Oh hey! So you’re moving to a new city because it’s cheap and you want some money that isn’t going to a landlord or cereal café? Nice. You are one of thousands of young people making the, admittedly sensible, decision to abandon overpriced cities for life as the Monarch of Ubud.
Sadly, I have some depressing information to pass on to you. As with basically everything you have ever done in your privileged western life so far, you’re causing a lot of damage.
Let’s briefly set aside the carbon emissions of all the flights you’ll be taking, the horrific regimes you might be implicitly supporting with your tax money and the depression you are causing your friends and family back home with your disingenuous “my life is so wonderful and unique” social media posts. These are all still quite bad and you’re a terrible person, but I’d like to focus a little on gentrification because even if you move to a city in another western country you’re probably still causing it.
I live in Lisbon. After the financial crisis, Portugal was in a bit of a pickle and sacrificed a lot to keep themselves financially afloat. This is where mass tourism – and a huge influx of European online workers looking for €1 beers – came in. It helped the economy massively, but it also damaged local life. Gorgeous, ‘authentic’ neighbourhoods are now largely devoid of local life and often not a single Portuguese word will be uttered in their streets. What happened to the locals? Well, they had to move across the river to stay alive because whilst your online dollars are enough to make up for surging rent prices, their local wages are still fairly low by comparison. They can’t even commute with their own cars anymore because Madonna has taken all of their parking spaces. As much as the Portuguese like to take this personally, it is a familiar story in cities across the world.
How can you help to prevent your impact on this? Stay home. Sorry. It’s the only way. I get it though – you want to live somewhere nice and warm but do not want to bankrupt yourself and, gosh, don’t those cobbled streets look absolutely darling on your Instagram feed? As we’ve already discussed, you’re a terrible person. I’m going to go ahead and make the assumption, however, that you would like to be less terrible. If that’s not the case then I honestly applaud your self-awareness but also maybe you should think about speaking to someone about it.
You want to know how you can be less of a gentrifier? Here are a few wee ideas for your consideration.
Spend money with the locals
Pretty obvious this one because all of the new travel guides will tell you to do it with the smugness of an Italian chef watching you attempt a BBC Good Food lasagna recipe. I will reiterate though, because this is Being Less Terrible 101. When buying food, clothing or shiny trinkets you really should shop with local businesses. Depending on where in the world you are, this might even be cheaper. In Lisbon it is certainly more cost effective to go to the local fruitaria than it is to go to big multinational supermarkets when getting breakfast. The money you spend goes directly to locals and, in theory, should raise wages.
In practice, you should keep an eye on how happy the staff are. Not having to worry about paying rent makes customer service ten times easier. If you simply go to the big tourist spots or…McDonald’s…then your money is mostly being taken by faceless bosses and it makes the gentrification problem worse because these large corporations will push out local businesses. It’s only really a small impact you will leave, but a worthy one nevertheless.
Be selective with renting
Yes, Mouraria is a rather cheap area compared to home and still has those darling cobblestones from the Instagram photos – but if you’re paying 800€/month to rent here you are causing the prices to inflate and minimum wage workers on 600€/month cannot afford to live in the area they have spent their entire lives in. Don’t do it. You can, of course, opt to stay in these areas and be a bit more savvy with your money at the same time by only paying what locals can afford – but you still risk turning the area into the next big hot spot and landlords claiming their full sweep later on down the line.
Check out the areas that have always typically been within your reasonable budget range. What is reasonable? Apparently a third of your earnings – but it’s an inflated market and most people pay at least half of their money on having a roof over their head. They might be boring and leafy but, hey, your neighbours won’t hate you.
Also try to find your home on the local marketplaces rather than those geared to visitors and expats. It can be tempting just to take an AirBnB if you’re only going to be there for a few months, but landlords have started figuring out they can get more cash through these platforms and often kick out local tenants who pay less. Don’t give them your money.
Only going to be there for a month or less? Get a hotel or hostel. Hotels are expensive and hostels don’t have the French New Wave glamour of your own smoking balcony, but you chose this life. The people being kicked out of their lifelong apartments with a balcony for conveniently hanging their laundry? They didn’t.
Be a Care Bear and learn to Share Bear
This tip is a great one for life in general, but don’t just hoard everything for yourself. Get a round in for your new local buddies. Donate to local campaigns and charities that are working to keep communities vibrant and help the most vulnerable in your new city. Spend a little bit extra getting your #InteriorDesignGoals flowers from the person selling them by the side of the road. Of course don’t bankrupt yourself or let anyone take you for advantage, but learn to actively participate in the community.
Also don’t be pretentious about it. You spend your free evenings giving out soup to local homeless people? Great, you’re on the path to being less of a terrible person. Feel an impulse to share this all over your social media platforms? You’re an even worse person now. It’s not about you, don’t try to make it that way. The best Share Bears are humble Share Bears.
Give a little respect
Living in a new city can throw up a lot of quirks. The key to how you should react to these lies in remembering that you chose to move to this city and that you should want to experience the culture. Don’t mock local traditions – at least not overtly – that add to the character of the city. This doesn’t offset gentrification in any way, but it does help you become a better member of the community rather than an outsider who is just here to save some dollar.
Also be aware of the impact you are making on local lives. The barista that you dread getting because they are slow might just be really tired because they now have to commute for an hour to get to work. The guy on the street who keeps asking you for a cigarette honestly just really needs a cigarette and does not deserve the abuse he almost certainly receives multiple times a day. Your upstairs neighbour that loudly has sex every night whilst you are trying to work? Good for her, it’s fantastic exercise and really helps to reduce stress.
Stop being such a Judgey Jemima and learn to accept that other people have to live their lives around you. The financial problems of gentrification won’t stop because you gave that guy a cigarette and learned his name is Steven, but it just makes life a little bit easier for everyone concerned. All too often you see tourists and wealthy expats overreacting to locals and even going as far as reporting them to local authorities when all they wanted was to sell you some rosemary. This is unnecessary, and can make locals feel unwelcome in their own area. Tip your barista, give Steven a cigarette if you can (or decline politely if you cannot) and maybe even help Linda upstairs find a sturdier bed.
By being respectful, you can try to make sure the changes in the area are more positive than negative. You’re here to have fun and experience a new place, not cause distress to people who have made it their home for years.
What do you do to fight gentrification in your new city? Let me know in the comments below. Follow me on Instagram here! Check out other travel related articles here and culture articles here! Contact me with advice on how to get better at plugging myself in final paragraphs here!