Neighbourhood. A Notion in Transition

Christopher Dell

The notion of neighbourhood is extraordinarily intricate, and, due to this difficult if not impossible to generalize. We can think of particular sites, the neighbourhood in our house, in our street, a neighbourhood in a Paris residential quarter, a Frankfurt Bank District or a neighbourhood next to a Detroit industrial site or in a small village in Brandenburg and so on. All these sites are extremely different: in size, structure, form, function and scale. These examples indicate that we cannot longer even agree on what counts as a neighbourhood.

Yet I argue that the notion itself, just because of such intricacy, is nonetheless evermore valid for urban design discourse. Let us look at the basics: neighbourhood is a relational notion. The condition of neighbouring is based on the fact that there are always two entities: a person and a person next to the person or a thing and a thing next to it – neighbouring cannot take place individually, a neighbourhood cannot exist on its own. That holds equally true for the topological dimension of the notion. Concerning the second dimension – the social – things turn out in even more complex ways. While the first dimension of neighbourhood concerns geographical place (physical space, built environment), the second aspect refers to social practice. The definition of the second aspect is problematic in that in itself it is grounded in certain qualities of the topological – the ‘social’ – that inevitably are a matter of social debate themselves.
Social geography speaks of the neighbourhood as a place based on the connectivity of territories (Nystuen 1970 ). Sociology defines the neighbourhood as ‘a social group that interacts on the basis of physical proximity’ (Hamm 1973) . This definition is based on the assumption that ‘a social group is defined by the interactions between its members’ (Homans 1968). But not only is social action, i.e. changes in definition according to historical changes of knowledge, hard to define. It also lends itself to an overestimation of a quality of place, to an overestimation of a social nativity or the immediacy of a social place called neighbourhood. Mumford, for example, refers to the neighbourhood as a connectivity of place that he understands as the most original form of social relations (Mumford 1967: 115).

The nativity postulate concerning the notion leads us to see that ‘neighbourhood’ enters the urban discourse with an anti-urban impetus. Used first by the likes of Wilhelm Riehl and Ferdinand Tönnies to play out the rural qualities of a village discursively located the neighbourhood in opposition to urban anonymity, the notion assumed pro-urban fame through Robert Ezra Park’s interpretation and the work of the Chicago School. Park had studied with Georg Simmel in Berlin, adopted several concepts of the German sociologist and introduced them to the American context from the 1920s onwards. At that period, more people lived in cities than in rural areas in the United States for the first time. That led Park and his colleagues to discover the city as a new continent on which to undertake ethnographic research: ‘The world had been discovered. ... what next? There are other worlds to be discovered: even more interesting. The world of great cities. The immigration colonies. The Ghettos and the Chinatowns’ (Park 1990: 98). Whereas Simmel regards form as determining interaction, Park sees interaction itself as the factor producing form. For Park, social interaction in proximity constitutes the basic feature of society as a process. Where Simmel focused on the dissociation of forms that resulted in individualization processes, most vividly in his Metropolis and Mental Life (1903), Park studied the heterogeneity of structures, emancipation and possibility. The neighbour in Simmel’s concept stands for proximity, whereas Park sees the function of the neighbour (proximity) itself as a driver for urban interaction.

In drawing links between interaction and space, Parks brings about the very social-cultural definition of neighbourhood for which the Chicago School has become famous. This definition resembles a naturalization of the notion itself: the research field ‘local community’ is defined as a ‘natural area’ that is developed as a result of competing interests (e.g. industry needs land, population groups need affordable housing). In this context ‘neighbourhood’ constitutes a subsection of a larger community—a collection of both people and institutions occupying a spatially defined area influenced by ecological, cultural, and sometimes political forces (Park 1916: 577-612). The Chicago School’s research attempted to take a direct empirical glance at urban territories. The social mosaic of the city became the place for the ethnographies of neighbourhoods and social types. The material they researched and collected resulted in patterns of place and land uses. Seen this way, neighbourhood connotes a shared residential area whereas community implies its social function. Parks’ colleague Louis Wirth interpreted the totality of the city as a ‘substitution of secondary for primary contacts, the weakening of bonds of kinship, the declining social significance of the family, the disappearance of neighbourhood and the undermining of traditional basis of social solidarity’ (Wirth 1938: 1-24). The neighbourhood stands for the basic unit of the city, the base of social control and organization (Park 1967: 7). This interpretation is based on an organic view of the city, in which neighbourhood change evolves as a process of invasion and succession. The most famous example is the Chicago School’s use of the biologist notion of segregation: in the context of the city segregation denotes the mechanisms of aggregation and disaggregation of communities. Under these homologous premises a well functioning neighbourhood consists of homogenous communities in which the individuals are able to adapt. The population is distributed like biological species in city zones. The Chicago School defines the city as a quasi-natural cultural topography of site-specific norms, rules, behaviour: ‘each separate part of the city is inevitably stained with the peculiar sentiments of its population. The effect of this is to convert what was at first a mere geographical expression into a neighbourhood, that is to say, a locality with sentiments, traditions and a history of its own’ (Park 1915: 579). Social disorganization occurs due to the ‘inability of a neighbourhood to solve its problems together’ (Thomas; Znaniecki 1918: 32).In that manner the city is analytically divided into two levels: the social processes (= society) in which cultural communication, interaction and moral order take place are located on the upper level. The second level consists of elementary (natural, biotic) processes (= the city) and refers to the human behaviour in the urban environment, with the dimensions of inter-stimulation and natural order. Form these premises follows the hypothesis that the spatial structure of the city is the effect of competition that can and often does lead to conflicts about material and spatial resources. These effects form what the Chicago School calls the ‘mosaic of cultures’. This theory of the city is based on a dualism: on the one hand there’s the city structure, the form of built environment and the physical organization and on the other, there’s social behaviour, patterns of interaction and social organization.

As social conflict in the cities became increasingly prominent in the 1960s, urban ethnography revisits the neighbourhood model but criticises i.e. redefines it by means of new research results and perspectives. The homological view is transformed into an interpretation of neighbourhood as a place of heterogeneity. Gerald Suttles, for example, proposes that neighbourhoods represent socio-cultural models of the city, ordered by segmentation. Different urban segments represent ethnic groups who, while living in the same neighbourhood, experience the place in different ways (Suttles: 1968). Later Suttles refines his point as he recognized that local communities do not form their identities solely as a result of free-market competition. In fact, outsiders can impose identities and boundaries onto communities. Suttles also argues that the local community is best thought of not in terms of a single entity, but rather as a hierarchy of progressively more inclusive residential groupings. In this sense, we can think of neighbourhoods as ecological units nested within successively larger communities (Suttles 1972). On this backdrop, Gans studies how population heterogeneity affects communities’ social relationships. Gans interprets neighbourhood conflict among different social groups as less reflecting a contest over spatial supremacy than a struggle over enduring intra-ethnic values: ‘If neighbours are too diverse, differences of behaviour or attitude may develop which can lead to coolness or even conflict. For example, when children who are being reared by different methods come into conflict, disciplinary measures by their parents will reveal differences in ways of rewarding and punishing’ (Gans 1968: 155) In this respect neighbourhood homogeneity cannot be determined by social policy. On the contrary, the postulate of homogeneity leads to unacceptably high levels of conflict between neighbourhoods of different ethnicities, classes and religions. Our perspective on neighbourhood changes as heterogeneity is regarded in more positive terms and a basis for interpersonal relationships. This perspective is supported by the ‘contact hypothesis’ developed by Hogg. The hypothesis mirrors a prevalent belief that close and pleasant interpersonal contact between people from different groups is probably the best way to achieve social harmony (Hogg 2003). Such thinking resonates in Jane Jacobs’ widely received work The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Here we also read of the positive implications of neighbourhood heterogeneity. Jacobs cites New York’s Greenwich Village as a vivid but over-idealized example of diversity: contact and activities between diverse people help enhancing new ideas and ways of thinking, a co-operative neighbourhood life in which heterogeneity stimulates interaction and activities among diverse individuals who need to negotiate openly with each other in order to maintain stable relationships. Jacobs argues for the benefits of heterogeneous land uses such as mixing employment activity within residential neighbourhoods. To her, the cross-links that ‘enable a district to function as a thing are neither vague nor mysterious. They consist of working relationships among specific people, many of them without much else in common than that they share a fragment of geography’ (Jacobs 1961: 133). These arguments echo in later literature, for instance in Sennett’s The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life (Sennett 1970), Charles’ The dynamics of racial residential segregation (Charles 2003) and Massey and Denton’s American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Massey; Denton 1993).
The socio-cultural perspective on neighbourhood is challenged in the 1970s by a specific branch of urban geography that puts the focus on identifying the links between place and economics. In Government Policies, Financial Institutions and Neighbourhood Change in US Cities (Harvey 1979), for example, David Harvey reflects on the influence capital has on neighbourhood constellations. Neighbourhood change, he argues, depends less on the preferences and demands of consumers than on how industrial, financial and property capitalists decide to move their holdings. Whereas the classical Chicago School premised that gradual disinvestment within inner cities relates to a wide number of individual decisions by residents and businesses, Harvey sees disinvestment as caused by the actions of a few large institutions, including banks, insurance companies and real estate developers. The classical perspective interprets the economic struggle as a natural cycle all neighbourhoods are destined to undergo, whereas urban geographers see neighbourhood change as occurring in an uneven way to reflect strategies adopted by institutions seeking to maximize their returns. Two capitalist neighbourhood strategies can be identified: the first strategy prefers investment into new construction over investment into existing development. Because capital invested in urban infrastructure (the built environment) becomes devalued over time, investors constantly seek new, more profitable sites while withdrawing from older sites. This results in the decline of existing neighbourhoods. The second strategy implies the withholding of investment. For both strategies, the circulation of capital is a key driver for neighbourhood change.

The 1990s see the concept of ‘neighbourhood’ being questioned in general. New interactionist theories focus on processual effects rather than topological or geographical boundaries (Sampson; Morenoff; Gannon Rowley 2002). Sampson et al. for example argue, that in practice, most social scientists and virtually all neighbourhoods studies assess and rely on geographic boundaries defined by the Census Bureau or other administrative agencies (e.g. school districts, police districts). Yet although administratively defined units such as census tracts and block groups work reasonably consistently with the notion of overlapping and nested ecological structures, they offer, according to the authors, imperfect operational definitions of neighbourhoods for research and policy. This is an important reason why researchers become increasingly interested in the strategies employed to define neighbourhoods more in respect to the logic of street patterns and the social networks of neighbourly interactions (Grannis 1998).
The latest debate on neighbourhood assembles around the dichotomy of locality vs. globality and local neighbourhood vs. cosmopolis. Richard Sennett insists on the quality of place and local interaction as transmitter of knowledge. He criticises that if colleagues or neighbours are no longer able to meet in the workplace or the neighbourhood, because they move elsewhere, locals lose their knowledge of acquaintance. Sennett suggests that, in the global era, the cosmopolitan citizen controls the locals’ knowledge of acquaintance, a neighbourhood, however, cannot survive without its basic ingredients: neighbours (Sennett 1998). Contrary to this position, the late Jacques Derrida introduces the notion of cosmopolis into the neighbourhood debate. For Derrida, the cosmopolis constitutes a safe haven for strangers that is grounded itself in the neighbourhood role. Thus the cosmopolis receives strangers as neighbours in extending local and national resources to them. Derrida locates the quality of cosmopolis in the fact that it is able to include strangers through its performance of hospitality. But Derrida also indicates that the influx of refugees and immigrants as such does not yet constitute the cosmopolis: the cosmopolis needs the performative identification with the stranger, organizing local life around the theme or motive of the stranger (Derrida 1997). The arguments brought forward by geographer Ash Amin head in the same direction. Amin suggests that the borderless inclusion of strangers indicates the ongoing interaction between locals and strangers. For Amin, the cosmopolis becomes rooted in the locals’ self-understanding, when they are able to transgress all group boundaries, in order to be continuously on the path with strangers, as dislocated nomads and strangers to themselves, of always becoming new persons (Amin 2004). In this perspective neighbourhood can be interpreted as a topological site in which the performative transformation of urban life forms as new forms of citizenship is tested (Nussbaum 2002).
To sum up, let us go back to the definition of space that Kant once formulated. For him, space is the conception of the pure possibility of being together with others (Kant 1838). Any conception of neighbourhood then implies a sort of pre-structuring of the possibility of being-together. This leads to my final argument. Neighbourhood is not a social structure within a given (‘natural’) space, as ‘natural’, neutral physical space always constitutes an idealization of the perceived. Thus the social and the spatial converge in social space. Social space, interpreted from this perspective, is not an object but a performatively produced process. Neighbourhood is not an object but an urban situation as collective of agents and actants (= acting things, cf. Bruno Latour). An urban situation can then be defined as a holistic spatial and temporal totality on a certain scale. Holistic in this context is to say that a) the properties of the situation cannot be reduced to the properties of its elements, b) the form of the situation cannot be identified as compositional entity or as a synthesis of form (Christopher Alexander), c) the functions of the situation cannot be reduced to the functions of its elements and d) the structure of the situation is not concrete (concrete structures can only be experienced as the concrete structural relation of its elements) but abstract (as experience of subjects that are practically engaged in or open for the situation).

From this argument four premises follow: a) that the structural properties of an urban situation depend on our description and conceptualization, b) that structural properties of an urban situation are relational, i.e. neither subjective nor objective (physical), c) that the structural properties of an urban situation can only be experienced through the agentic engagement of subjects in any material-social situation and d) that this engagement is not based on preconceived knowledge but on capacity.

These premises bring up to the following questions, which conclude and open up my text: if the structural properties of the situation as a totality can only be experienced through the agentic engagement of a subject within a situation and thus depend on description and conceptualization, how then can relational experience be mediated? And which interrogations on the descriptions and descriptiveness of an experience of an urban situation, such as a neighbourhood – as constellation or collective of actants, actors and uncertain modes of action (Latour 2005) – have to be made? This is exactly the point where the work of UD begins.