The on-demand services offered by apps like Uber, Laundrapp and Shoe Drop could be the nail in the coffin for some street-level businesses, and help spur gentrification. But who loses out?
Gentrification? “There’s an app for that,” as the saying goes. The proliferation of apps that deliver all kinds of on-demand services in urban areas – from laundry to restaurant food – just might be exacerbating the gentrification of certain neighbourhoods in many western cities. If descriptions like “the startup is diversifying its black cab app with a bubbles-and-flutes delivery service available to users in selected postcodes” no longer sound like a joke to you, you probably live in one of them.
We already know the impact Uber has had on taxis, Airbnb on hotels, and even, perhaps, dating apps for gay bars and queer culture. But apps are also taking on long-standing local independent businesses that may not be standing for much longer: everything from cobblers (with the Shoe Drop app) and barbers (Shortcut, “Uber for haircuts”) to launderettes and dry cleaners (Laundrapp, ZipJet).
Should these on-demand services really catch on, it will be a serious challenge for a whole swathe of independent businesses offering everyday services that are already suffering. If we no longer need to walk to the local shops to get our groceries, drop off our dry cleaning and fix our shoes, just how long will it be before the cafes charging extortionate prices for cups of coffee swoop in to take their place?
When you assume that no one needs laundrettes anymore because you can get your laundry picked up and delivered through an app (like one reported Google employee did in a telling tweet), you’re automatically annulling a big swathe of the population who actually need them. What’s more, the transformation of these services from physical spaces to simple deliveries takes away some important inclusive places for social interaction.
In New York, it is clear that neighbourhoods like the West Village gentrified long before smartphones, with rents being the determining factor, but technology “might be the nail in their coffin”, suggested Peter Moskowitz in the New Republic. “Apps don’t start the process, but they do enable neighbourhoods to retain their real estate value without having any local value,” he argued.
“The Village, and so many other neighbourhoods around the world, can function without having to work at a street level. The internet as it relates to locality is of course not totally bad. I’ve used Yelp countless times to find restaurants and shops I would have never otherwise gone to. But good or bad, the effect is the same: locality and the need for local knowledge is lost.”
As a result, there might not be a need for you to leave your house – but even when you do, there won’t be much of practical use. In highly gentrified areas like the Village or Williamsburg, or London’s Shoreditch, galleries, high-end boutiques, and destination restaurants abound. This is beautiful as a playground for tourists, but very problematic for neighbours who actually need to use services on a budget.
As a thriving website and app, Airbnb is already putting a strain on rents – and some say contributing to gentrification. By renting apartments out to tourists, its users are, whether they like it or not, contributing to a lack of affordable housing. Cities including Berlin and Barcelona have already taken measures like banning it altogether or heavily cracking down on illegal flats on the site.
Like everything related to the g-word, these processes are far from black and white. For a lot of independent businesses, namely restaurants, getting on the app bandwagon seems to have worked well, helping them stay put and not rely solely on foot traffic. Apps like Deliveroo, the food delivery service that has taken the high street by storm, or Uber’s food delivery branch, are only a couple of years old, and are growing rapidly and employing armies of (precarious) workers.
The supervisor of a Hackney and Finsbury Park-based noodle restaurant, which is now on Deliveroo, commented anonymously: “I don’t think any London restaurant would survive these days with current rent prices without Deliveroo or similar apps. It simply brings the orders up. Even if they’re new, or a chain, or an old Turkish place, they all use it now. London rent is too crazy not to.”
Yet a simple walk around the area proves otherwise, as does Deliveroo’s policy: “The only thing you will not find is low-quality takeaway restaurants.” Asking numerous owners of takeaways who aren’t on the app, they all seem relaxed; they still rely, they tell me, on a local, family-orientated clientele.
Of course, the demographics of those who use apps – young and wealthy – coincide with the kind of people who can pay extra for the convenience of getting things delivered or enjoy £3 coffees. It all plays a part in the homogenisation of neighbourhoods in cities throughout the western world, facilitated by social media. Being from Barcelona, I’m dismayed to find New York-style hipster aesthetics taking over there, too. Does a Mediterranean city really need to lose its unique identity to that?
In parallel, scientists have started to look at whether there is a relationship between our digital culture and what citizens share, and physical gentrification. A group of researchers led by Desislava Hristova from Cambridge University have, in fact, found that location-based social networks are a great tool to track the physical progress of urban change.
“Social media and location-based technology are certainly not causing gentrification,” explains Hristova, “but from my studies there does seem to be a relationship between the typical young professional tech-savvy people who use these apps, the places they go, the information they share about those places – and what those places are and how they develop over time.”
Tools like Google Street View have long been used to track the striking visual changes that come with gentrification. Hristova and other scientists have published a paper tracking Foursquare and Twitter data in London and found that the more check-ins that were made in a neighbourhood by non-locals, the more likely its chances of soon becoming gentrified.
“London areas like Hackney or Newham were the most diverse (in terms of how many people from other areas visit the area) based on our metrics, but also some of most deprived neighbourhoods in London.” Two metrics that go hand in hand in predicting the phenomenon.
This raises many questions: how and when should urban planners step in? Will tech change the uses, design, and demographics of cities? Ultimately, what’s most exciting is, Hristova says, that “these are all questions we’re still trying to answer”.
This article is written by Marta Bausells and originally appeared in The Guardian.