Monday, January 13, 2014

Why are neighborhoods important?

Historical (Tokugawa) Japanese neighborhood
Why are neighborhoods important? There are many reasons, and many answers to this question. I recently read an interesting article by John McKnight, of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute. The article is called "Neighborhood Necessities: Seven Functions that Only Effectivley Organized Neighborhoods can Provide" (McKnight 2013). McKnight begins with the observation that today many institutions that are used by people in cities are cutting back--government, not-for-profit organizations, schools, medical systems, human servic organizations, businesses. He says that "The functional space they no longer occupy creates either a crisis or an opportunity."

He continues, "The opportunity is there if we recognize that during recent generations, institutions have often taken over functions once performed by local communities, neighbors, and their collective groups and associations. Medicine has claimed our health. Police have claimed our safety. Schools have claimed the raising of our children. Social services have claimed the provision of care. And corporations have claimed that everything we need can be bought."

My (sprawling) neighborhood
McKnight wants neighborhoods to take back a greater share of these activities and functions, to return control of key aspects of life and society to neighborhoods and communities. This idea is developed at greater length in his book, The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, co-authored with Peter Block (McKnight and Block 2010). There is a nice website of the same name. I am reading the book now. While some of the arguments sound idealistic and even romantic, I think the authors have seized on key dimensions urban neighborhoods, and why they have been important from the earliest cities to the present.

Returning the McKnight's article, here are the "Seven functions that only effectively organized neighborhoods can provide":

  • Health. "Our neighborhoods are the primary source of our health." It is well known that longevity and many ailments are improved by strong social support networks, and neighborhoods can and should provide those networks.
    Neighborhood in Bungamati, Nepal
  • Safety. Safety is a local issue, and two of its major determinants are the number of neighbors one knows by name and the extent to which people are present and interacting in the public space near home. McKnight is drawing on both Jane Jacobs (her  stress on "eyes on the street") and Robert Sampson (whose relevant concept is "collective efficacy"), two of the top experts on urban neighborhoods. See Jacobs (1961) and Sampson (2012).
  • Environment and resources. Vibrant neighborhoods contribute to resource conservation in many ways.
  • A resilient economy. Most businesses begin locally, and neighbors are the most reliable source of jobs and information about jobs. Local economic activity contributes to successful neighborhoods, and active neighborhoods stimulate local economies.
  • Local food. The local food movement is just one manifestation of the positive association between neighborhoods and the production and distribution of food.
  • Socialization and raising children. McKnight invokes the phrase, "It takes a village to raise a child" and encourages the involvement of neighbors in the collective raising and training of children.
  • Care-giving. "Our institutions can offer only service, not care. We cannot purchase care." True care is what neighbors and community members provide for one another, not what paid professional dispense from distant locations.
While I find the historical component of these arguments in McKnight and  Block (2010) less than fully convincing, I do think that the basic message is on-target. Neighborhoods are so important that they exist and have existed in every know city that has ever existed on the earth. Sometimes authorities plan and create neighborhoods, but more often neighborhoods are generated by the normal, everyday actions of ordinary people. The question of how and why neighborhoods are so important has occupied many of the top urban thinkers, yet there is still much to learn. I think John McKnight and Peter Block have identified some of the key reasons for the social importance of modern neighborhoods. Their work is well worth reading.
Modern and premodern neighborhoods

Jacobs, Jane  (1961)  The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House, New York.

McKnight, John  (2013)  Neighborhood Necessities: Seven Functions that Only Effectively Organized Neighborhoods Can Provide. National Civic Review 102(3):22-24.

McKnight, John and Peter Block  (2010)  The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods. Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco.

Sampson, Robert J.  (2012)  Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
One idea to improve neighborhoods

1 comment:

  1. I can see where these seven functions are critical to small town sustainability in a rural area. The entire community would be one neighborhood. I consider safety, a resilient economy, and socialization and raising children as described above, as the most influential factors in attracting and retaining residents.