Who cares about neighbourhoods?

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  • Who cares aboutneighbourhoods?

    Ray Forrest


    It seems somewhat paradoxical that the neigh-bourhood is such a prominent topic of policyand academic debate. We live in a world whereplace is seen to be increasingly uid and perme-able and where our social identities and trajec-tories are apparently being increasingly shapedby the virtual and remote as opposed to the realand the proximate. A perva-sive discourse of globalisa-tion, in all its forms andvariants, and of information-alism, technological changeand postmodern cosmopoli-tanismmight suggest that theneighbourhood is rapidlydiminishing in importancein our everyday lives. Thedominant image of social lifeis of eeting superciality,electronic networking, bor-derless communities and of general chaos anddisorganisation. We no longer it seems knowwho we are or indeed, where we are. In anassessment of where sociology is going in thenext millenium, Urry (2000) referred to a mobilesociology with central concepts such as uids,scapes, ows and complexity to accommodatethe diverse mobilities of people, objects, imagesand information. There is, it seems, little roomand certainly little intellectual excitement in thestable and familiar notions we tend to associatewith ideas of neighbourhood. Yet the idea ofneighbourhood, or community, with some kindof implicit or explicit local spatial dimension,retains a powerful imagery and appears to

    remain an important part of our lived experi-ence. Andwhatever the conceptual robustness ofthe term, politicians, policy-makers and manyacademics continue to use it to refer to some-thing that does matter to us.

    In some cases it is an imagery that evokes aworld that has now moved on. Shaw and Shaw(1999), for example, in the context of technolo-gical change and computer networks talk of a

    lack of cohesion in manycommunities:

    Frequently we have lost the sense

    of the tight-knit neighbourhood,

    of the village, of the place where

    everybody knows each others

    name, and where people are

    often working with their neigh-

    bours on projects to improve

    their community. Many people

    are yearning for that world to

    return. (p.318)

    The extent to which such harmonious neigh-bourhoods ever existed is, of course, a matter ofdebate. In the popular imagination the past isthe subject of a selective nostalgia, of goldenages lost through industrialisation and post-industrialisation. But take this quote from astudy of gentrifying neighbourhoods in London:

    I love it here. I had a rootless childhood, and I love the very

    strong sense of community that the children have. Its like a

    village in the centre of London, it has that kind of support

    system. And the kids feel they belong here. I love the idea of

    their friendships carrying on over time . . . I wouldnt move

    away from here to anywhere else in England. (Tina, 43

    years, describing her feelings about Telegraph Hill in 1999,

    quoted in Butler and Robson 2000)

    Ray Forrest is Professor of Urban Studiesin the School for Policy Studies andAssociate Director of the Centre for EastAsian Studies at the University of Bristol.He is also Adjunct Professor at the CityUniversity of Hong Kong. He is currentlyundertaking research funded by the UKEconomic and Social ResearchCouncil onhousing assets and intergenerational dy-namics in east Asian societies.Email: R.Forrest@bristol.ac.uk


    ISSJ 191rUNESCO 2009. Published byBlackwell PublishingLtd., 9600GarsingtonRoad,Oxford,OX4 2DK,UKand 350Main Street,Malden,MA02148,USA.

  • For Tina at least, living in one of the so-calledglobal cities at the beginning of the twenty-rstcentury, all the ingredients of neighbourhoodevoked by the previous quotation can still befound a sense of belonging, local friendship,safety and a village-like environment.Moreover,rootlessness is something she associates with herchildhood rather than with the contemporaryexperience of her children.

    But the main point of this article is not toargue for the continuing relevance of the localneighbourhood as a source of social identity andmeaning although that is certainly one dimen-sion of it. The more general aim, however, is toreect on the current revival of interest incommunity and neighbourhood in much of thewestern academic and policy literature and toexplore some of the different ways in which theidea of the neighbourhood continues to haveresonance in the contemporary world. In otherwords, why should we care about neighbour-hood, and in what ways? Inevitably, the articlecannot encompass all urban and cultural con-texts and is focused mainly on more mature,(post-) industrial cities. It does not claim, forexample, to offer an exploration of the concep-tion and role of neighbourhood in the poor butrapidly expanding cities of Africa or southernAsia, where informal structures continue to besignicant.

    The article approaches the neighbourhoodfrom different angles: as community, as com-modity, as a consumption niche and as context.There is, of course, an extensive and long-standing debate about the relationship betweenneighbourhood and community (see, notably,Blokland 2003). It is unnecessary to pursue theseissues in any detail. Besides, the idea of theneighbourhood is a uid concept and for thepurposes of research its denition must varyaccording to the questions being addressed. Forsome purposes and in some contexts theneighbourhood may well be an administrativeboundary of some kind. The potential impact ofschool catchment areas on housing marketbehaviour is one example. In other situationsthe neighbourhood may be explicitly built intothe planning and participation process throughits physical design or formal committee struc-tures. For other purposes it is an entity sociallyconstructed over time through the routinisedpractices of residents. What is unambiguous is

    that we are referring to some spatial association,but that spatial x may or may not involve anotion of community.

    The article is concerned as much with theways in which neighbourhoods are packagedand sold as with their social construction overtime. In relation to the former it is not clear, forexample, how they fall under the followingdenition offered by Byrne (1999), drawing onRuth Glass.

    To my mind one of the most useful denitions was that

    given by Ruth Glass in 1944 when she distinguished

    between neighbourhoods which were simply people living

    in an area and experiencing the same things, from

    communities which were conscious of the communality

    which derived from common spatial experience and were

    willing to act communally. The parallel with Marxs

    distinction between class in and for itself is clear. (p.119)

    To what extent would we choose to distinguishbetween the classic sedimented, working-classneighbourhood mobilised in defence of itscommon interests against the capitalist devel-oper, as opposed to the offensive posture of thegated community of recent origin determined topreserve property values? Both seem to fallwithin Glasss denition of neighbourhood ascommunity.

    It is also impossible to discuss neighbour-hoods without some reference to debates aroundthe concept of globalisation. For present pur-poses it is appropriate to refer to four elementsfrom the extensive literature on the topic thatappear to be particularly relevant. First, there isan argument that the economic forces that beardown on residential neighbourhoods and deter-mine their fate in terms of investment oremployment are increasingly beyond the bound-aries of both the city and the nationstate inwhich that city is located. Secondly, there is anargument that the inuences on our values,lifestyles and general social behaviour aredecreasingly ones of co-presence and increas-ingly remote and electronic. Thirdly, and moreprosaically, there is the evident transformationin neighbourhood consumption habits with thereplacement of local retail outlets with theubiquitous McDonalds or equivalent fast-foodchain.

    Finally, there is a need to consider thecontinuing relevance of the neighbourhoodcross-culturally and to acknowledge the strong

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  • element of ethnocentrism or Eurocentrism inconceptions of the neighbourhood and its role incontemporary urban society. The literature onneighbourhoods derives in the main from US orEuropean studies. The notion of a lostcommunity of a previous industrial age formsan important part of the backcloth to debatesabout community and neighbourhood in Eur-opean society. There are implicit or explicitassumptions in much of the neighbourhoodliterature about the erosion of traditional familylife and primary kinship networks; assumptionsthat may need considerable qualication inother cultural contexts.

    Neighbourhood revived

    In a European context at least we are, it seems, atanother peak of interest in neighbourhoods. Assuggested earlier, this seems curious, given thedominant discourse of globalisation and post-modernism, but it is bound to these debates invarious ways. At the most general level it is aconcern with the crumbling social cement of theindustrial age and particularly the erosion ofreligion, trades unions and the family. Just as theurbanisation of the industrial age was seen to beproducing a social order in which the traditionalties of community-shared space, close kinshiplinks, shared religious and moral values werebeing replaced by anonymity, individualism andcompetition; so too are similar predictions beingmade about the informational age. Informationtechnology, a new virtuality in social networksand a greater uidity and superciality in socialcontact, are further eroding the residual bondsof spatial proximity and kinship. There is a newcrisis of social cohesion. What will bind ustogether now?

    This is where the neighbourhood hasre-entered as a potentially important site forrebuilding cohesion from the bottom up withactive, empowered citizens practicing mutualityand reciprocity. This also links to a concern witha decline in formal democratic participation.Too many people do not bother to vote anymore. Here, the focus on the neighbourhoodbecomes part of a wider interest in the declineand reproduction of social capital. Drawingparticularly on the work of Putnam (1993a,1993b), policy-makers have become interested in

    the quality and intensity of local social relations aspart of a broader agenda for democratic renewalvia the local community. A society in whichpeople are actively engaged as neighbours is, it isargued, also likely to be one in which there is ahealthy and vibrant civic culture. This policyinterest in social cohesion, social networks, trustand mutuality at the neighbourhood level alsoderives from a particular concern with concentra-tions of disadvantage and poverty in metropo-litan Europe and North America. Globalisationas a reshaping of labour markets and employ-ment opportunities is accentuating social andincome polarisation. This is not necessarily asharp ssion and it takes different forms indifferent locations and is mediated by localfactors (Hill and Fujita 2003). But the directionof change is undeniable leading to an increas-ing stigmatisation of certain neighbourhoods;neighbourhoods with social norms that divergefrom the mainstream and, at the extremes, no-goareas abandoned by residents.

    Through a combination of housing op-portunities reshaped by privatisation policies,productivist local social policies, weakenedbargaining power in the labour market andwelfare state retrenchment what used to beknown as the inner city problem is back with avengeance. For example, a UK governmentreport argued that there were several thousanddeprived neighbourhoods in England alone(Social Exclusion Unit 2000, p.20). The reportreferred to economic ghettoisation, the erosionof social capital and the threat to social cohesionthrough its disproportionate impact on ethnicminorities and young people. The point is thatthe neighbourhood, rightly or wrongly hasregained the attention of policy-makers for tworeasons: rstly, as the basic building block formaintaining social cohesion (associated with thecurrent fashion for communitarian, third waypolitics) and secondly because of the evidentsaturation of poverty and disadvantage incertain parts of major cities.

    A third factor has been a concern with thedeclining population of city centres, and parti-cularly the of the ight middle class from them.The evident social malaise of some inner cityareas, the threat of violence and rising propertytheft is part of the explanation, but the long-standing drift to the suburbs and beyond isaffecting many US and European cities. The

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  • need for an urban renaissance in which certainlifestyle groups; the suburban urbanites, as someUS analysts have referred to them (Lang andDanielsen 1997), prompted a renewed interest inthe creation of urban villages and neighbour-hood planning.What are the key ingredients of aneighbourhood that will attract certain groupsback to the central cities? One response has been anew and pervasive wave of gentrication reshap-ing city centres and often displacing vulnerablegroups to peripheral locations (Smith 2002).

    The revival of the neighbourhood is alsopart of the parallel rise of localism andglobalism. McGrew (1992) usefully outlinedthe bipolarities of globalisation in which, forexample, the reassertion of the local is itself partof the process of globalisation. Hence, somewould argue, religious fundamentalism, nation-alism and the proliferation of new nationstatesare all expressions of this search for socialidentity and social meaning in a world whereglobal capitalism dominates. The neighbour-hood sits in a context in which local traditionsare being revived and where rootedness has anapparently new value. Thus, amidst the dis-course of globalisation there has been somethingof a revival of ideas of local community(Etzioni 1993) in which the neighbourhood isseen as the receptacle for many of the informalresources of the third way. As the forces thatbear down upon us seem to be increasinglyremote, local social interaction and the familiarlandmarks of our neighbourhood may take ongreater signicance. In his discussion of territor-ial identities Castells (1997) explains the reasonsfor some of these contradictory views of socialchange:

    People socialize and interact in their local environment, be

    it in the village, in the city, or in the suburb, and they build

    social networks among their neighbours. On the other

    hand, locally based identities intersect with other sources of

    meaning and social recognition, in a highly diversied

    pattern that allows for alternative interpretations. (p.60)

    In other words, while the local neighbourhoodremains important as a source of social identity,there are many other such sources. This is closeto Guest and Wierzbickis (1999) conception ofcommunity mediate, in which urban neigh-bourhoods continue to perform important butmore specialist roles in peoples lives in parallel

    with increased extra-neighbourhood associa-tions. Just as the role of family, work and otheraspects of social life are being transformed, sotoo is the urban neighbourhood.

    Now this is all very well but do we reallycare about neighbourhood these days? Socialnetworks are city-wide, national, internationaland increasingly, virtual. In the wired neigh-bourhood of the informational age with everexpanding possibilities for indirect socializing(Guest and Wierzbicki 1999), where thoseinhabiting the same geographical space mayinhabit quite different social worlds (Grahamand Marvin 2001; Reich 1991) what connectspeople to one another in the same street? Theanswer may depend on which groups in societyare being considered. In the global city ofdifference and diversity neighbourhood cer-tainly seems to matter, with ethnicity and sexualpreference becoming more, rather than less,important features of the urban mosaic although they are shaped increasingly by thereal estate industry and city imagineers. AnAfrican quarter, a Little India, a gay communityare some of the features essential for a city totake its place in the global order. But this imageof the city is itself the product of those whoinhabit a social world that may not be the livedexperience of the majority. The electronicallyconnected intellectual sipping cappuccino ina waterfront cafe may have a perspective onthe world that is very different from that of theageing widow or the unemployed youth. Theentrenched unemployment experienced by manygroups in different parts of the world, combinedwith rapid demographic ageing points to aworld in which the place of residence could bemore, rather than less, important as the site formuch of everyday life both from choice andconstraint. Our perception of the role of theresidential neighbourhood in contemporarysociety may thus be overly derived from theperspective of the formal world of work.

    Neighbourhood ascommunity

    There is a close, if ambiguous, relationshipbetween the idea of neighbourhood and that ofcommunity (Blokland 2003). This dimension of

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  • the neighbourhood emphasises social interac-tion, social networks and neighbourliness. Howresonant is this dimension with the contempor-ary world? Issues of neighbourhood cohesionand the implications for patterns of participa-tion, care and supervision are bound up withissues of the quality and strength of the tiesbetween neighbours. What does neighbouringmean? Is it about developing close friendships,borrowing the odd item or the casual hello in thestreet? Do the very weak ties of casual acquaint-anceship matter much in the scheme of things?Drawing on the work of Granovetter (1973),Henning and Lieberg (1996) studied the role ofweak ties between neighbours, that is, theunpretentious everyday contacts in the neigh-bourhood (p.6). They stressed the continuingimportance of the residential neighbourhood forgroups such as children, the elderly and thehandicapped, who are likely to spend signi-cantly more time in and around the home thanthose in full-time or part-time work. Their studyalso suggested a continuing class dimension inthe nature and signicance of social networks interms of strong ties. The local arena plays amoreimportant role for the working class than themiddle class. In general, however, people tend tohave more strong ties outside their neighbour-hood. However, according to Henning andLieberg, if weaker ties are included the picturechanges:

    When mapping peoples weak ties, our ndings from 1993

    show that people meet their neighbours and other people in

    the residential area fairly often but on a more supercial

    basis. Thus the concept of weak ties becomes important.

    The number of weak ties in the neighbourhood are three

    times greater than strong ties if one compares the mean

    values for the total number of contacts. The signicance of

    weak ties was underlined by the inhabitants who stated that

    these contacts meant a feeling of home, security and

    practical as well as social support. Only 10 per cent stated

    that these contacts were of little or no importance. (p.22)

    They suggest that the neighbourhood is signi-cant partly as an arena for the development andmaintenance of weak ties. These kinds ofcontacts range from a nodding acquaintance tomodest levels of practical help. These contactsare, however, not only an important source ofgeneral well-being but may provide importantbridges between networks of strong ties.

    It is also this realm of casual acquaintanceand routinised practice which some sociologistshave pointed to as being important in providingthe ongoing repair work for everyday life. Inthe chaotic and disorganised world in which weall apparently live these dull routines may havegreater importance in contemporary urbansociety than we acknowledge. As Pahl (1991)has commented, Most people live in narrowgemeinschaftlich worlds of neighbourhood andkin. Cosmopolitan intellectuals seem all tooready to forget or to deny the small-scaledomesticity of most peoples lives (see foot-note, p.346). The point is that it is theneighbourhood that is likely to be the site forthis ongoing repair work and normalisation.

    Can we have neighbourhoods withoutneighbours? The issue of whether contemporarycity dwellers are less likely to socialise with theirneighbours and the extent to which there aredifferences between social groups has beenaddressed most systematically by Guest andWierzbicki (1999). Their evidence is limited tothe USA and it should not be assumed that theirndings are applicable elsewhere. Nevertheless,their analysis provides a useful and thoughtfulcorrective to more dramatic assertions about thedeclining role of neighbourhood. While the dataconrm a general decline in neighbouring overthree decades (1970s, 1980s, 1990s), the decline isnot substantial and neighbouring continues tobe an important activity for a sizeable segmentof the population (p.109). The more markedpattern is that extra-local ties are increasing andbecoming more dissassociated from forms oflocal interaction. In other words, people aresocialising both in and outside the neighbour-hood but they are differentiated activities.Elderly people and those outside the labourforce show little change in their pattern ofneighbouring and are apparently relatively moredependent on local ties. There is evidence toindicate an increasing distinction between cos-mopolitans and locals but it is not a sharppolarisation even cosmopolitans, it seems,spend time with neighbours. All this is consistentwith the view of the neighbourhood as a socialarena which continues to perform an importantbut increasingly specialised role.

    Although the level of neighbouring contactsmay not have declined substantially the natureand quality of that neighbouring may have

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  • changed. Fukayamas (1999) critique of Put-nams research on associational activity in theUSA is relevant here. Taking issue with some ofPutnams research ndings, Fukayama arguesthat it is not the decline in associational activityin the USA which may be a factor in reducedlevels of democratic engagement and institu-tional disillusionment. The key factor is thechanging nature of associational activity. Con-trary to Putnams view that Americans areassociating less, Fukayama draws on evidencethat suggests that associational activity is onthe increase, but it is of a qualitatively differentkind typically focused on single issues andoften locally based. Activities of this kind,according to Fukayama, have a small radius oftrust. Unlike, say, membership of a church or atrade union, these new associational forms bindtogether small numbers of like-minded peoplecontributing to, and symptomatic of, whatFukayama refers to as the miniaturisation ofcommunity andmorality. Moreover, these kindsof associational activity such as neighbourhoodwatch schemes are often provoked by insecurity,fear of crime or falling property values and arerooted in a distrust of wider society.

    The idea of the neighbourhood as acommunity continues to be most typicallydeployed by academics and policy-makers inrelation to poor and disadvantaged neighbour-hoods. Such areas tend to be described as eitherhaving a strong sense of community (but lackingother essentials, like jobs) or lacking a sense ofcommunity through the depletion of their socialcapital because of high turnover, high crimerates and so forth. As was emphasised earlier,in Europe and North America it is this kindof neighbourhood that absorbs much of theresources and energies of policy-makers. Theirrevitalisation is seen to be essential for broadersocial cohesion and neighbourhood-based in-itiatives have proliferated at both national andpan-European level. It is worth observing inpassing, however, that many of the features ofsuch areas which are assumed to be at the rootsof their malaise, such as a high turnover ofresidents or a lack of local social interaction, canbe equally evident in middle-class areas (see, forexample, Baumgartner 1988).

    The issue of turnover and transiency relatesto a nal observation in relation to the role of theneighbourhood as community. Are we more

    mobile now than in some previous period inhistory? If residential stability does matter to theformation of neighbourhood-based social net-works (and a number of studies suggest it is acritical factor see for example, Sampson 1988)then the extent to which we are more or lessmobile is of some importance. Solid empiricaldata on these issues are rather elusive. More-over, it depends crucially on which cohort isbeing compared over which time period and inwhich place. For example, many older peopletoday may have experienced a stability ofresidence denied to their parents or grand-parents. In some cases parents may have beenpart of a wave of refugees. More generally, inmany societies the shift from renting fromprivate landlords to home ownership and publicrenting contributed to lower levels of mobility.With particular reference to Britain, Phillipsonet al. (1999) suggested that social change hadproduced a closer link between people and placeat the end of the twentieth century than at thebeginning.

    Neighbourhood as context

    A report by the Department of Health in the UKemphasised the contextual impact of neighbour-hoods on health and well-being. In doing so itlinked physical well-being to the quality andnature of social interaction in a local area. Itclaimed that

    Neighbourhoods where people know each other and trust

    each other and where they have a say in the way the

    community is run can be a powerful support in coping with

    the day to day stresses of life which affect health. And having

    a stake in the local community gives people self-respect and

    makes them feel better. (quoted in Morrow 1999, p.745)

    The neighbourhood as social milieu can there-fore have an independent effect on life chances ina variety of ways. Where you live can clearlyaffect the quality of local services you haveaccess to, your exposure to crime and violence,peer inuences and processes of socialisation.Residents of poor neighbourhoods are, forexample, less likely to complete school and aremore likely to get involved in crime as victims orperpetrators. Thus, what Friedrichs (1996) refersto as the contextual effect of neighbourhoods

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  • may be particularly marked in the most dis-advantaged areas. These context effects includethe restricted opportunity structure of theneighbourhood (its lack of formal and informalemployment opportunities) and the develop-ment of deviant social norms or, at least, socialnorms outside the mainstream.

    The policy agenda has been partly driven bythe apparent intensication of these contextualeffects when social exclusion coincides withspatial exclusion. This concentration of thosewith limited economic resources and weaknetworks of opportunity adds a further layerof spatial exclusion: neighbourhood effectsexacerbate further processes of social exclusionoccasioned by poverty, unemployment, maritalbreakdown or ill health and, typically, by acombination of factors. These neighbourhoodsare characterised by what Wood (2000) hasreferred to as adverse incorporation andCastells (1998) as perverse integration inwhich negative forms of social capital developas ways of coping with an increasingly hostilesocial and economic environment. There areinevitably complicated causal relationships hereand it is exceedingly difcult to distinguishneighbourhood from parental or other indivi-dual effects. Moreover, the neighbourhoodcontext may impact on some groups more thanothers. For example, peer inuence may play amuch greater part in relation to the socialisationof teenagers than for preschool children whereparental inuence is more likely to dominate(Ellen and Turner 1997). There is a furthercomplication in relation to causation, which isthat the contextual effects of the neighbourhoodare likely to be non-linear. In other words, itcannot be assumed that simple indicators oflevels of unemployment or lone parenthood arealso indicators of the degree to which theneighbourhood exerts an independent effect onlife chances or quality of life. As Quercia andGalster (1997) suggest, it is more likely that thereare thresholds beyond which the problem ofsocial exclusion or adverse peer inuence maybecome more acute. And Ellen and Turner(1997) explain:

    As long as the incidence of a problem (such as poverty,

    unemployment, or crime) remains below a certain thresh-

    old, it may have little impact on neighbourhood residents.

    But once the incidence exceeds the threshold, the problem

    may escalate, changing the circumstances and the beha-

    viour of residents throughout the neighbourhood. (pp.


    Perhaps the clearest contextual effect of neigh-bourhood is in relation to stigma and labelling.The social reputation and images of a neigh-bourhood matter, particularly in relation toemployment opportunities. Moreover, thesefactors may have greater weight in a servicesector environment where social skills becomeprimary qualications for many jobs. Reputa-tions cling to areas and younger people, inparticular, may nd that being a resident of aneighbourhood with an image of crime andpoverty acts to disadvantage them further in thelabour market. Byrne (1999) drawing on re-search in France, the USA and UK argues thatresidence as signied by address operates as abasis for discrimination against them [residentsof deprived areas] when they are seekingemployment. He continues, They are badgedby the space they occupy (p.121).

    Neighbourhood ascommodity

    Social and spatial exclusion is on the increasewhen the residential areas of cities are beingreshaped to create less public space and moreprotected and exclusive enclaves. In the privatisedcity, safety and security becomes a commodity tobe packaged and sold as a neighbourhood type.Some have pointed to these developments asa consequence of the drive for competitiveadvantage between cities striving to attractfootloose capital and tax-paying residents. Hack(1997) describes

    the existence of the elite corridors that have grown up in

    many cities, particularly in European and Asian cities.

    Residential, commercial and business communities are

    located in these elite corridors. These corridors are shut off

    from their surroundings. In Manila, gated villages have

    been created with private streets. The public streets are

    hopelessly congested, but with a pass to the private villages

    one can successfully navigate the city. This leads to two

    cities functionally the private city and the public city.

    (p. 7)

    It is in the USA where this demand for protec-ted enclaves has become most advanced. In

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  • California, according to Blakely and Snyder(1997), 40 per cent of new homes are behindwalls. Behind the security fences and the armedguards the risks and uncertainties which lurkbeyond are minimised in these neighbour-hoods, context is assured. Here we have whathas been referred to as the commodicationof community (Guterson, quoted in Lang andDanielsen 1997) in which, in Blakely andSnyders (1997) categorisation, people are beingsold community as lifestyle, prestige or securityor some combination of the three. In these kindsof neighbourhoods the inward-looking cohe-sion of people with similar outlooks, levels ofafuence or anxieties may coexist uneasily withtheir exclusion of the world outside. Formalrules and regulation guarantee conformity andsubstitute for the informal social controls thatmay develop over time in a stable neighbour-hood. Segregation, therefore, takes many differ-ent forms and is not necessarily associated withoppressive exclusion or ethnic self-segregation.A number of commentators (see, for example,Atkinson and Flint 2004) have pointed to theincreasing trend for elites to retreat into thesedefensive, gated communities as indicative of anew and pervasive form of socio-spatial pattern-ing in which the self-segregation of the rich is anincreasing feature of the contemporary city.Security guards, CCTV and electronic gatesmay be most evident in the residential areas ofUS cities, particularly in the Los Angeles soevocatively captured by Davis (1990) in hisaccount of its oppressive and militaristic archi-tecture. But the physical infrastructure ofincreasing social and economic polarisation isevident in many major cities.

    These divisions are accelerated by theincreasing commodication of residential spacewith the promotion of home ownership by manygovernments and the retreat from mass publichousing. As secondary markets develop, afford-ability and income determine locational choicesto a greater extent than when bureaucraticselection and rationing processes were moreimportant. With the increased dominance ofmarket processes the contours of the housingmarket more closely mirror the rewards from thelabour market. In the major cities there are theresidual neighbourhoods of the poor and lowpaid, a price-stratied home ownership sectorfor the middle mass and the positional neigh-

    bourhoods for the locally afuent and interna-tionally mobile. The consequence is a greaterdivergence of prices between those parts of thehousing market fuelled essentially by the incomesand preferences of those working in the locallabour market and the hyperinating (and some-times hyperdeating) enclaves that attract foreigninvestment, the local super-rich and the cos-mopolitan elite. There are globally connectedneighbourhoods and locally excluded ones.

    Neighbourhood asconsumption niche

    Pursuing the above themes further, neighbour-hoods are now marketed as offering particularattributes for particular subgroups. This placemarketing of neighbourhoods is considerablyenhanced by the technological capacity tocapture and process vast databases. There havealways been good and bad parts of cities, placesto avoid and places to aspire to, but we no longerneed to rely on friends, work colleagues or thesubjective patter of the real estate agent to drawup our short list of preferred neighbourhoods. Inthe informational age we can log into our PCand obtain increasingly detailed proles in anincreasingly spatially disaggregated form. InBritain, for example, the website www.upmy-street.co.uk provides neighbourhood proles forselected postcodes. My neighbourhood is de-scribed as Acorn type 19, which is apparentlyapartments, young professional and couples. Iam provided with local crime rates, informationon local school performance and recent localvoting patterns. I am also told that

    People in Acorn Type 19 are 65 per cent more likely to be

    vegetarians. They prefer to take their holidays off the

    beaten track and are keen to keep up with developments in

    technology. They try to keep healthy through a lower fat

    diet and exercise. They are not keen on DIY.

    They also apparently have an above averagepropensity to respond to direct mail and to pressadvertising but below average interest in televi-sion. The fact that this description falls short ofmy personal prole is beside the point. Suchsources of information enable those with choiceto make ne-grained decisions about whichneighbourhoods are most likely to deliver the

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  • material, cultural and economic capital theyseek.

    And even if we personally dont care aboutour neighbourhood, someone else does estateagents, developers, the manufacturers of con-sumer durables, the advertising industry and soforth. Whether or not our feelings of socialworth or social belonging are rooted in the localneighbourhood or from more spatially diffusesources, our place of residence conveys some-thing about us and is packaged to appeal toothers with a similar lifestyle or social aspira-tions. Indeed, a neighbourhood where there islimited social interaction, where people keep tothemselves and avoid neighbourly contact couldbe a positive selling point for some.When we useour preference card at the supermarket to collectour bonus points, our checkout slip adds to thecumulative prole of the consumption habits ofthe people who live in our kind of neighbour-hood. We are, increasingly, where we live.

    As would be expected the classication ofneighbourhoods into lifestyle types with asso-ciated consumption habits is highly developed intheUSA. Claritas Connect delivers the nationsmost important demographic and marketingdata companies to your desktop. Data areprovided at block group or census tract level andthe PRIZM cluster analysis divides US con-sumers into 66 different segments in 14 differentgroups. The evocative nicknames includeMoney and brains, young digerati and bohe-mian mix in the urban uptown group. The urbancore group includes big city blues and city roots.The database description states that it is

    based on the familiar adage: birds of a feather ock

    together. When choosing a place to live, people tend to

    seek out neighborhoods compatible with their lifestyles,

    where they nd others in similar circumstances with similar

    consumer behavior patterns. Once established, the char-

    acter of a neighbourhood tends to persist over time, though

    individual residents come and go. (http://www.claritas.


    The neighbourhood in theinformational age

    This tagging of neighbourhood attributes ispart of a wider and more profound reshaping ofthe worlds major urban agglomerations. For

    the purposes of this article it is appropriate tosimply stress the need to see the neighbourhood,both discursively and materially, as being in theprocess of transformation rather than being leftin the wake of technological change and itssocial ramications. The most direct impacts,however, have been seen in concerns aboutdigital divides and the widening gap betweentechnology-rich and technology-poor neigh-bourhoods. The electronically excluded spacestend to be associated with particular groups inparticular parts of cities. The most systematicevidence on this issue has come from the USAwhere the National Telecommunications andInformation Administration has carried out aseries of studies on the digital divide (e.g. NTIA1998). These reports have shown, for example, agrowing disparity between Black and Hispanicinner-city areas in terms of their online accessand the quality of the connection compared withthe adjacent neighbourhoods of white, higherincome households. Authors such as Castells(1999) have highlighted the way in which centralcity neighbourhoods become both globallyconnected and locally disconnected. In Castells(1999) terminology the central city contains bothincreasingly valued and increasingly devaluedspaces. The valued spaces form part of a globalnetwork, the developmental logic of which mayhave little to do with its surrounding economicand social hinterland:

    Given that these spaces, these populations, and these

    institutions have a decreasing relevance for functions

    valuable to the central citys island of prosperity and

    innovations, from the point of view of the system logic,

    there is a self-reinforcing process of spatial marginalisation,

    social exclusion, and functional devaluation of neglected

    spaces, which the information highways of the space of

    ows have bypassed. (p.31).

    In a similar vein Graham and Marvin (2001)describe the stark contrasts in infrastructureprovision in Chinas rapidly urbanising PearlRiver delta.Massive and rapid investment servesthe needs and spaces of the powerful whilebasic infrastructural improvements for themajority lag far behind.

    There is another, more positive side to thestory albeit one that is somewhat less convin-cing. Just as the informational highway canbypass certain neighbourhoods so too can it be

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  • the potential means by which they can escapetheir stigma and disadvantage. Grassroots com-munity movements have seized on new technol-ogy as not only a critical new social divide but asa powerful means by which neighbourhoodswith resource-poor social networks can beconnected to the world beyond. Shaw and Shaw(1999) offer one view of these possibilities whenthey refer to the US Federal governmentsconcern for the National Information Infra-structure. Why not extend this concept, theyargue, to a neighbourhood information infra-structure? Extending the highway metaphor,they continue:

    We must consider the possibility that this technology can

    help members of a community build up their neighbour-

    hood information infrastructure. Interstate highways

    would not be very useful if it were not for off-ramps.

    People need to travel on local byways and between blocks

    of houses, not just from city to city. In fact, people spend

    most of their time traveling along their local roadways.


    There are also other, more far-reaching assess-ments of the impact of technology on cities andneighbourhoods which focus on the changingrelationship between work and residence andchanges in the intrinsic nature of work. Thesediscussions are not occurring on the fringes offuturology and are generally more sophisticatedthan the so far unfullled predictions of masshomeworking. Telecommuting has certainly notyet arrived on the scale envisaged by some, andhomeworking often involves low pay and lowskilled employment. Fukayama (1999) offers aparticularly bold and positive version of possiblechanges and suggests that we have been habi-tuated through industrialisation into a histori-cally peculiar relationship between home andwork. He argues that

    it is if anything more natural and more in keeping with the

    experience of human beings throughout history that home

    and work should be co-located. It may that technology,

    which has innite capabilities of alienating us from our

    natural desires and inclinations,may in this instance be able

    to restore something of the wholeness and integration of

    life that industrialism took away from us. (p.277)

    Mitchell (1999) provides in e-topia a consider-ably more detailed discussion of these issues andin a chapter focusing on homes and neighbour-

    hoods examines the implications of technologyfor, among other things, physical planning andcity zoning, residential architecture and thegeography and content of primary and second-ary relationships. He talks of a clustering of thenew-style live/work dwellings in twenty-fourhour neighbourhoods that effectively combinelocal attractions with global connections(p.78). A new relationship between home andwork could mean suburbs that no longer emptyout in the morning and central cities that canretain a larger residential population.Moreover,zoning cities by separating the residential andnon-residential in the industrial age is, he argues,increasingly inappropriate in an environment inwhichmuch new employment is small scale, hightech and clean. His most interesting observa-tions, however, concern the changing sociologyand spatial patterning of social networks.For Mitchell (1999) they simultaneouslyinvolve an intensication of remoteness andco-presence:

    In the emergent twenty-four-hour neighbourhoods of the

    digital electronic era, patterns will be transformed yet

    again, and the net effect will be complex. Some secondary

    social relationships will simply be eliminated as electronic

    systems replace bank tellers, retail clerks, and the like. But

    others will be regenerated at the neighbourhood level, as

    social life revitalises: more of the people that you get to

    know will be nearby residents. And others will be formed

    and maintained at a distance through combinations of

    electronic interaction and occasional face-to-face meetings.


    Mitchell, however, echoes Castells in recognisingthe downside of these potential transformations.Advances in telecommunications and moreefcient transport networks create greater loca-tional freedom for some. The most attractiveneighbourhoods in the most attractive cities willbecome even more sought after. But otherneighbourhoods in less attractive locations aremore likely to be left behind, reected in greaterdivergence in price and investment:

    When it all shakes out, the guiding real estate principle

    turns out to be this: telecommunications networking can

    add great value to localities where relatively well-off

    people would like to live. It can remove constraints that

    prevented them from doing so in the past. But it doesnt

    help people who nd themselves trapped in marginalised,

    underserviced areas and are too poor to move. (Mitchell

    1999, p.77)

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  • Concluding comments

    So, who cares about neighbourhoods andshould we? There are evidently longstandingtrends associated with the decline of theconventional role and meaning of the neigh-bourhood as a focal point in our everyday lives.However, there are contemporary factors atwork that may be reinforcing as well asreshaping that role. New family forms and theerosion of traditional kinship links, greaterspatial mobility and higher participation ratesof women in the formal labour market are someof the factors that have reduced the importanceof the residential neighbourhood as communallyexperienced geographical space. In most socie-ties the trend has been for people to spend longerat work in a location that is usually at somedistance from their home. Families tend to livefurther apart and to have social networks thatare focused around the workplace or aroundleisure activities that are not neighbourhoodbased. Nevertheless, the neighbourhood stillretains some of its traditional functions. Thereare powerful continuities in relation to its role asthe domain of casual social interaction, as theplace where we spend time with our partner orchildren and where we may feel most relaxed.We may have spatially diffuse and overlappingsocial networks, but the neighbourhood remainsas a key site for the routines of everyday lifewhich appear to be an important part of oursocial identity.

    From this perspective on the neighbour-hood, for elderly people, for children, for home-based workers and for the unemployed, sick ordisabled, the neighbourhood clearly has a great-er role than for the single, middle-class, profes-sional laptopping to and from the ofce. Forelderly people in particular, the residentialneighbourhood retains many of its traditionalfunctions as a place for friendship and socialsupport. We should be wary of adopting aperspective on the neighbourhood which is thatof the cosmopolitan intellectual. Most people,most of the time, are locals. Moreover, the rapidageing of many societies means that a progres-sively higher proportion of the population arelikely to be spending more time in and aroundthe neighbourhood. The elderly of the future aregoing to be different from the elderly of the pastas regards their lifestyle and levels of afuence.

    Their generally expressed desire is to liveindependently but in well-serviced neighbour-hoods.

    The effects of technology and electronicmedia are also more ambiguous than might beassumed. The dominant image is of localtraditions and ties being gradually underminedby the intrusions of the global world via fast-food chains, emails, the Internet and cabletelevision. But the effects of developments inteleshopping, electronic banking and the likecould well be to localise and globalise in parallel.As Mitchell suggests, there may be a progressivedisintermediation of our secondary relation-ships whereby our regular face to face contactscould become more localised. More of thepeople we know could be living locally througha combination of shifts in retail practices andchanges in the relationships between home andwork. This is inevitably to speculate beyond anystrong evidence. If such trends exist they aremerely nascent. Nevertheless with greater loca-tional choice, at least for some, we should expecta higher degree of the adjacency and coinci-dence of residence and workplace. Those withthe freedom and skills are likely to spend moretime working at home, if not from home. In thatsense the separation of home and work, and theseparation of neighbours from workplace ac-quaintances could well diminish rather thanincrease.

    For those with little or no choice neighbour-hood matters in a different way. Those withoutthe necessary social and technical skills for theinformational age nd themselves increasinglydisadvantaged channelled into particular partsof cities. This increasing concentration of thepoor produces stigma, negative labelling andneighbourhoods with the kind of social capitalwhich entraps rather than empowers.

    And whether we like it or not, indeedwhether we talk to our neighbours or not, we livein neighbourhoods subject to increasing classi-cation and digitisation. The technology of theinformational age enables a ne-graining ofneighbourhood distinction and, if need be,discrimination. The real estate industry, thesupermarkets, the purveyors of tailor-madeholidays and so on want to know more aboutwhere we live, where we want to live and ourconsumption habits. In an age of direct sellingand teleshopping the neighbourhood is set to

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  • become more rather than less important forretailers as a discriminator of lifestyles.

    And to return to where we came in, despiteits conceptual ambiguities and academic viewsthat a concern with neighbourhood is some-thing of an anachronism, it remains a majorpreoccupation of policy-makers and politiciansoperating at a variety of spatial scales. White-head (2003) highlights the appropriation of theterm at the international level (the UN Commis-sion on Global Governance) the globalvillage becomes the global neighbourhood as amoral space through which to manage thecomplex economic, political and ecologicalproblems of the planet (p.277) The idea ofneighbourhood continues to invoke positiveattributes of mutuality, solidarity, connected-ness and a sense of shared responsibility anddestiny. At the national level in the UK andelsewhere, it is these attributes that underpin theincreasing array of neighbourhood labelledinitiatives qualities of neighbourhood to besustained or revived. A cynical view would bethat we have been here before. For example, wehad the area-based initiatives of the late 1960sdeployed as a policy response to the ravages ofdeindustrialisation and economic restructuring in

    many western cities, which were theoreticallycondemned at the time as ideological smokesc-reens for powerful structural forces which couldnot be tackled at that spatial scale. However, thereare interesting questions to be explored regardingthe re-emergence of ideas of community andneighbourhood in different social, economic andcultural contexts. For example, how do currentpolicy responses and discursive practices aroundneighbourhoods differ from previous times andwhy? (See Whitehead 2003, for some interestingtheoretical observations on this).

    But whatever theoretical conclusions wemight come to about if and how we should careabout the neighbourhood, there is little tosuggest that it will not continue to retain apowerful hold on popular imagination andwithin political debate. In this context I parti-cularly like Byrnes (2001) observations onpopular soap operas that the most famous ofall Australian soaps [was] not called Neighboursfor nothing (p.85). Moreover, as a focal pointfor social investigation the neighbourhood(however, dened and operationalised) willcontinue to be a rich laboratory in which toexplore wider processes of uidity, change andstability.


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