Neighborhood Research Paper

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The term neighborhood is rooted in the verb neighbor. ‘To neighbor’ has a double meaning: (a) to live in vicinity, one of another; (b) to be friendly, to render mutual favors or assistance (Webster 1983). This double meaning expresses the essence of the neighbor- hood: continuous physical proximity among people, together with some special attitudes, such as friendliness, and/or special behaviors, such as mutual assistance.

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This research paper is intended to serve students and scholars of the social and behavioral sciences, as well as professional planners and designers who are interested in the social context of their work. It is divided into four sections: the first presents an analysis of neighborhood characteristics and neighborhood change by social scientists throughout the twentieth century; the second deals with the neighborhood and its design in the eyes of planners and architects in the same period; the third focuses on poor neighborhoods and the initiatives to regenerate them, in which considerable scholarly, professional and financial resources have been invested by almost every country; the last section discusses the role of neighborhoods in the society of the twenty-first century.

1. The Neighborhood Concept In The Social Sciences

Neighborhoods have been regarded by many scholars as a basic pattern of social organization, which is universal and timeless. Cooley (1909) argued that the neighborhood is ‘a natural phenomenon’ that exists wherever a group of people produces a dwelling place. Archeologists identified clusters of living that may be considered neighborhoods in the kingdoms of the ancient world. The ancient neighborhoods were arranged by family or clan lines, then later on by religious, ethnic, or professional lines. In modern times, the divisions are largely by cultural–ethnic origin and/or social status.

Neighborly relations among people who lived in one another’s vicinity, including intimate acquaintance and characterized by many interactions, were the normal way of life in rural communities prior to the industrial era (Tonnies 1887 1957). Sociologists of the early twentieth century, especially those from the Chicago School, claimed that such primary relations among neighbors are essential for maintaining the social order, because they create an effective informal control system (Cooley 1909, Park et al. 1925/1967). According to this view, isolation from the neighborhood portends an individual’s alienation, and disintegration of neighborhoods threatens the social order (Durkheim 1893 1964).

The socioeconomic process of urbanization that followed the technological–economic process of industrialization changed people’s way of life. The easy means of communication and transportation in the city, which enabled individuals to live at the same time in several social worlds, tended to destroy the permanency and intimacy of the neighborhood. Wirth (1938) argued that the size, density, and heterogeneity that characterize cities create changes that reduce primary relationships, including neighborly relationships, and increase loneliness and social deviance. Wirth represents the nostalgic yearning for healthy village life and the anti-urban tone that was prevalent among writers of his generation.

Empirical sociological and anthropological studies of urban neighborhoods in the middle of the twentieth century portrayed a less pessimistic and more diverse urban picture (Glass 1948, Janowitz 1952, Jacobs 1961). Within large industrial cities the researchers found residential areas that were ‘Gemeinschafts’ in Tonnies’s typology; the intimate spontaneous relationships between the neighbors in such areas were based on proximity as well as on kinship and/or ethnic identity and/or sharing a work place or other common denominator. Gans (1962) provided a vivid analysis of the life of Italian-Americans in a Boston neighborhood. He gave these people, who managed to preserve their special family life, peer groups, and communal institutions within the modern city of Boston, the name of ‘urban villagers.’ Suttles (1972) argued that in the modern city one can find very different types of neighborhoods, from the ones that are based on a form of organization that is almost a primary group, to the expanded communities of limited liability.

A special stream of research was devoted to the impact of architectural design on social attitudes and behavior in the neighborhood context. Researchers frequently found strong relationships between architectural design and social variables: proximity and planned paths seemed to influence close friendship (Festinger et al. 1950), and racially mixed housing seemed to reduce prejudice (Deutsch and Collins 1951). Large project size and height of buildings in turn increased the number of crime events (Newman 1972). Later critics claimed that these studies failed to control for important intermediate variables, especially those related to the sociocultural and the socioeconomic characteristics of the residents. A researcher especially aware of these variables is Keller (1968). She joined those who believed that the physical environment strongly influences the social relations within it, and concluded that architects are obliged to tailor the design according to the variety of cultural values and socioeconomic status of the users.

In contrast to the unidirectional view on the influence of the built environment on people, the school of man–environment research, consisting mainly of psychologists who cooperate with physical planners, emphasizes a two-way man–environment interaction. Unique to this group of researchers is their focus on personal/subjective definitions of neighborhoods. The various subjective definitions fall into two categories, physical and social, and neighborhoods are most clearly defined when social and physical space coincide, i.e., when physical boundaries, social networks, local facilities and special symbolic and emotional connotations are congruent in people’s minds (Rappoport 1977).

In addition to their traditional social and psychological roles, urban neighborhoods function as administrative units for various ends, including political organization and the provision of social and commercial services. For census purposes, residential areas are divided into statistical units, the borders of which were frequently drawn by the boundaries of traditional neighborhoods. Social scientists have made intensive use of this statistical division, especially for developing empirical social area analysis, which concentrates on changes over time in residential areas.

In the second half of the twentieth century, scholars interested in urban processes focused much of their work on analyzing neighborhood change (Schwirian 1983).

The Chicago School of sociologists (Cressy 1938) used analogies from plant and animal ecology to invent the invasion–succession model, which describes processes of neighborhood population change. ‘Invasion’ illustrates the entrance of a different social group—racially, ethnically, or socioeconomically different—to a populated area, and the creation of competition and conflict within the invaded neighbor- hood that ends either by withdrawal of the invaders or by their triumph in the form of ‘succession.’ Taeuber and Taeuber (1965) used this model to produce a comprehensive study of racial neighborhood change in American cities. Several economists adopted the model and added a considerable amount of supporting empirical evidence, especially for explaining neighbor- hood deterioration (Grigsby et al. 1987).

Another model of neighborhood change—the life- cycle model—was suggested by Hoover and Vernon (1959), who identified five stages: development, transition, downgrading, thinning-out, and renewal. These stages are related to the quantity and status of the residents, the intensity and kind of land use, and the quality of housing. Not all neighborhoods go through each stage; some may skip one or stay indefinitely in another one.

The political economy school offers a different approach. They argue that the fate of a neighborhood is determined by the interests and the complex relation- ships among the political and economic public institutions, and strong actors in the business market (banks, developers, and others) (Logan and Molotch 1987). Most of these forces play from outside the borders of the neighborhood, and hence the ability of local people to influence them is very limited.

In contrast to the structural–functional approaches that emphasize external-to-the-neighborhood social, economic and organizational forces, the recent theory of the social movements focuses on internal actors, on the individual human agent and his her search for identity and meaning. In the context of neighborhoods, the researchers of the social movements are interested in organizations of local residents. The residents organize to fight for maximization of their quality of life, sometimes even when it is not congruent with maximization of economic profits. They may find identity and meaning by joining neighborhood movements and promoting bottom-up change, frequently challenging top–down planning by politicians, economists and designers (Hasson 1993).

2. Models Of Neighborhoods In The Eyes Of Planners And Architects

Modern urban planning took shape in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, against the background of the socioeconomic movements of industrialization and urbanization. Large populations of workers and their families lived in extremely poor and crowded conditions in the industrial cities. The first planned neighborhoods in Europe were workers’ neighborhoods, built by owners of industrial plants or by philanthropic organizations.

All the early city planning initiatives—the City Beautiful, the City Efficient and the Garden City— sought to make the city and its neighborhoods safe, sanitary, economically efficient, and socially attractive. The leading idea was to use physical planning to create a socially better world. This central motive accompanied the efforts of architects and planners throughout the twentieth century. Several critics say that this is clear evidence that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The prominent figure at the starting point is Ebenezer Howard. His small book, Garden City of Tomorrow (1902/1985), influenced twentieth-century urban planning more than any other publication. He advocated an urban environment that combines the advantages of the city, such as modern occupations and services, with those of the village—human scale and many local social contacts. His model covered the entire scale from the dwelling through the neighborhood to the region. Howard’s ideas had a decisive impact on the New Towns movement, which gave rise in the middle of the twentieth century to 30 new towns in Great Britain, a similar number in Israel, several villes nouvelles around Paris and Stockholm, as well as to a few new towns in the USA. Within each of these, some version of Howard’s plan for the ‘ward’ (his version of a neighborhood) was implemented. However, none of the many towns and neighborhoods that followed Howard’s physical suggestions (at least partly) followed his social vision. As Hall (1988, p. 87) put it, ‘they see him as a physical planner, ignoring the fact that his garden cities were merely the vehicles for a progressive reconstruction of capitalist society into an infinity of cooperative commonwealths.’

In the USA, a rather similar (physically) model for a neighborhood was suggested by Clarence Perry (1929). The size of his neighborhood unit was to be set by the catchment area of the local elementary school that functions as its focus. The unit was to serve as a building-block of the modern city. Like the English precedent, the American model included prescriptions for residences, streets, open spaces and a range of services, all designed to serve a social vision. But the American version was far less revolutionary than the English one; it did not aspire to change the social order, just to make it attractive and friendly.

A strong supporter of the concept of the neighborhood unit was the journalist–sociologist Lewis Mumford (1954). He saw neighborhood planning as an opportunity and a leverage for fostering feelings of belonging and for supporting amiable behavior among neighbors. He contributed to the idealization of the neighborhood as a framework for preserving positive social values and institutions. This idealization was among the factors that convinced the American Public Health Association to adopt the neighborhood unit model as the basis for planning residential environments. Subsequently, it was adopted by other professional organizations and public agencies and guided much of the post-World War II construction of middle-class suburbs. All this happened in spite of the severe criticism of the model that had been prevalent since the 1940s. Social scientists disagreed with its premises and planners questioned its unintended consequences (Banerjee and Baer 1984). Even though theoretically the model called for social mix and social integration, in practice it encouraged segregation. An example is the early settlement in the neighborhoods of the new town of Radburn (New Jersey, USA); in 1934 there were no blue-collar workers among the residents, and the realtors kept out Jews and blacks as well (Schaffer 1982).

Back in Europe, what was planned and built in the middle of the century was highly influenced by the architects of CIAM (Les Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Modern), an organization that was established in 1928 and existed for 30 years (Kallus and Law-Yone 1997). These architects were deeply influenced by rigid socialistic concepts on the one hand and by new technical options opened through the industrial advancement on the other. They created the international style of architecture with the principles of minimalism (planning a house by the minimal objective needs of health and convenience of the residents—existensminimum), standardization (disregarding differences of culture, climate, etc.) and separation of land uses. The most famous architect who promoted these concepts was Le Corbusier. Thousands of neighborhoods, which were built in Europe following World War II were influenced by these principles. The only problem was that people disliked the minimal and standard blocks that the architects built for them. Better-off households left them as soon as they could afford it. The unattractive design, together with severe maintenance problems, played a central role in the processes of social and physical deterioration and segregation that affected much postwar residential construction, mainly in Europe.

A recent planning trend, which opposes the standardization of international architecture as well as the typical design of neighborhood suburbs in the USA, is the New Urbanism. It developed in the 1980s as an umbrella term that encompasses two design schemes: the TND (Traditional Neighborhood Development) and the TOD (Transit-Oriented Development). The common principles of both are: small (compact) size that creates walkable distances (typically no more than a quarter of a mile from center to edge); clearly defined edges and centers; mixed land uses (residences, shops, schools, workplaces) and mixed ‘market segments’; and priority given to public buildings and spaces (Katz 1994). In some magic way, this design is expected not only to create a distinct physical unit but also some social identity—a community. Underneath the detailed design instructions of the New Urbanism lies the same old belief of architects that by means of a proper design of the physical environment we can create a better social world.

In addition to a common belief in physical determinism, most of the neighborhood models suggested by architects are characterized by disregard of the users’ voice. For Le Corbusier this was obvious; he argued that planning is too important to allow ignorant people be involved in it. Other architects continued the paternalistic approach of the professionals who preceded them, without considering issues of residents’ participation. One of the exceptions was the English architect John Turner (1976), the father of ‘housing as a verb’ rather than a noun. He argued that when dwellers control the major decisions concerning the design, construction, and management of their home and neighborhood, both the process and the environment produced stimulate individual and social wellbeing. However, Turner based his approach on his experience with communities in which there was some form of commitment and partnership between the members, mostly traditional communities. Is residents’ participation in designing and managing the built environment applicable also to regular neighborhoods in urban Western societies?

A positive answer to this question evolved within a new breed of planners that emerged on both sides of the Atlantic in the middle of the twentieth century. In the new discipline of Urban and Regional Planning, scholars and practitioners of the social sciences displaced architects as leaders. Many of them, especially those who organized under the umbrella of ‘progressive planning,’ supported cultivation of community networks, listening carefully to people and involving the less organized groups, notably those in disadvantaged neighborhoods (Rohe and Gates 1985, Carmon 1990, especially articles by Bratt and by Fainstein). The planners contributed to a process that made residents’ involvement in decision-making regarding their homes and neighborhoods a common practice, at least in cases of neighborhood renewal.

3. Neighborhood Regeneration As A Focus Of Research And Planning Initiatives

The scholarly studies of neighborhoods by social scientists and the noble intentions of physical planners did not prevent the development of one of the most severe social problems of the twentieth century—the concentration of multifaceted distress, including poverty and crime, in certain urban neighborhoods. Some parts of the problem are residues of the extremely poor residential areas of the nineteenth century, but the main part is the fruit of socioeconomic changes and planning failures of the last century.

In all the developed and many of the developing countries there were deliberate efforts to get rid of the poorest slum areas, especially where they were in the heart of cities, and/or to improve the living conditions of people in distressed urban neighborhoods. Below is a review of the history of such interventions and the impact of social studies on policy changes. Usually, this history is presented country by country. Here the focus is on the shared experience. The similarities are attributed to resemblance in socioeconomic and sociopolitical developments in Western countries after World War II, and in addition, to international transfer of knowledge among social scholars who attained a significant influence on decision-making with regard to neighborhood policies. Three successive ‘generations’ of neighborhood policies are identified, which occurred at about the same time in Western countries on both sides of the Atlantic (Carmon 1997).

3.1 First Generation: The Era Of The Bulldozer

This phase was characterized by physical determinism and emphasis on the built environment.

Intolerable housing conditions in old and very old neighborhoods in the growing cities, coupled with the wish to make ‘better use’ of central urban land and drive the poor out of sight, gave birth to the idea of slum clearance. Large-scale clearance programs were implemented in the UK (1930–39) (1954–1970s), the USA (1937–64), Canada (1948–68), France (1958–75), and many other countries. In the European states, the public authorities managed both the clearance and the provision of housing to the relocatees. The result was that most of the displaced households were rehoused. In the USA, by contrast, concentration and clearance of land sites was generally done by public agencies, while the new construction was in the hands of private entrepreneurs. As a consequence, the number of apartments demolished under the aegis of the urban renewal programs in the USA was much greater than the number of units built. The slum areas were frequently replaced by shopping centers, office buildings, and cultural and entertainment centers, all of which were in high demand in the boom years that followed World War II. The few housing developments built were generally designated for people with higher socioeconomic status than those who were relocated. Gans (1965) found that between 1949 and 1964 only one half of one percent of all expenditures by the American federal government for urban renewal was spent on relocation of the families and individuals removed from their homes.

Despite the significant differences in the nature of activity between countries, the criticism voiced against most of the clearance and redevelopment projects was similar (Wilmott and Young 1957). The executors were criticized for ignoring the heavy psychological cost of forced relocation, the social cost of the destruction of healthy neighborhoods and communities, and the cultural cost of erasing old urban fabrics. In many cases where new residential neighborhoods were built, the planners and designers were blamed for building inhuman blocks which were unfit for family life, and certainly not suitable for poor families. The bulldozer approach as a leading regeneration strategy was condemned and disqualified wherever it was applied.

3.2 Second Generation: Neighborhood Rehabilitation

This phase saw a more comprehensive approach to neighborhood renewal; one that emphasized social considerations.

A salient expression of the great change between the first and second generation of neighborhood remedies is found in the Model Cities program in the USA (middle 1960s). This was a series of comprehensive rehabilitation programs, aimed at improving the existing housing and its environments (instead of demolishing them), while simultaneously, treating the social problems of the population by adding social services and bettering their quality. Many of the new programs attempted to involve local residents in their decision-making processes and made ‘maximum feasible participation’ a leading slogan of the period.

Similar comprehensive neighborhood programs were implemented in Canada—the Neighborhood Improvement Program in 322 local authorities, starting 1973, France—Neighborhood Social Development in 150 neighborhoods, starting 1981, and Israel—Project Renewal in 150 neighborhoods, starting 1977. In Britain, as in Sweden, the Netherlands, and West Germany, the activities for housing improvements were not integrated into the same programs as plans for improving the social services, but in many cases, the two kinds of new initiatives were implemented simultaneously in the same neighborhoods (see Alterman and Cars 1991).

Despite the abundance of goodwill and the large sums expended in the various countries, evaluation studies of these programs with a social emphasis showed frequently negative and at best mixed results. Several studies found that the programs had not been implemented and the money had been spent on issues and sites that were not part of the official plans. Where implemented, the programs frequently benefited people (local residents) but not their neighborhoods, i.e., they could not change the negative image and the low status of the target neighborhoods (Carmon and Baron 1994). This might have been expected: the researchers could have known that the status of a neighborhood is dependent on the socioeconomic status of its residents much more than on the level of housing and social services. Hence, programs that work with existing low-status populations and prevent the entry of ‘strangers’ of somewhat higher socioeconomic rank, can do a lot to better the situation of their clients but can hardly improve the image of their neighborhoods.

3.3 Third Generation: Revitalization, Especially In City Centers

This phase is characterized by a businesslike approach that emphasized economic development. The slowdown of the economy in the 1970s and the criticism of the large public programs of the second generation influenced neighborhood policies: governments retreated from deep involvement and deteriorated areas were open to new initiatives. These took two main forms: public–individual partnerships and public–private partnerships. Both emphasized economic investments and profits.

Public–private partnerships are usually large real estate projects, in which private developers receive special sanctions from the local authority in exchange of some designated contribution to ‘the public interest.’ Among the famous ones are London Docklands in the UK and Quincy Market in Boston, USA. Many of these projects took place within or in the vicinity of distressed neighborhoods. Nevertheless, incumbent residents seldom benefited from them and more often were hurt, directly or indirectly (Smith 1996).

Within the group of public–individual partnerships, the most salient phenomenon is gentrification, the entrance of upper middle-class residents into low-income neighborhoods, usually in the vicinity of vibrant central business districts of cities. In spite of the frequently found and often denounced consequence of displacement of poor veteran residents, gentrification processes have been encouraged by city councils in Europe and America, especially through enabling regulations and tax deductions. Another process in this group is housing and neighborhood upgrading by incumbent residents. Local people invest their own resources in improving their living environment, and often manage to receive at least some assistance from voluntary and public bodies. Last but not least is neighborhood upgrading by immigrants. Waves of new urban and educated immigrants have been settling in deteriorated urban areas in the developed countries, where they could find cheap dwellings, and gradually they have contributed to revitalization of these areas. This is a rather new phenomenon, which may be growing with the expected increase in international migration in the coming years. What is common to the three processes is that they usually start as spontaneous private investments, which later receive some support from local public agencies. Together they are changing parts of our old cities and neighborhoods, but at the end of the twentieth century, they are not much more than islands of revitalization within seas of decay.

4. Looking Into The Future: Neighborhoods In The Twenty-first Century

This research paper began with the statement that neighborhoods have been part of the human mode of life since the dawn of civilization. The ancient Arab proverb ‘better a close neighbor than a remote brother’ illustrates the important social functions that neighborhoods and neighbors had in traditional societies. With the transition to the industrial era and the development of communication technologies, people became much more mobile, their world widened considerably, and they became less dependent on physical proximity and on constant relationships. The decreasing importance of distance has been enhanced with the development of telecommunication in the postindustrial era. Do these changes mean that the time of neighborhoods as territories that combine physical and social closeness is over?

Our answer is that neighborhoods will continue to exist in the twenty-first century and to fulfil important social functions for some of the people at least some of the time. In general, those who will tend to be attached to neighborhoods are people at both ends of the lifecycle—children and the elderly—and at both ends of the social ladder—the disadvantaged and the well-to-do. This answer is not based on a belief in some moral commitment to neighbors and to members of the surrounding community, which is one of the principles of the current social movement of communitarianism (Etzioni 1994), but rather on analysis of social reality.

Analysis shows that housing proximity is associated, or has the potential of being associated, with the existence of important joint interests. This is very clear among minorities and immigrant groups, which tend to cluster geographically and create urban enclaves; in their enclaves they can support one another, defend their specific interests and, when they feel necessary, organize to fight contradicting interests (Abrahamson 1996). This is also common among the most exclusive neighborhoods of affluent citizens who create gated communities (Blakely and Snyder 1997). Mobile middle-class households may not be inclined to be part of neighborhoods or communities, but where and when they feel a need to promote a local interest, and especially when change in the social or physical environment is perceived as a threat to the status of their home, they too function as a community of interests on a local basis.

In the twenty-first century, human beings will continue to have emotional needs in addition to materialistic needs, along with the need to have close personal contact with others. For people whose mobility is limited, either because modern communication technologies have not reached their environment, or because they are too young, too old, or too poor to use the technologies, the neighborhood will continue to be a significant source for fulfilling functional as well as social and emotional needs. As for the more privileged people, the new technologies enable them to choose and also to change their choices: to belong to a neighborhood community only, or to a virtual community only, or to both, or to none; to make certain choices in adolescence and change them once or more than once as an adult or an old person.

Hence, neighborhoods will continue to exist and researchers will continue studying them. One may expect future research into the dual face of neighborhoods/communities, as integrating units from the point of view of their residents and as separating forces from the point of view of the city. Another fruitful direction of research is related to the role of neighborhoods in the development of civic societies, and to the impact of new communication technologies on this and other neighborhood roles. Finally, in a postindustrial era with increasing disparities between the haves and the have-nots, social studies may try not only to understand neighborhoods but also to contribute their share in the efforts to improve the life of disadvantaged people who live in them.


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