A thought hit me recently and I haven’t been able to put it away. Are there a set of unchanging laws that sort of regulate how we live at the neighborhood or community scale? I think there are, and they’re always implied rather than explicit. I think some people intuitively understand them better than others and definitely use them to their personal advantage. Those who understand the laws either find or create better neighborhoods, and have a better quality of life.
I don’t remember what specifically led me to this sort of thinking, but I’m sure it has something to do with the ongoing debate about gentrification in American cities today. Without going into the whole discussion about who exactly “owns” neighborhoods, housing affordability and low income resident displacement, it’s clear that different people have different perceptions of neighborhoods, different expectations of neighborhoods, and uphold different neighborhood values. There are some people, for example, who believe that every aspect of your life should be able to be lived within one neighborhood — where you work, where you shop, where you find entertainment. When you get a critical mass of people with that belief within one neighborhood, and you have the resources to make it happen, you necessarily get a neighborhood that approaches that ideal. There are other people who have no sense whatsoever that a single neighborhood should be able to meet all their needs, and they prioritize something else within their neighborhood and seek other things in other places. They may prioritize school quality, or housing value, or public safety, and willingly forego other aspects of neighborhood life that the first group might deem critical. And enough of them, with the resources to make it happen, create neighborhoods in their image.
In either case, there’s something about neighborhoods that they understand. They may not be able to articulate it, but they know it.
Let’s make one thing clear about neighborhoods and scale. I, for one, don’t ascribe to the city/suburb duopoly. I believe large cities are composed of multiple neighborhoods, each with an identity. I believe many smaller suburbs are in fact autonomous neighborhoods, able to garner their resources to reinforce an identity. Larger suburbs have multiple neighborhoods like large cities do — perhaps not as many nor quite as diverse as large cities, but multiple neighborhoods nonetheless. So while some people might say that a metropolitan area is comprised of, say, one central city and 100 outlying municipalities that are monolithically called “suburbs”, I tend to view that as, perhaps, a metro with 250 distinct neighborhoods or communities — maybe 50 neighborhoods in the central city, for example, and 200 neighborhoods in the far-from-monolithic suburbs. When you think of metro areas in this way, things shift into a completely different focus.
After some thought I tried to outline exactly what might be the immutable laws of neighborhood and community dynamics that governs them. Here are ten. There may be more. I tried to be as value-neutral as I could be. If there are any others that you could think of, I’d appreciate the feedback.
Neighborhoods have life cycles — they are born, they grow, they mature, they age, they die. We may want it to be so but nothing lasts forever.
Neighborhoods are built to serve economic classes — poor, working class, middle class, upper middle class and wealthy. It’s less understood now than in decades past; these days, it seems nearly all developments are trying to attract the wealthiest residents and the most profitable businesses. But that wasn’t always the case. Many late 19th/early 20th century neighborhoods got their start as poor and working class hubs for factory workers.
Neighborhoods are also built to serve the needs of a certain era. Again, less understood since we’ve been living in a long era with the primacy of the automobile, but neighborhoods have been built with an orientation toward ports, rail lines and streetcars as well as today’s automobiles.
Neighborhoods built prior to the middle of the 20th century were built to serve multiple (but usually not all) classes. Neighborhoods built afterward were largely built to serve just one. One example: Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood, one of the earliest and best planned industrial communities in America, contained homes for upper management as well as unskilled labor on its grounds. This was true of many other neighborhoods and communities, even those that were not master planned.
Because older neighborhoods were built to serve multiple classes, they are more adaptable to reuse. Neighborhoods built to serve just one class are less adaptable to reuse. Again using the Pullman example, the push to turn the neighborhood into a national monument was led by longtime homeowners there, many of whom lived in the finest homes in the area, who recognized the value of the effort. They stayed because the neighborhood retained much of its integrity long after Pullman railcars stopped being built there. Which leads to the next point…
The shelf life of older neighborhoods is long; the shelf life of newer neighborhoods is short. I think of most neighborhoods constructed over the last 60-70 years as being susceptible to the same kinds of threats that imperil monoculture agriculture: they can drain nutrients from the soil that make continued growth less and less likely by the day.
Neighborhoods can change their trajectory by becoming attractive to a class different from what it was originally built for. However, its ability to do so depends on its proximity to neighborhoods with a different class structure. Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood was one of Chicago’s working class enclaves full of cheaply constructed workingman’s cottages. But because it is located just west of the pricey and exclusive Lincoln Park, there was residential and commercial spillover into its area. Not all neighborhoods can rely on proximity to change their trajectory.
Regional assets represented at a neighborhood scale can also impact a neighborhood’s place on the spectrum. However, many neighborhoods can rely on regional assets within their boundaries to change their prospects. That can include public transit, recreational features, or the presence of an anchor institution such as a hospital or university.
Wealth clusters within neighborhoods and spreads outward slowly. Poverty taints a neighborhood and spreads outward quickly. This is completely subjective, but my impression is that wealth within neighborhoods prefers to build on any and all infill sites or even build upward before taking the leap to a street that goes beyond some psychological threshold. But new signs of poverty in a well-to-do neighborhood frighten people, and they move when they can. That creates a vacuum that allows the area of impoverishment to spread outward even faster than the actual poverty itself.
Neighborhoods can mitigate conditions within them, but they are largely subject to broader social and economic trends at the regional or even national level, and are beyond their control. City neighborhoods and suburban communities that stand in the path of development don’t have to do much to benefit from it. City neighborhoods and suburban communities that don’t have a much harder task. There are things they can do to make themselves more attractive, and the successful ones do that to the best of their ability. But if broader trends aren’t blowing in their direction, there’s little they can do to change it.