Confronting Gentrification

11 minutes, 11 links

You’re reading an excerpt from Global Natives: The New Frontiers of Work, Travel, and Innovation, a guide to digital nomads and the work-from-anywhere movement, by Lauren Razavi. Purchase the book for instant digital access.

Almost 15 years after the publication of The Rise of the Creative Class, the book that inspired David Cameron’s Silicon Roundabout, author Richard Florida was still being grilled about the role his ideas played in accelerating gentrification. In a 2017 interview, Florida admitted that his initial exuberance for innovation clusters had been naive.* In that year, the 50 largest metropolitan areas were home to just 7% of the world’s population, yet they’d come to generate 40% of global economic growth.* This consolidation of economic power happened regardless of whether a place was designated as an innovation cluster or not. If the city started out rich, it grew rapidly. If it was poor, it lagged behind its wealthier neighbors. No innovation cluster had ever bucked the trend.

The most consistent outcome of innovation clusters was not the birth of unicorns. It was gentrification. Real estate in poor areas marked for urban renewal were gobbled up by international businesses and ultra-wealthy investors. Property prices climbed quickly, and existing communities found themselves unable to afford the subsequent rent hikes. Locals can rarely afford to continue living in neighborhoods when they’re suddenly overwhelmed by affluent outsiders. When nomads relocate to cheaper places, they trigger a similar process.

During the pandemic, Mexican destinations rose to the top of Nomad List. While other countries introduced lockdowns, health mandates, and travel restrictions, Mexico’s borders stayed open and the government adopted a laissez-faire approach to COVID-19. Citizens of more than 70 nations could stay up to six months in Mexico as tourists, just as they could before. If they wanted to stay longer, a quick visa run across the border, even if only for a few hours, would grant them a six-month extension. With much of the world closed and more remote workers than ever before, Mexico became a vibrant hotspot for digital nomads, along with other fringe groups seeking to vote with their feet: libertarians and anti-vaxxers. As one former Silicon Roundabout entrepreneur described it to me, the draw for foreigners was simple: “Mexico City is as buzzing as Brooklyn or Shoreditch, but everything is super cheap—plus, everyone’s here!”

But what about the host communities on the receiving end of these newcomers? In Tulum, chain link fences separate the luxury condominiums from the shanty towns where local cleaners, construction workers, and food vendors live. While in Playa del Carmen, upmarket resorts are situated within gated communities and armed security guards only permit locals to enter for work. In both places, signs and billboards advertise 0% finance for Americans and Canadians to purchase local properties and monetize them on Airbnb, as well as expedited immigration services for such investors.

When an American freelance marketer visited Mexico City in March 2022, she breathlessly tweeted: “Do yourself a favor and remote work in Mexico City—it is truly magical.”* The accompanying photo showed El Parián,* a high-end shopping arcade in the gentrified Roma neighborhood. It’s a place full of boutiques, wine bars, and hip restaurants only the rich can afford, plus an apartment building run by the international real estate company Sonder, where a room costs around $200 per night.

Figure: Sonder Parián in Mexico City. Source: Sonder.

The tweet went viral, garnering tens of thousands of shares and hundreds of comments—an example of the damaging gentrification that had come to define the Mexican capital.*

Tweet translation: “Give me courage when they come to make our rents higher, because when we go there, we are nothing more than second-class Westerners, cheap labor.”

Tweet translation: “How nice it must be to live in Mexico City earning dollars or euros … because earning in pesos is harder every day.”

Gentrification is happening with or without nomads, but their presence does contribute to its acceleration. As the Mexico example shows, there are strongly-felt (and extremely valid) concerns that nomads are global gentrifiers, perhaps even modern-day colonizers. Simply making it easier for people to come to a destination is not an effective way to create a hub that benefits both local residents and nomadic visitors.

It’s tempting to interpret what happened in Mexico City as symbolic of a dangerous reality in which outsiders conveniently dismiss the negative consequences of their lifestyle. But that’s not the end of the story—we must also acknowledge that nomads are often responding to gentrification themselves. The forces driving many nomads to move across borders are symptoms of the problematic systems, policies, and inequalities found within national borders too.

All over the world, challenges like a lack of affordable housing, the inability to save meaningfully, and expensive transport options combine to make life much more difficult than it was for previous generations. Property ownership is now out of reach for many millennials and is little more than a pipe dream for most of Gen Z. The traditional markers of success in the West are increasingly difficult for people to achieve without moving to cheaper locations, whether in their own country or abroad. Nomads choose to seek their own version of happiness elsewhere, foregoing outdated ideas of success, ownership, regularity, and commitment for freedom, flexibility, adventure, and affordability.

Until people everywhere can access the same remote work opportunities and global mobility rights as those originating from the most powerful countries, urban development will continue to result in gentrification on an international scale. The nomad boom could exacerbate the problem, or become a way to combat it. Governments need to think carefully about the role nomads can play in uplifting their local economies, business ecosystems, and global connections, and create policies to guide those outcomes.

There are practical ways to safeguard against the negative impacts and create the conditions for more inclusive economic development. Firstly, governments must provide the infrastructure needed for their own citizens to access remote work. Segregation and gentrification are inevitable unless the basic infrastructure for remote work is accessible for all. If a country’s internet access is good enough to attract nomads, policymakers must ensure it is affordable for locals. For many poorer regions, participation in the global economy is still out of reach. Nigeria, for example, has one of the world’s slowest and most expensive internet connections.* Because of this, remote work remains unrealistic for most people in the country:

Tweet: “Nigeria doesn’t even have the infrastructure to support remote work. At this point, efficiently WFH is for the privileged. People spend more money providing electricity and barely reliable internet than they would on transport fares. It’s insane”

Secondly, governments need to weave integration efforts into their migration policies, including nomad visas. The beta version might simply be formalizing the requirement that nomad visitors work from a local coworking space and share their knowledge through talks, workshops, and mentoring. This can encourage the serendipity needed to fuel collaboration across cultures, economies, and borders, and contribute to locals’ skills and exposure to global work opportunities. Over time, we need to design ways for nomads, host communities, and policymakers to co-create the right solutions for their local context and in line with their specializations. We’re at an early stage in the journey here, and the solutions can start small and scale.

Thirdly, nationalized hiring norms need to change. Nomads are one side of the remote work coin, but the same forces that make their lifestyle possible have to enable people from low passport power countries to work for overseas companies without relocating. Remote work should mean access to opportunities for everyone, but geographic restrictions on positions are still the default. To apply for a US job, you need the right to work in the country already. In practice, that means only outsourced jobs—roles that require the same skills and experience but pay significantly less—are accessible to people who do not already enjoy the right to work in wealthy jurisdictions. A Mexican passport-holder cannot easily move to the US to access US jobs and earn US wages, even though those jobs can now be done from anywhere.

Finally, global mobility policy needs to catch up, or else economic and visa discrimination based on the coincidence of a person’s birthplace will continue. The internet has the potential to level the global playing field, but technology does not change business incentives or existing power structures by itself. Right now, nomads are the victors who inherited powerful passports, while members of host communities are more often the victims of a global system of exclusion. Those without the right passports are currently stuck in one place with fewer opportunities to build the life they want.

Remote work shouldn’t only deliver opportunities for nomads who hold powerful paperwork. It should provide wider access to global work for people who couldn’t traditionally access the visas required to migrate to innovation clusters. Because a “hub” that’s only accessible by a lucky few can’t be all that innovative, can it?

The next part of the book delves into the global spaces and global culture created by people who meet in nomad hubs, and the ways in which the norms of business travel have shifted in response to remote work.

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