Bio-Gentrification: Vulnerability Bio-Value Chains in Gentrifying Neighbourhoods Forthcoming in

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July 6, 2014


Vulnerability Bio-Value Chains in Gentrifying Neighbourhoods
Forthcoming in Urban Geography
Karen Bridget Murray
Department of Political Science, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

This paper develops the concept of “bio-gentrification” as a way to broaden critical theoretical debates on the relationship between gentrification and “social mixing” policies. Bio-gentrification weds urban Marxist political economic insights to the neo-Foucaultian notion of biopower. The former stresses spatial tactics of removal and displacement and value generated through land and property. The latter assesses a wider terrain of spatial tactics, their relationship to knowledge produced about humans as living beings, and their alignment with capitalist urbanization. The Vancouver example illuminates how social mixing “truths” and the practices to which they are tied generate value by naturalizing human insecurity in situ and turning the biological existence of disadvantaged peoples, and specifically “vulnerable populations,” into raw material for profit through, what this paper refers to as, a “vulnerability bio-value chain.” Bio-gentrification highlights the tension between removal and embedding of disadvantaged peoples and points to the need for a bio-gentrification politics that addresses this dynamic.

Key words
Gentrification, social mix, vulnerable populations, biopower, capitalism, Early Development Instrument

Taking recent developments in capitalist urbanization in Vancouver as its empirical focus, this paper introduces the concept of “bio-gentrification” as a way to extend critical theoretical debates on gentrification. There are competing definitions of what is meant by gentrification, but among critical scholars, particularly those inspired by Marxist political economy, it is generally agreed that it “involves both the exploitation of economic value of real estate and the treatment of local residents as objects rather than subjects of upgrading” (Berg, Kaminer, Schoonderbeek and Zonneveld 2009, as cited in Lees, Slater and Wyly 2010). This definition brings into focus how gentrification is a process focused on maximizing land and property values at the expense of lower-income and disadvantaged people.

Critical gentrification studies have begun to investigate the relationship between population removal techniques to increase land- and property-based profits and “social mix” policies aimed at producing more diverse neighbourhoods. At the heart of contemporary urban planning initiatives in numerous cites across North America and Europe, “social mixing” has been officially pitched in different ways, including as a way to promote a city’s brand as cosmopolitan and global, as a mechanism for fostering urban livability and urban well-being, as well as a means to reduce processes that divide cities along racial and class lines. The presumed merits of social mixing are contested both at the level of the street (Ley and Dobson 2008; Ley 2012) and within the scholarly literature (Bridge, Butler, and Lees 2012; Lees, Slater, and Wyly 2010; Rose 2004; Rose, Germain, Bacque, Bridge, Fijalkow, and Slater 2012), which has shown how social mixing has focused on de-concentrating poverty in a manner that treats lower income and disadvantaged groups as deficient; how social mixing operates as a technique to render presumed problem people docile through displacement, spatial dispersion, and regulation (August and Walks 2012; Bauder 2002; Darcy 2012; DeFilippis and Fraser 2010; Imbroscio 2008; Lipman 2012); and how social mixing policies ignore or downplay structural mechanisms that generate inequalities (Gotham 2003; Rose et al 2012; Slater 2013), thereby operating as ideological smokescreen (Madden 2014; Manley, van Ham, and Doherty 2011) for the violent processes of “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey 2004) upon which gentrification rests (Marcuse 1985; Freeman 2006; Smith 1996).

Despite the depth and breath of these assessments, crucial analytical blind spots remain in studies on the gentrification-social mix nexus. First, there is a tendency to take political subjectivities as a given, with the primary emphasis on class dynamics, albeit sometimes with recognition that these processes are overlaid with other cleavages, such as gender and race (Lipman 2012; Rose 2004; Van den Berg 2013; Walks 2009). For instance, emergent classificatory schemes, such as the increasingly predominant focus on “vulnerable” or “at-risk” populations (Murray 2004a), have not been systematically investigated within studies of the relationship between gentrification and social mixing. Second, there has been inadequate attention to forms of knowledge that underpin efforts aimed at the judicious blending of different groups; knowledge tends to be treated as an ideological construct that needs to be unveiled, rather than a domain of power in its own right. This leaves unaddressed a series of questions, including how social mixing became an authoritative policy discourse, the assumptions about which it is based, the urban milieus shaped through this sphere of knowledge production, and the relationship of all these processes to urban profitability. Third, the almost singular emphasis on land use and property (Ley 1996; Marcuse 1985; Smith 1996) defines low-income and disadvantages people as self-evidently hindrances to profitability. However, as the analysis to follow demonstrates, in the gentrification-intensive eastern districts of Vancouver, an area roughly traversing the administrative districts of the Downtown Eastside, Grandview Woodland and Strathcona (see Map 1), social mixing interventions are connected to processes that turn the biological existence of disadvantaged peoples into raw material for profit. Rather than operating simply under the logical of removal, social mixing also maintains and naturalizes poverty in situ. Bio-gentrification refers to this dynamic tension between the seemingly disparate logics of extrication and embedding.

The term bio-gentrification weds the Marxist urban political economy emphasis on profits generated through land and property to the neo-Foucaultian emphasis on biopower. Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose, extending the work of Michel Foucault, define biopower as “a field comprised of more or less rationalized attempts to intervene upon the vital characteristics of human existence – human beings, individually and collectively, as living creatures who are born, mature, inhabit a body that can be trained and augmented, and then sicken and die and as collectivities or populations composed of such living beings.” Biopower rests upon authoritative truth claims about the “’vital’ character of living human beings,” entails “strategies for intervention upon collective existence in the name of life and health,” and, involves “modes of subjectification, in which individuals can be brought to work on themselves … in the name of individual or collective life or health” (Rabinow and Rose 2006, 196-197). Biopower has always been interlinked to capitalist dynamics. Foucault himself pointed this out, acknowledging that the emergence of biopower “was without question an indispensable element in the development of capitalism.” He went as far as to say that capitalism “would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes” (Foucault 190, 140-41). At the same time, biopower has a spatial character. The promotion of ways of living and being that would align with capitalist exigencies goes hand-in-hand with the shaping of places and spaces – prisons, schools, factories, maternity homes and more recently an array of new institutions such as food banks, supervised injection sites, and children’s early learning programs (Murray 2011) -- consistent with these aims, with urbanization and industrialization being the background context for the emergence of these domains and biopower more generally (Joyce 2003; Murray 2004b; Rabinow 1982 and 1990). Whereas gentrification presupposes removal, the biopower lens does not assume that displacement is the sole or dominant spatial tactic. And whereas gentrification trains attention on land and property values, biopower allows an entry point to assess value-generating dynamics at the level of biological existence.

Map 1: City of Vancouver Administrative Districts

Source: Map created by Ed Cheng. Used with the permission.

Vancouver offers an ideal focus for examining bio-gentrification. It is a place that provides stark examples of how social mixing has been harnessed as a mode of biopower that envisions, classifies and acts upon “vulnerable people” as biological forms deemed threatening to the health and welfare of neighbourhoods, the city and the nation at large. With barely a whisper of dissent, social mixing became a predominant policy discourse, in large part because it has been linked to the neurological science notion of human development as its core concern. Experts, trade unions, nonprofit organizations, politicians and public servants alike rallied around human development as a field of evidence-based knowledge justifying new forms of seemingly progressive governmental interventions. As this assessment will highlight, the terrain of human development knowledge shaped a calculative milieu that positioned the University of British Columbia as a global leader in human development science and policy analysis; and, it fashioned the eastern side of the city into a predominant vulnerable milieu amenable to interventions focused on resident populations. These spatial transformations were linked by a common and largely uncontested desire to identify and promote normal development according to neuro-scientific premises, while also presuming that, for certain populations, development could never be optimized. The calculative and vulnerable milieus were linked to profit making, whereby the former promoted urban value in a new human development knowledge economy, and the latter offered up the biological existence of “the vulnerable” as its grist. In this way, a vulnerability bio-value chain took form that aligned with gentrification efforts but also produced profitability beyond the spheres of land and property.

The assessment to follow elaborates upon these arguments by delineating a partial critical genealogy of the emergence of human development knowledge and the milieus it has shaped in Vancouver. Genealogy is a form of historical analysis that evaluates how certain discourses -- ways of seeing, describing and acting upon people and places – emerge and become accepted as truthful. Genealogies start from the vantage point of the present, focusing on discourses that are so self-evident as to have become beyond debate. Human development is one such discourse. While the component qualities of what constitutes human development might be debated, its existence is assumed. Genealogy is critical, but not in the same way that some critical urban political economies are critical. Genealogy does not seek to be critical “in the sense of pronouncing guilty verdicts,” “de-legitimat[ing] the present …,” or “by exposing its past, and hence to write a different future;” it does not aim to reveal fallacies and omissions as a means to generate new tools that are more veracious and valid, or to expose knowledge as an ideological smokescreen for particular political agendas, be they class, gender, race, or other agendas; and, critical genealogies do not strive to explain causes and effects. Such critiques would seek to reveal the power functions of human development knowledge and their negative effects, in much the same way as much of t he critical gentrification literature seeks to expose the capitalist character of social mix policies.

Genealogy is critical “in the sense of opening a space for careful analytical judgment” (Rose 1996, 105). It brings into visibility the anxieties and assumptions, the problematizations and proposed solutions, shaping human development as a presumed truthful way of thinking and acting upon people and places. So while the analysis hereing shows how capitalist urbanization was shaped in relation to human development knowledge production, it does so not by subsuming empirical research under the rubric of explanatory theory, but rather by assessing contextually specific dynamics as means to develop conceptually relevant analytic tools. To this end, it gathers together an eclectic array of primary source materials, including official policy reports, public statements, programmatic guidelines, and legal texts, some of which have been collected under British Columbia’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act [RSBC 1996]. These sources were ordered diachronically in order to bring into visibility emblematic human development frames and assumptions, the authorities making such claims, the people and places they brought into view, and their political and governmental implications. These materials were then assessed in relation to the urban spatial forms and practices shaped in the name of human development. Finally, these findings were studied through the lens of capitalist urbanization as a way to identify the value chains linking street-level practices, knowledge production, and profitability.

Among the limitations of this assessment, four must be noted. First, there is, self-evidently, no singular urban. As an almost iconic example in urban studies, researchers have shown the many ways that Vancouver has been shaped and reshaped in relation to, for instance, architecture, design, ideology, political economy, race, gender, colonial rule, policy mobilities, and many other facets (see for example Barnes and Hutton 2009; Berelowitz 2005; Blomley 2004; Boyle and Haggerty 2011; Elliott 2007; Holden 2012; Hutton 2007; Langford 2012; Ley 1980, 1987 and 1996; Ley and Dobson 2008; Mahon 2006; McCann 2008; Mendes 2007; Murray 2011; Pratt 2005; Punter 2003; Roe 2010; Smith and Derksen 2002; Sommers 2001; Stanger Ross 2008; Windsor-Liscombe 1997; Wynn and Oke 1992). Without doubt, these studies (especially those pertaining to the erosion of industrial manufacturing in the inner city) provide crucial insights into the conditions that set the stage for the rise of vulnerability bio-value chain dynamic. No one site of knowledge production or street-level practice singularly shapes urban space. The assessment herein makes only the modest assertion that human development knowledge is a significant, although as yet largely unexamined, field over which capitalist space is produced. Similarly, though the paper uses terms such as east end or eastern districts, these do not denote totalities. These labels are heuristic devices for shedding light on a specific aspect of capitalist urbanization traversed by complex dynamics and diverse histories, including colonial pasts and presents (Blomley 2004), which in the case of the eastern side of the city included intense gentrification as industrial manufacturing waned pressures in the latter years of the twentieth and into the twentieth century (Ley 1996).

Second, textual analysis reveal express purposes and overt implications, but not how such aims and results are undermined, thwarted, and subverted through everyday interactions (Gotham 2003) and alternative “hidden transcripts” (Scott 1990). Vancouver’s east end has an extensive network of progressive grassroots political activists whose activities are at the forefront of the production of urban space. No doubt, resistance extends to the micro-level subversions of front-end workers and the people brought into their remit (Klodawsky, Sitlanen, and Andrew 2013). Careful ethnographic study would expose struggles waged against social mixing in ways that the analysis herein could never bring to light. Third, a critical assessment invariably downplays what might be positive attributes linked to social mix policies programs. Without question, people might find vital and valuable support offered by such programs, but this should not dissuade us from asking serious questions about the kinds of people and places being produced through such them. Fourth, while drawing upon neo-Foucaultian analytics, space considerations limit the emphasis herein to the broad urban spatial characteristics of human development power relations, rather than on the specificities of different modes of power operating in these milieus (sovereign, disciplinary, security, etc.). Even with its limitations, the analysis herein shows that gentrification research can be significantly expanded by adding considerations of biopower, and by reflecting on the political ramifications that bio-gentrification suggests.

Insert Table 1 About Here

Vancouver’s Vulnerability Bio-Value Chain

Vulnerable populations
The classificatory scheme “vulnerable populations,” at the base of the vulnerability value chain (see Table 1), became predominant in Canada in large measure through the influence of human development as a field of research, policy, and programmatic experimentation, the birth of which traces back to two key documents: The Learning Society: Proposal for a Program in Learning and Human Development (Canadian Institutes for Advanced Research 1992) (hereinafter The Learning Society) and Reversing the Real Brain Drain: Early Years Study Final Report (McCain and Mustard 1999) (hereinafter The Early Years). The former was the founding statement of the Human Development Program of the Canadian Institute for the Advanced Research (hereinafter “CIFAR”), a “think tank” modeled after the Rockefeller Foundation and established in1982. The latter was a report commissioned by the Government of Ontario and penned by Fraser Mustard. Mustard was CIFAR’s founding president, who by the time of the publication of the Early Years had embarked upon a consultancy career promoting what was taking hold as the new science of human development, and early childhood development in particular (McMaster University 2009).

The field of human development that shaped the category of vulnerable populations was closely aligned with government and corporate agendas aimed at privatization, deregulation, and marketization. First, the nascent network of human development scholars were expressly interested in how to adapt to public funding cuts in the field of mental health. Second, they desired to find ways to contribute to the development of Canada as a key node in the surfacing “knowledge economy.” Third, they hoped that their work would lead to intellectual discoveries about how best to foster a labour force capable of the task, while guarding against population pathologies that would be a drag on global competitiveness (CIFAR 1992, 16, 20, 53). The affinity between this field of study and political economic objectives was evident in the generous public funding channeled into the endeavour. CIFAR obtained generous government financing, including direct transfers, as well as indirect contributions from publically funded universities and tax-deductible donations. It also secured corporate financing, with The Royal Bank of Canada taking a particular interest in CIFAR’s human development initiative (Brown 2007, 118; Canada 2001 and 2005; and Calleja 2001). The Early Years, widely regarded as landmark in the field of human development research in Canada, was commissioned by the most ardent neoliberal government at the time, the Mike Harris Conservatives, and was penned jointly with Margaret McCain, member of the McCain foods family empire and former Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick.

At the heart of this surfacing sphere of research, policy and programming, was a central question that was succinctly put in The Learning Society: “What are the basic needs for positive human development?” This question presumed a divide between the optimal and the suboptimal human, the former the bedrock of wealth, stability and order, the latter a threat to the same. The optimal human had an “informed, lively, engaged mind” and was imbued with “rationality skill, intuition, civility character, [and] values” (CIFAR 1992, 3, 54). The suboptimal human was implicitly defined as the opposite: irrational, lacking intuition, uncivilized in character and values, and, importantly, a threat to future productivity.

The line between the optimal and sub-optimal human that would render vulnerable populations tangible and therefore governable was overtly gendered and racialized. First, the increasing number of women in the paid labour force and the greater prevalence single-parent households were seen both as signs-of-the times and as ominous threats, particularly in relation to the issue of the bearing and raising of children, whose optimal development was placed in doubt. On the one hand, researchers saw the potential for humans to adapt to these changes. On the other, they feared that such adaptations had not kept apace, and all to the detriment of human development. Second, these problems were set against the backdrop of a set of racialized mentalities. This was clear in descriptions of the Agricultural Revolution having led “to the formation of urban centres and the cultures and civilizations,” shaped by “interplay[s] of social forces, technological changes and intergroup trade.” This narrative depicted non-Indigenous peoples as the drivers of “progress” and implicitly defined Indigenous peoples as uncivilized and pre-modern. Concerns were also articulated about how the United Kingdom and the United States had “poor-quality social environments” that were “damaging a substantial part of the next generation.” Canada, it was cautioned, would need to learn from places that had “major inner city problems” that led to “the worst economic decline.” Such race suicide arguments also occurred in depictions of immigrant Southeast Asian children, even materially disadvantaged ones, as performing “superbly in science and mathematics” because of “supportive [and] interactive” family settings. This evidence was taken as proof that “English speaking cultures” were losing their comparative advantage in the global economy (CIFAR 1992, 22; Keating and Mustard 1993, 97, 101).

These sensibilities intersected with issues of class and urban space in diverse ways. First, the threat of sub-optimal development was depicted as a cross-class concern because poverty and disadvantage were not regarded as its primary cause. Poverty was seen as “a significant risk factor to family or neighbourhood violence, and for the development of aggressive behaviour patterns with lifelong developmental implications,” but the predominant threat was the conduct of people deviating from the traditional two-parent family form; their reproductive choices and parenting competencies were considered to be inherently suspect (CIFAR 1992, 2, 12, and 22; Keating and Mustard 1993, 97, 101). And the primary geographical consideration was the city. It was stated that the transformation from “nomadic hunting and foraging or collective settled foraging to agriculture” to “urbanization, global trade, the industrial revolution, and “the information revolution” had “occurred in the blink of an eye,” the result was inner-city congestion, high-rise developments, violence and crime. All of this, it was said, eroded the capacity of cities “to engender a sense of community and civic responsibility in their citizens,” while also diminishing “their capacity for supporting an adequate health and welfare system” (CIFAR1992, 11, 22-28; Keating and Mustard 1993, 97, 101).

As they sought to find answers to these problems, this new cohort of link-minded researchers turned to studies of Rhesus Macaques, hoping for inspiration on how to understand and ameliorate pressures working against optimal human development. They were inspired by a subset that had “offspring consistently showing a tendency to react more adversely to stressful situations,” as well to more passively “react in novel learning situations.” What made them different from their “normal counterparts?” The Learning Society explained that “[t]his tendency seem[ed] to be genetically determined,” and yet hope remained. Experiments “manipulating the quality of familial relations in early life show[ed] that this genetic tendency [could] be largely overcome” by providing the vulnerable monkeys with a very supportive social environment in their first several months of life” (CIFAR 1992, 9, 27, 28, 33). Analysts embraced the potential that behavioural modifications observed in monkeys could be mimicked in humans and that by creating conditions for such imitation among human populations Canada could produce a labour force capable “at a more advanced technical level” (CIFAR 1992, 16, 20, 53).

There was an affinity between these ideas and those that inspired Head Start programs that were launched in the 1960s. However, Head Start had trained attention on the psychological development of children, whereas this emergent cadre of human development experts was grounded in neuro-science. Their focus was on the brain. The brain they saw as a field of heightened elasticity in the early years of life, the form of which would have implications for a host of problems, crime, high school drop out rates, teenage pregnancies, and so on (Rose and Abi-Rached 2012, 193); but it was not an indeterminate field of opportunity – people could miss out on their chance at optimal development – there was always the chance that people would live their lives in the state of permanent sub-par development. As well, human development researchers were careful to distance themselves from advocating for any sustained public investment in “the social” field, stressing instead environmental implications of the biological “truths” of development – a terrain of study that would come to be known as “epi-genetics,” meaning roughly “in addition to genetics.” The essence of the task was to understand environmental-biological linkages in order to alter the former for the betterment of the latter. To the extent that public agencies would take a role in the area, it would be legitimate as long as the goals was promoting the scientific propensities of normal development. The Early Years, for instance, said that the goal was not “social planning [as a] highly control-oriented” activity geared towards aligning society to some preconceived structure.” Rather, it was to decipher the “basic needs of human development” from the vantage points of “the linkage between the neural system and the immune system,” the relationship between “the person and the environment” on cognitive growth, and population developmental histories and their effects on “the conditions for the development of competence in succeeding generations” (McCain and Mustard 1999, 161).

Looming large over these endeavours was, of course, the central object of consideration: vulnerable populations, for while the goal was optimal development, the problem to be studied was its opposite. The Early Years sounded the alarm that civilized society ignored the problem at its peril:

The potential consequences of not acting are troublesome. Our society, like most of the Western world, is in a critical period. We are undergoing a major technological, economic and social change, which is placing new demands and strains on people and institutions. During such periods of substantial change, history shows that the most vulnerable group is often the child-rearing generation, especially mothers, as well as children (emphasis added).
As they asserted the discovery of the problem of vulnerable populations, as the next sections elaborate upon, these analysts were also opening up a field of value, bio-value, where the minds, bodies, and souls of the vulnerable would become not only the raw material for study, but also the basis upon which research milieus would be reoriented towards human development questions in a competitive knowledge economy, while geographical spaces would be envisioned in new ways according to their placement on scales of vulnerability.

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