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Veganism and Gentrification: The Spatial Politics of Veganism

written by Mara Förster

Send a vegan on a city trip and we all become traveling connoisseurs scouting for the greatest-of-all-time plant-based pizza, burger, eclectic fusion kitchen, or simply the next best salad (or: at least I easily fall into that behaviour. Think: Frantically scouting the interwebs to find the coolest spots with vegan extravaganza, perhaps even weeks in advance with a full-fledged to-go list and places saved on Google maps). I openly admit that I have chosen cities based on their 'vegan scene' - the ones that boom with a density of high-quality vegan restaurants.

But: Taking a closer look, it comes to no surprise that these lavish vegan eateries I love are usually agglomerating in 'cool' or 'up and coming' neighbourhoods with a hipstery-urban flair and yuppie clientele coming as part of the package. Nestled in between corner stores, empty windows, and social housing serving lower-income parties, you’ll frequently find medium-upscale vegan restaurants with lavishly decorated interiors, bougie minimalist cafes that serve oat flat whites for 4€ a cup, and clean-cut health food stores - all inevitably serving only those better off socioeconomically. Those deep contrasts in the immediate material realities are indeed startling once we emancipate ourselves from the unequivocal excitement that we have found the best vegan burger shop. What’s happening there?

Go to any major city in Western industrialised countries and you’ll find a similar pattern displaying blatant wealth disparities – or what has also been termed a ‘dual city’ characterized by the close spatial proximity in which, for one, those benefiting from neoliberal capitalism and the digital economy and, on the other hand, those excluded from it live together: two “separate worlds living right beside each other, occupying the same space but living in isolated realities” (Hern, 2010, p. 15). Those isolated realities produce immediate social distance (and I’m not talking COVID-19 measures), thereby accelerating and reproducing hegemonic power relations, both in a material and symbolic way. Although one might say that the increase of superdiverse cities has led to a ‘social mixing’ of groups, that mix is seldomly – if at all – equal.

Back to food for a second. Georg Simmel has famously elaborated on the sociological significance of a meal whereby “all of the things that people have in common, the most common is that they must eat and drink […]. Persons who in no way share any special interest can gather together at the common meal”. This would leave much room for the romanticized idea that we can reconvene and even out our differences over a shared bowl of soup (spoiler: not the case). Instead of unifying us, we can often observe that food and beverage can function to exclude and separate. But how?

Remember the 'up and coming' neighborhoods mentioned earlier with vegan restaurants geographically being disproportionately distributed in these areas? Well, often that is the fruit harvested from the process of gentrification. Gentrification, a term coined by sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964, is the process by which "original working-class occupiers are displaced by an influx of higher-income newcomers". In other terms, a gentrifying neighborhood is one in which high-income high-status tenants and investors relocate to or invest in neighborhoods that are low-income (or simply put – to capitalize on low property prices, or as Tom Slater describes it, the "spatial expression of economic inequality"). Therefore, referring to these spaces as “up and coming” gives way for stepping into the shoes of an accomplice and falling into a dialogue that eradicates the lived realities of those who are being displaced from neighborhoods that are rapidly changing due to the interests of socioeconomically privileged groups. There are those who are “up and come” – and those who are “low and go”. Along a similar vein, the “Rotterdamwet” is based on the so-called liveability measurement (leefbarometer), which is “used to keep track of the quality of life in all residential areas in the Netherlands” indicating the ‘liveability of a neighborhood’ and pleasantness by coding it along a green and red spectrum. Albeit purporting objectivity, one of the factors is the amount of people with a non-western immigrant background which decreases the calculated liveability. Hence, the more white people are being pulled into an area, the higher the liveability, the higher amount of money investors will pump into said neighborhood. “This use of data and technology in systems not only generates suggestive and racist results, but is also productive. This means that using systems like these actively produces racist views and contributes to discrimination”. Ultimately, this interconnects with vegan spaces as they are often times white spaces in which non-white people have to negotiate their position and belonging.

While displacement (describing how residents are forced to relocate due to neighborhood conditions and inflating property prices) and gentrification are by no means synonymous, they often occur simultaneously. Gentrification is often heralded as being a central strategy to saving certain zones of urban environments from decay, rebranded as ‘social mixing’ and ‘restructuring’ or ‘regenerating’ neighborhoods. But this alleged sublime force comes at a cost: Loss of affordable housing through speculative property price increases, capital disinvestment to the detriment of poorer groups, community resentment and conflict, and so on, accelerated by the seemingly unstoppable power of capital.

Applied to a specific situation, think of a bustling street in Rotterdam, perhaps the South or in the West: Tenants are being pushed out by landlords to ‘make room’ for those that promise more capital floating in (neoliberal remaking of urban spaces). Immigrant-owned grocery stores, halal butcheries and community centres are being replaced and eliminated by hip vintage shops, vegan restaurants, organic supermarkets, and oat latte galore. To present this socioeconomic violence of marginalizing the marginalized even further and rebrand it as a ‘savior from decay’, ‘modernize’ or making areas more ‘sustainable’ invariably can be labelled as greenwashing.

Vegan Spaces as Cultural Indicators of Gentrification

Coming back to vegan restaurants – those could then be labelled as cultural indicators of gentrification. Of course, at first glance, nothing seems wrong with expanding the outreach of plant-based options and situating them in neighborhoods where healthier options are often barely present. Yet, albeit that some vegan options may be financially accessible (most are not), the aesthetic and design of those spaces nevertheless may bring forward an appearance of exclusiveness which overtly caters to socioeconomically privileged segments, inviting the higher incomes, the culturally elite ‘foodies’ like me seeking the ultimate dining experience. On a side note, studies have indicated that, indeed, vegans generally tend to have higher incomes, are white, highly educated, and identify as politically left (Alles et al., 2017). This majority then, ushering into the hip and healthy spaces only highlights how these function as zones of exclusion. Other residents may have little or no use for these spaces that attract patrons with high enough incomes. Instead of unthinkingly claiming every vegan shop popping up as a success for the vegan community, we should critically reflect back on who used to occupy this space, what message that sends on who and what we value. We must demand that vegan spaces as well as products do not contribute to practices of exploitation – of animals, but also of humans. Food, people, spaces - and the food that people eat in these spaces interact and shape each other.

With this being said and done, veganism going mainstream is exciting. However, if pursued against the backdrop of a neoliberal capitalist agenda, it will not solve the problems we expect it to. If we see veganism not only as an ethical philosophy but scrutinize how it has partially become repackaged as a consumer and market-based concept where the ulterior motive is to generate money and make profit – we need to hear the alarm bells and think a step further. With veganism being gradually transformed and absorbed by this system, mainstream veganism is reproducing instead of disrupting a lot of existing inequalities that are already in place: All oppressions are interconnected.

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