Gentrification has become increasingly prevalent in most major metropolitan areas across the globe and affects mainly old and historic urban zones. In Morocco, gentrification can be observed in the historic centers (like Medina’s) of the kingdom’s main cities. However, its evolution and impact are as special as the environment where it takes place. Gentrification in Moroccan Medina’s was triggered by foreign interest in well-preserved medieval architecture and a lifestyle deemed exotic and authentic. The impact of the settlement of foreign investors and intellectuals is even greater as different values, behaviors, and social codes enter in action. Finally, gentrification is becoming a tool of economic development recognized and encouraged by new open tourism and investment policies.
Morocco became a trendy destination for artists and businesspeople as early as the sixties. Marrakech was home of Yves Saint Laurent, proud owner of the Villa Majorelle; John Paul and Talitha Getty; and interior designer Bill Willis, among many others. But starting from the 1990s, a mass interest was triggered when many European, American, and Australian investors saw the opportunity of owning and/or investing in properties in Morocco’s Medinas. The Riads, which are houses with an interior courtyard found in the Medina’s, were crumbling under decades of neglect and over-exploitation, and were excellent renovation projects.
This tendency only escalated in the 2000's, as a prosperous European middle class foresaw potential business opportunities within the tourism sector. Investing important amounts of money, time and interest, the new Medina's residents turned their properties into guest houses, restaurants, galleries, cafes or boutiques, and made the Medina their home.
Amidst this trend, two destinations stand out: Marrakech and Fez. Marrakech became quickly saturated as a preferred destination. In 2012, Fez counts sixty-five renovated guest houses, while Marrakech counts more than 680.
The strong demand and limited supply of houses and Riads increased the Medina’s real estate prices. Prices were increasing at a rate of 15% annually, with a peak of 30% between 2001 and 2003, reaching more than $2,000 per square meter in renovated properties.
The perspective of profit encouraged some residents of the Medina to sell their properties and benefit from the revenue by buying new apartments in the new part of the city. The Medina’s in Morocco concentrate some of the highest rates of poverty found in urban areas in Morocco. In the Medina of Fez, 37% of the households are below the absolute poverty threshold. For many residents, moving out of the Medina was considered a quality of life improvement.
But renovating a house and moving to start a new life in the Medina is not an easy task. Cathy from Riad Laaroussa, Fez, describes her experience of owning a business and living in the Medina as a very challenging yet rewarding one. She insists on the importance of community life and on the subtlety of interactions with the Medina residents as well as employees and contractors.
During rehabilitation, a conservative approach is adopted by most new owners. The preservation of the house's original design and architectural features, as well as the use of traditional materials and local craftsmanship is central to the renovation process that can become a very emotional enterprise.
While participating in the historic preservation efforts and the economic development of the Medina, guest houses and the settlement of a foreign population remain a controversial issue. How is gentrification regarded in your city and community? Does it contribute to increasing the awareness of local residents of the quality of their environment?
Credits: Images by Sarah Essbai and Riad Laaroussa. Data linked to sources.