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Mar 7, 2012

Is the centre of the world the neighbourhood?

One of the most enduring and pervasive ideas in urban policy is that cities should consist of numerous self-contained and self-sufficient neighbourhoods. With urban villages anchori

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Shangahi before.....and after...... (note: picture has nothing to do with the article)

One of the most enduring and pervasive ideas in urban policy is that cities should consist of numerous self-contained and self-sufficient neighbourhoods. With urban villages anchoring each neighbourhood, residents could work, shop, study and play locally, thereby saving on travel and building a strong sense of neighbourhood community.

I’ve long been dubious about this romantic notion. To me it harks back to a rural provincialism that’s the antithesis of what cities are actually about. But I was surprised on reading Jane Jacobs’s 1960 classic, The death and life of great American cities, to see that she was well ahead of me*. Here’s how she opens her chapter on neighbourhoods:

Neighborhood is a word that has come to sound like a Valentine. As a sentimental concept, “neighborhood” is harmful to city planning. It leads to attempts at warping city life into imitations of town or suburban life. Sentimentality plays with sweet intentions in place of good sense.

In Jacob’s time the ideal city was seen as a series of cosy, inward-looking neighbourhoods, each with a population of around 7,000. That was thought by planners to be big enough, she explains, to “populate an elementary school and to support convenience shopping and a community center. This unit is then further rationalized into smaller groupings of a size scaled to the play and supposed management of children and the chitchat of housewives”.

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She argues that urban neighbourhoods are not like a bounded country town where behaviour is mediated by gossip and convention. The point of cities is to provide wide choice and access to diverse opportunities. Unlike small towns, cities offer extraordinary variety and high levels of specialisation in products, services and skills because they draw on a huge pool of people. The very essence of a city, she says, is that neighbourhoods aren’t economically or socially self-contained.

Yet the concept of self-sufficient “urban villages” is surprisingly resilient and still frequently cited today (see here, here and, at least in philosophy, here and here, for Australian examples). That’s surprising because there are obvious reasons why the idea of self-contained neighbourhoods isn’t a sensible objective for policy.

First, even if we wanted to live and work in the same neighbourhood, many households have multiple members who work in different places. Finding an affordable residential location that puts all household members within the same neighbourhood as their work or study would in most cases be difficult.

Second, neighbourhoods that actually do offer good access to a range of jobs and services – like suburbs on the edge of the CBD – are expensive to live in precisely because of the high accessibility they offer. Most people however can’t afford to pay that premium. For example, less than 10% of Melbourne’s population lives within 5 km of the city centre.

Third, many workers are in specialised occupations that have a limited geography. For example, workers in finance might only find suitable work in the CBD. Or those who work in health might be tied to a handful of major hospitals. Moreover, industry rationalisation and declining job security mean it makes little sense to put all one’s eggs in one basket by choosing to buy close to a particular institution (and high transaction costs discourage residential mobility).

Fourth, the size of friendship networks in cities now extends far beyond the local neighbourhood. Many social networks relate directly or indirectly to our working and studying lives, driven in part by the massive increase in women’s participation in the workforce over the last 50 years, and by the high mobility of workers between workplaces (not to mention between cities and countries).

Fifth, low transport costs mean we can and will travel beyond the neighbourhood to go to a party, to a preferred restaurant, a specialty shop, the opera, the beach, the footy, the dentist, and so on. This is really Jacob’s point – cities offer us the best of everything. By and large, the bigger they are the more they offer.

Sixth, minimising the time it takes to get to work is not the major determinant of residential location it used to be. It now accounts for a minority of all the trips we make, between a fifth to a third (depending how you measure it). Many now choose their place of residence primarily on other criteria, such as amenity, and trade-off proximity to work.

Rather than limit the economic and social value of cities – in particular, the enormous positive externalities they offer – a better approach would be to improve mobility within cities by, for example, making transport systems more sustainable. However as Jacob’s points out, we shouldn’t lose sight of the reality that we still live in neighbourhoods. It makes sense to maximise whatever inherent value neighbourhoods offer to our lives.

Jacobs thought the neighbourhood could be a powerful political unit complementing the “street” and “city-wide” units. Indeed, that’s the only real value she saw in it – she devotes most of her chapter on neighbourhoods to their potential for political action. They’re a convenient unit because the city is too big to care about local issues and the street is too small to have the skills and contacts for political action (which in her day was directed against massive housing redevelopment projects and freeway proposals).

What we can do with neighbourhoods is a big issue I’ll leave for another day. For now, I’ll just make a few brief comments. Sustainability wasn’t the pre-eminent public policy issue in Jacob’s time it is today – nowadays we’d recognise there’s scope for neighbourhoods to make a modest contribution to improving sustainability, particularly in transport. But we shouldn’t forget the main game is in improving whole-of-city mobility – the neighbourhoods should fit in with that.

We’re much less reliant on our neighbourhoods for social capital than earlier generations were, but there are still some important institutions that operate at the local level, mainly State and systemic primary schools. But again, it’s important to recognise that strong social connections mostly aren’t local, and moreover don’t need to be.

Note: If you live in or on the edge of the CBD and work in the CBD, you may feel you live in an urban village. Note though that only a tiny percent of the city’s population lives this close to the CBD. Note also that while most of that tiny percent work in the CBD, the great bulk of CBD workers actually live in the suburbs.

*I’m reading Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life as a member of the City Builder Book Club.

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14 thoughts on “Is the centre of the world the neighbourhood?

  1. Alan Davies

    #13 krammer56: “Of course, a local neighbourhood that offers us all we routinely need that is embedded in metropolis that offers everyhting else is the ideal”

    Yes, I think that’s the key. The self-containment POV needs to recognise it’s both (as I said above, the key idea is trade)

  2. Krammer56

    Others have said it already – the neighbourhood concept nowadays is about providing local opportunites to residents, mainly for non-work activities. Shopping, a cafe, local fresh food that doesn’t require a major excursion, eateries, etc. Importantly – not having to “use a litre of petrol to buy a litre of milk”. And maybe even providing a few part-time jobs for local teens at the supermarket.
    Possibly as important, however, is the sense of place and identity that a neighbourhood with a recognisable center can give. Where we live goes a long way to idenitfying (or maybe branding) us.
    Of course, a local neighbourhood that offers us all we routinely need that is embedded in metropolis that offers everyhting else is the ideal.

  3. Alan Davies

    #@landrights4all: Frankly, I think this ‘dichotomy’ thing is a red herring. Neither I nor JJ argue it’s either/or. As I said above at #8, it’s about the weighting, the direction, the tendency. It’s like saying “Williamstown’s a safe Labor seat” – there might still be 40% of the electorate who didn’t vote Labor but the balance, the direction, is clearly Labor’s way (BTW I don’t know the real figures for Williamstown, so let’s not get carried away with literalness).

    Nor does anything I’ve said here deny that neighbourhoods can have distinctive personalities, or that many trips are made within the neighbourhood, or that those local trips can’t be more sustainable. The important point is that policy shouldn’t seek to constrain travel to the local level at the expense of access to the wider city. City’s won’t be engines of economic (and social) growth if we don’t have trade between neighbourhoods.

  4. @landrights4all

    Alan I would like to say that the dichotomy you set up to which Bruce Dickson refers is still a problem for me, even though you acknowledge Bruce’s point here.

    While I can agree with much of what you say or infer in your 6 points, I do not agree with the dichotomy. The alternative to a city centric view is not necessarily one that would limit the economic and social value of cities or relegate the neighbourhood to political commentary on the city as the main game.

    Your city centric perspective which puts neighbourhood development in a supplementary role is telling. It might be born of a broader assumption (perhaps even a conviction) that participation in the global consumer economy, the current growth model we now have is the only viable or attractive future.

    With globalisation on the march we should expect unemployment to be shared more equally. The future will require us to support productive unemployment. There’s plenty to be done to help build a sustainable future and the evolution of localised cooperation could help save us from the death grip of competition – the neighbourhood could play a VERY important role. In this scenario, the choices/opportunities for some to work in the current growth economy could be complimented by the development of creative and productive neighbourhoods (see

  5. Alan Davies

    #7 Bruce Dickson: Activity centres should be both inward and outward looking as you say, but JJ was responding to the dominant ideology of her time that neighbourhoods should be predominantly inward-looking. That’s a view that I find is still surprisingly common.

  6. S Karl

    Interesting article. I get the feeling that, like ‘sustainability’, terms like ‘urban villages’ etc has become nothing more than a marketing buzzword for developers to appeal to wealthy urbanites.

  7. Alan Davies

    #6 IkaInk: I don’t for a moment imagine JJ thought any of the planners in her day were advocating 100% containment, any more than today’s strong advocates of public transport insist on 100% mode share. It’s a question of degree and direction. I think she also felt the standard view of her day was missing the big picture of what cities are really about.

  8. Bruce Dickson

    Alan, while noting your important qualification concerning the potential differences between inner city and outer neighbourhoods, central to your commentary is its initial focus on questioning as romantic the notion in contemporary times of neighbourhoods or ‘urban villages’ being (or becoming) self-contained and self-sufficient.

    Unfortunately this approach inherently creates a little bit of a false either/or scenario or dichotomy, and consequently seems a little ‘off target’ in terms of the other ‘crossover’ or joint ways the urban centre and its satellite ‘villages’ could also potentially be viewed.

    For example, why not simultaneously ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ looking villages and neighborhoods if we think these terms hold universal meanings and understandings?

    Or why not see the issue in terms of degree (like the way some Chinese used to view people, including Mao (as in e.g. 60% good and 40% bad)? In this context, such an approach when applied meaning we could in reality find that – again depending on definitions – some urban villages and/or inner city neighbourhoods could be 70% ‘socially self-contained’ and 60% economically? While others, in more distant, newly developed and historically different outlying areas, might be e.g. 40% and 30 – 70%? (As you have so ably demonstrated in many of your posts, your own Melbourne based research conclusively proves most jobs are in the suburbs, even if not always in your own suburb.)

    Then there is the need to clarify that so many of those possibly romanticised ‘rural provincial’ townships are not (and probably never have been) really totally self-contained either. Most, in similar vogue to city neighborhoods, also always look towards regular (but admittedly less frequent) wider shopping excursions and urban based experiences – including renewing of friendships/relationship – within their favorite and usually most immediately accessible ‘big city’ or larger regional centres. (With populations way beyond that 7,000 marker.) And sometimes that ‘regional city’ can actually be Melbourne, or another equally well placed cosmopolitan capital. The big smoke is a very relative term in Australia.

    Rural people’s sense of distance and time is also readily adjusted to redefine the ‘ease’ of this as well. And a trip to the ‘big city’ can almost seem like a suburban commute to many! (As anyone who has lived in rural Australia would know only too well.) But, returning to the strictly cosmopolitan context again …

    In Portland Oregon, many of the vibrant neighborhoods surrounding the equally alive downtown or CBD area (and its adjoining, if not merging cultural precincts like the Pearl District) are, despite Jacob’s contrary view on this, effectively ‘socially self-contained’. And from at least one or more perspectives.

    In many cases all the most highly treasured (business-based and derived) social & cultural preferences of the neighborhood’s residents are actually found in a good and thriving mix in their own village and are strongly supported for their welcome independence, immediate proximity and resultant social and cultural value (as expressed in a host of communally experienced ways). Patronizing local service establishments and shopping locally, wherever possible, is often taken as a matter of pride.

    Their success in these regards might mean that it is they in fact that provide the real planning lessons for those less well-endowed, less self-contained or less well developed and planned outer ‘neighbourhoods’?

    An underlying key issue in your commentary also does seem to be one of how you define ‘self contained’ – job/work availability locally, is only one of many key criteria you could apply. Taking for granted the idea that people will be able to (yes, hopefully ‘seamlessly’) enjoy the wider offerings, personal relationships and advantages of their city as a whole if they so desire.

    People in Portland can more and more choose from the city’s many distinctively flavoured, and increasingly ‘gentrified’ suburban districts, according not only to ‘affordability’ or ‘access’, but to alignments with social groupings and sub-cultural groupings and other self-identified sets of frequently self-image based and green environment and/or culturally/urban/alternative lifestyle and services based preferences.

    I was going to say such residential & ‘local community neighborhood’ choices could also made on the basis of shared neighborhood-related ‘values’, but for Portland in particular (a fairly rarified place in such regards) this would only be true in terms of the ‘sub-cultural’ and more finely honed versions of what is loosely regarded as a city wide and surprisingly ‘widely shared’ set of ‘base’ cultural values. (However ‘fine tunings’ and ‘splinters’ off these city wide mutually shared values, would also not be totally insignificant as a motivating and satisfaction factor in residential area choices either.)

    And these social & culturally based ‘values’ most likely also give rise to what activities and experiences are top of mind in terms of personal definitions of what is most meaningful in defining the way their own neighborhood meets either all of most of their priority desires for ‘work, shop, study and play’ … in a relatively ‘self contained’ way. Access to more specialized services around the wider city being, from their perspectives, possibly important, but most likely secondary day to day and quality of life considerations.

    And returning to Jacob’s thesis on all this, again it would be dangerous to claim that in Portland’s different neighborhoods ‘behavior’ is NOT to a real extent mediated by ‘convention’ or an updated version of ‘gossip’!

    In this context of ‘active choice making’ so evident in Portland (achieved by renting rather than buying in many instances), Jacob’s view that we shouldn’t lose sight of the reality that we still live in neighbourhoods and that ‘It makes sense to maximise whatever inherent value neighbourhoods offer to our lives’ also seems to be missing the real point.

    ‘Maximise …’? To the contrary, these are active and happy choices in Portland and most likely already beyond being ‘maximised’ … because in most instances people find the fundamental daily value in their lives is being derived from their active and mindful choices. And even if their first choices of neighborhood are not available (Alan’s affordability factor), they seem also to make the very best of those other options they end up with. (While again aware of the wider experiences available to them around Portland itself … the context again not necessarily being one of ‘either/or’.)

    Entirely in keeping with one of the key planning considerations/conclusions you identify, ‘enhancing mobility’ is again, across the city of Portland itself, indeed one of the priorities the city and its partner development agencies address – as part of its urban development and neighborhood building processes.

    No matter how exceptional cities like Portland and New Orleans may seem or be (even in the American context), they still remain as meaningful case studies in which to test Jacob’s line of argument and your own conclusion that “there are obvious reasons why the idea of self-contained neighbourhoods isn’t a sensible objective for policy”.

    And for many American cities (the focus of her original classic 60’s book), I should add that Portland is now actually being increasingly viewed as the direction ‘the future American city’ should be taking. A policy and planning model for bringing so many of these urban life considerations together in a highly positive, highly liveable, functional and pleasurable way.

    Something Portland also achieves – seemingly against the current – in being universally praised as a place to live life to the full, yet without the normal indicators of a booming economy and high employment rates really strongly in evidence!

  9. IkaInk

    Alan, I’d be surprised if you could find anyone pushing the urban villages/central activity district/transit orientated development/etc/etc agenda that wants or believes urban villages could or should produce anything approaching complete self containment. What they could help produce is relative self containment, compared to low density suburbs which don’t attract activities or combinations of uses. They can also be used to better facilitate more sustainable transport outcomes by making travelling between activities and large clusters of housing an easier task.

  10. hk

    Some of us prefer to believe we live in urban communities, rather than neighbourhoods. For those of us with this belief system, we acknowledge that the urban region is made of many types of communities, with some overlapping and blending depending on interests and needs. For example, the community in which we participate in, and identify with, resides within walking distance of the majority of its “members” However, the spatial aspect is only one attribute; it is what we share both in values and activities that makes up the community. Of course, only a few strong values are held in common. In the final analysis though the geographic area of the community is shared by people, 80% of who would not know their neighbours names, but close 90% would use the same tram stops, footpaths, parklands and nearby services and facilities.

  11. Alan Davies

    #1 IkaInk: The problem with the urban villages idea is self-containment, not density. Density is, as you say, important for public transport (although it’s employment density that matters most). I’ve also looked at the perils of average vs weighted density (a big problem with Paul Mees book).

    Quite a high proportion of trips are local and some would certainly have potential to be made by walking and cycling.

    #3 Last name First name: Balmain in Sydney and New Farm in Brisbane are other examples of pockets like the eastern part of Clifton Hill. I would say though that the distinctions in Manhattan between precincts is historical rather than real i.e. the industry that used to distinguish an area like the meat packing district is long gone.

    I think TOD is a much better way to conceptualise it.

  12. Last name First name

    Alan, I absolutely agree with your points above, and Jane Jacobs, on the benefits of living in cities. Cities work best when the urban fabric is well-knitted together, and most of the fabric is ‘seamless’. However, I do want to make two points.

    Firstly, it is great to have distinctive neighbourhoods in parts of the urban area. New York has lots, including Greenwich Village and Chinatown and Little Italy and the Garment District. Melbourne’s include Lygon Street and Southbank and Camberwell and of course Eaglemont. Sometimes the distinction is because of use, or ethnicity, or physical isolation. Inevitably features such as rivers, motorways and rail lines tend to form barriers. In the case of Clifton Hill east of the rail line, where I used to live, the boundaries of rail, motorway, creek and main road create a very nice sense of a distinct ‘pocket’.

    Secondly, as the main author of the Victorian Villages Report you refer to, I can assure you the intention was to maximise choice for people while tending to reduce routine travel, not forcing anyone to give up the benefits of living in the city. ‘Urban villages’ was the best label we could come up with. Nowdays we might instead label it ‘transit oriented development’.

  13. suburbanite

    One area where neighbourhood-centrism has been dominate in Melbourne is the provision of cycling infrastructure. As you leave one neighbourhood the paths and lanes disappear as if no one would want to make a journey by bike longer than 2 km. Of course many cycling paths aren’t even connected up within neighbourhoods. Time to put cycling infrastructure in the hands of a citywide authority.

  14. IkaInk

    I agree that it’s not desirable to make cities groups of self-sustained neighbourhoods that don’t interact with each other. However it’s precisely because of your argument that transport needs to be made more sustainable that I believe urban villages/activity centres/whatever should be something we work towards. As Jarrett Walker has argued on his blog Human Transit, and book of the same name; density of people, activities and jobs are important to making public transport more feasible. Conversely exactly these same features make car travel less desirable.

    Additionally, whilst you’ve rightly pointed out that multi-job households are likely to all find employment in the neighbourhood they live in, you’ve also pointed out that employment is only responsible for a small number of trips made. Plenty of trips are frequently made to the local shops/bars/take-away restaurants/doctors/etc. It’s not likely that all of these trips will ever be limited to local areas, but if the local is within walking or biking distance, or perhaps these facilities are walkable from nearby transit stops, then once again less trips will be facilitated by cars.