skyrocketing, renovictions are becoming more frequent, and family-sized units are being snatched up by students.

While better accessibility to other parts of the city, enhanced active transportation infrastructure, and quality public spaces should mean better health outcomes for Parc-Ex residents, gentrification processes may be having adverse effects, by affecting communities’ culture and social capital, and placing vulnerable populations at risk for displacement. Gentrification is a process in which formerly declining, under-resourced neighbourhoods experience reinvestment and in-migration of increasingly affluent new residents.

Unintended consequences

Investing in urban design can be a powerful tool to redress health inequities in underprivileged neighbourhoods and improve population health outcomes, but it can also lead to unintended consequences. In the long term, could these urban design interventions have greater health benefits for new, more affluent residents attracted by these amenities, and contribute to rises in housing costs, eviction risk, reductions in social cohesion, and displacement of long-term residents? These questions are at the core of INTERACT’s new mandate.

Last year, INTERACT received additional funding from CIHR to develop our work on health inequities, and specifically gentrification processes in Montreal. For the past 3 years, our team has been following a cohort of thousands of Montrealers to study the effects of interventions contained in the sustainability plan Montréal durable 2016–2020 on populations’ physical activity, social connections, and well-being. With online questionnaires, map-based surveys, a smartphone app, and wearable technology, INTERACT is using big data to provide much needed evidence to decision-makers on the impacts of healthy and equitable urban design.

Leveraging this work, we set out to document the dynamics and health impacts of gentrification. Do urban interventions and programs contribute to gentrification? What are the immediate and longer-term impacts of gentrification? What conditions exacerbate the negative consequences of gentrification? Who is not considered in planning and implementing urban design interventions? Specifically, we aim to:

  • Document where urban interventions like new bike lanes have rolled out; were they implemented in areas with less bike infrastructure or access to mobility options?
  • Assess whether urban interventions lead to gentrification or if gentrification leads to new urban interventions, or whether it’s both.
  • Measure the impact of urban interventions and neighbourhood gentrification on physical activity, social connections and well-being
  • Analyse whether impacts vary between low-income individuals who were displaced from gentrifying neighbourhoods and those who could stay
  • Build a pilot simulation tool to present how various urban design intervention scenarios would impact population health, gentrification, and health inequities.

Little is currently known about the complex relations linking urban interventions, gentrification, change in neighbourhood perceptions and dynamics, and population health and health inequalities. As INTERACT post-doctoral fellow Caislin Firth explains, causal evidence linking gentrification to health outcomes is limited. Part of the issue is the lack of clear and consistent understanding of what gentrification implies, and different ways in which it is being measured.

GENUINE is a map-based tool showing areas at risk of gentrification and areas that have recently undergone gentrification within Canadian cities, based on four existing metrics used in Canada and the US.

That’s why our team has partnered with CANUE to present GENUINE, the Gentrification, Urban Interventions, and Equity Tool. It allows stakeholders to identify areas at risk of gentrification and areas that have recently undergone gentrification within Canadian cities, based on four existing metrics used in Canada and the US. Without recommending one metric over another, it proposes common measures for users to help with policy evaluation and studies assessing the potential health impacts of gentrification processes. The data sets are available on CANUE’s data portal, under Neighbourhood layers.

For community groups, urban planners, and developers, the issues with quantifying gentrification are beyond methodological entanglements. Gentrification is a powerful word that can mean different things to different people and galvanize public discourse on urban development.

As part of our work to better understand the context and meanings of gentrification, our team has been combing through newspaper articles from 2016 — the latest census year — in Montreal and Vancouver to get a sense of the discourse surrounding gentrification in these cities. Analysis is underway, but what is clear is that gentrification debates can get heated. Media reports on processes of gentrification not only raise awareness on the issue, but can also play a key role in producing a narrative and shaping public perception as well as policy response to this phenomenon.

This fall, we are recruiting thousands of people to join our existing INTERACT cohort in Montreal. We want to know how people exposed to gentrification processes experienced changes in their city and the health impacts these may have had. From our data in 2018, 66% of our cohort thought it was becoming more difficult for low-income residents to remain in their neighbourhood.

Ultimately, our research hopes to contribute evidence and tools to solving a sticky problem: How can urban planners use urban design as the powerful tool that it is to mitigate health inequalities in neighbourhoods, while reducing their adverse unintended consequences?

To join the research, visit us at teaminteract.ca/gentrification

CIHR-funded research team harnessing big data to deliver public health intelligence on the influence of urban form on health, well-being, and equity.

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