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Ruth Glass and coining ‘Gentrification’

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Sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term 'gentrification' in 1964 to describe change in London.

Ruth Glass and coining ‘Gentrification’

Cover of 'London: Aspects of Change', published by the Centre for Urban Studies at UCL in 1964, in which Ruth Glass first introduced the concept of 'gentrification'.

“One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes – upper and lower. Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”

This is a passage that could have been written today, but it comes from the introduction by sociologist Ruth Glass to London: Aspects of Change, a book of essays by scholars from various disciplines that she put together in 1964.

One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes.

Ruth Glass in 'London: Aspects of Change' (1964)

Ruth Glass and coining ‘Gentrification’

Cover of Ruth Glass's book 'Newcomers: The West Indians in London', published in 1960 by the Centre for Urban Studies at UCL.

In coining the term ‘gentrification’, Glass wryly subverted the image of the British upper-class ‘gentry’. The concept stemmed from her observations of how houses in Notting Hill and Islington were being taken over by bohemian couples with the money to refurbish them, squeezing out existing blue-collar communities from these neighbourhoods. It’s a phenomenon we’re familiar with today, and a term that has leapt out of academia into popular usage by everyone from housing activists, to politicians, to consumer magazines.

A multidisciplinary approach

Glass’s contribution to our understanding of our cities went far beyond the coining of this single word. Indeed, in his 1990 obituary of the Berlin-born Marxist, historian Eric Hobsbawm credited her as a “key figure in the institutionalisation of British sociology as an academic subject”.

When she arrived in London in the 1930s, she studied at the London School of Economics and quickly established a reputation in her field. In 1950, she joined UCL and founded the multidisciplinary Centre for Urban Studies a year later – a precursor to today’s cross-faculty Urban Laboratory, which was set up in 2005 by colleagues at The Bartlett and UCL’s Department of Geography. While the Urban Lab doesn’t have a long institutional history compared to other parts of The Bartlett, it can trace an indirect lineage to the radical interdisciplinary urbanism of the centre.

Glass’s own work was equally eclectic – she refused to restrict herself to a single methodology, instead drawing together qualitative and quantitative research in a manner that still offers an important model for contemporary urban scholarship.

“We have a lot to learn from the way she didn’t pigeonhole herself,” says Andrew Harris, Co-Director of the Urban Lab and Associate Professor in UCL’s Department of Geography, who has organised events to bring greater attention to Glass’s work. “She saw herself working very much in a tradition of London research that included [19th century researcher and social reformer] Charles Booth.”

An important part of her work was the way that she drew on different parts of the world.

Andrew Harris

Her book Newcomers: The West Indians in London (1960), was a groundbreaking exploration of the experiences of Caribbean migrants to the city, shining a light on racial discrimination and suggesting solutions for the growing tension between new arrivals and existing social groups.

Her interests also went beyond the UK and even Europe. “An important part of her work was the way that she drew on different parts of the world,” Harris says. “She did a lot of work in what was then Bombay [modern-day Mumbai], which was perhaps not high on the agenda of urban studies. In some ways she was a pioneer in a form of global comparison in [the field].”

A female voice in a male-dominated world

Ultimately for Glass, academia was not simply a cerebral pursuit, but a living practice and form of activism – she is believed to have been a voracious writer of letters to newspapers and intent on using research as a way to influence public policy.

A female voice in a male-dominated environment, she became known at UCL for speaking her mind – a personality trait that would no doubt have been less noteworthy had she been a man. This is also perhaps why her name isn’t as well-known as might be expected of someone who produced work of such significance.

Glass was hosted by The Bartlett School of Planning for many years, but was also shunted between UCL departments for much of her academic career due to politics, her perceived ‘difficult’ personality, and the issue of pigeonholing the ‘undisciplinary’ nature of her work. This blog post by Bartlett School of Planning Professor Michael Edwards elaborates the point, and includes a nice extract from historian Eric Hobsbawm’s obituary for Glass, which was originally published in the Guardian.

Today, gentrification is an entire subdiscipline within urban studies, and the notion has evolved as its manifestations have been witnessed around the world and as the role of the state and private developers in exacerbating it has become more significant and evident. As Glass rightly noted, gentrification is a process that – once started – is hard to stop.

Urban Laboratory is a collaborative cross-disciplinary platform to promote critical and creative urban research, teaching, practice and participation. It is supported by four faculties at UCL: The Bartlett, Engineering, Social & Historical Sciences, and Arts & Humanities. Find out more: https://ucl.ac.uk/urbanlab

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