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

    130 Ray Forrest

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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 s...