Monday, January 31, 2011

Do all cities have neighborhoods?

It's hard to imagine a modern city that does not have neighborhoods. What would residential areas in such a city look like? Is this even possible? Given the prominence of neighborhoods in social science research on life in cities today, I would guess that all modern cities do have neighborhoods. If a sociologist or planner, for example, identified a city that lacked neighborhoods, I'm sure they would study the situation and publicize it for being so strange.

For premodern cities whose housing and living conditions are described in historical documents, all or nearly all published examples have neighborhood organization (I haven't found a neighborhood-less city yet, and I haven't given up searching yet). As for cities only knowable through archaeology, my own specialty, neighborhoods are more difficult to identify but some progress is being made (Smith 2010). It seems that any time an archaeologist decides to look into housing and residential zones at an ancient city, the result is the identification of neighborhoods. My article on this is posted here.

What do I mean by neighborhood?  These are the working definitions I used in the article:

  • "A neighborhood is a residential zone that has considerable face to face interaction and is distinctive on the basis of physical and/or social characteristics" (Smith 2010:139).
  • "A district is a residential zone that has some kind of administrative or social identity within a city." (p. 140)

In the article I give some examples of premodern and nonwestern cities that have numerous small neighborhoods and a smaller number of (larger) administrative districts. The Hindu city of Bhaktapur in Nepal is an example (see Smith 2010 for details and citations). Although it may be difficult to distinguish neighborhoods and districts empirically, these concepts are important because they point to two of the major kinds of social dynamics that define and shape neighborhoods. On the one hand are bottom-up processes arising from social interaction among neighbors, and on the other are top-down processes of administration and control by city or state authorities. Much of what happens in urban neighborhoods is a result of the interaction of these bottom-up and top-down processes within a given built environment.

So far, we are batting 1,000. Whether one looks at modern cities, historically documented premodern cities, or archaeologically excavated ancient cities, all have neighborhood organization. But that's not all. Some large village settlements (e.g., prehistoric pueblo socieites in the U.S. Southwest) are divided into housing clusters or zones that resemble neighborhoods. And rapidly urbanizing sites, such as squatters settlements in the developing world, tend to have neighborhood organization. Even Black Rock City, the temporary city that is the site of the Burning Man festival each year, has neighborhood organization (generated by both bottom-up and top-down forces).

If neighborhoods are truly a universal aspect of urban organization, two questions are worth exploring: (1) why is this the case? and (2) what are the implications for modern cities and urban policy? Stay tuned, we don't have the answers yet. In the meantime, you can find out about a transdisciplinary research project on urban neighborhoods and open spaces.


Smith, M. (2010). The archaeological study of neighborhoods and districts in ancient cities Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 29 (2), 137-154 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2010.01.001

1 comment:

  1. This apparent universality of neighborhoods is fascinating. If humans everywhere do organize their cities the same way, I'd be really interested to hear various scientists' explanations as to the mechanism behind it.