Monday, September 28, 2015

Why do all cities have neighborhoods?

I've been writing about urban neighborhoods for several years now. I have made the claim that all cities have neighborhoods. In fact, neighborhood organization is one of the very few urban universals. There are very few features shared by ALL cities, throughout history and around the world. Besides neighborhoods, other candidates for urban universals include the provision of urban services, and the fact that if a society has an elite class, then many or most of its members live in cities.  See: Do all cities have neighborhoods? (2011), or

I find that I always hesitate a bit when writing that "all" cities have neighborhoods. That is a tough claim to prove. We simply don't have information about all the cities that have ever existed, so a claim for the universality of something like neighborhoods must rest on indirect evidence. Here are the three lines of evidence that make sense to me.

First, every description of a city that is sufficiently detailed and focused to mention the existence of neighborhoods, does in fact mention neighborhoods. This is far from an air-tight argument. But I've been looking at city descriptions like this for a number of years now, and so far this claim has held up. These include ethnographic reports of cities around the world, historical accounts of cities before the modern era, and archaeological reports of ancient cities. Archaeologists started thinking seriously about neighborhoods about eight years ago, and guess what? Since then, many reports of neighborhood organization have popped up. Check some of the works in the bibliography below.

Second, many bin-depth studies of neighborhoods, in the past and the present, have found that neighborhoods are crucial social and spatial units within their city. They are important in many ways for urban residents, and they are important for the overall operation and functioning of the city. Some of my favorite such studies are Robert Sampson's analysis of Chicago neighborhoods today, Abraham Marcus's study of Aleppo in the 18th century, and Eva Lemonnier's identification of neighborhoods at the ancient Maya city of La Joyanca. See: Why are neighborhoods important? (2014).   Or, in Publishing Archaeology, see Archaeological concepts of community confront urban realities today (2015).

Third, I carried out a study, together with a bunch of undergraduates, of neighborhood organization at semi-urban settlements (Smith et al, 2015). The study was based on the assumption that if neighborhoods formed at these rapidly-formed, often chaotic, and sometimes specialized settlements, then they would form at any good-size human settlement. We found neighborhoods did indeed exist at Plains Indian aggregation sites, arts festivale, RV camps, protest camps, shantytowns, military camps and forts, internment camps, company towns (including ancient Egyptian workers villages), and refugee camps. The only kind of settlements where we could not confirm or discomfirm the presence of neighborhoods was disaster camps.  See : Neighborhoods in semi-urban settlements (2011).

So, if neighborhoods really are urban universals, why is that the case? In our 2015 article, we give two types of answers: ultimate causes, and proximate causes. These concepts, borrowed from evolutionary biology, refer to the deep underlying causes of social phenomena (the "ultimate" causes) and to the basic day-to-day reasons for their formation ("proximate" causes). The underlying, ultimate cause of neighborhood formation is that people in cities need, or want, to live their lives on a smaller scale than the entire city. Some studies suggest that this is caused by constraints on human memory; one can only recall so many people, and effective social networks cannot be too large. Other studies suggest that living in cities causes social stress, and neighborhood organization is a way of relieving that stress.

It is interesting to note that neighborhoods can form in two very different ways. The most common path throughout history was the bottom-up approach. People living in an area interact with those around them (their neighbors), and eventually clusters or people, or communities, develop on their own out of the day-to-day actions of people. But in some cases, city or government authorities create neighborhoods. They organize cities from the top down, and people move into ready-made neighborhoods.

In our paper we identify the following proximate causes of neighborhoods: For bottom-up neighborhoods, simple sociality--interacting with your neighbors-- is the primary cause of neighborhood formation. Group preservation and defense also contribute to neighborhood formation in some cases. For top-down neighborhoods, established by authorities, the most common proximate causes are administration (the need to administer the residents) and control/surveillance. Sociality is a secondary consideration; if not present from the start, it quickly develops once people start living in their pre-made neighborhoods.


 Arnauld, Marie Charlotte, Linda R. Manzanilla, and Michael E. Smith (editors)
2012    The Neighborhood as a Social and Spatial Unit in Mesoamerican Cities. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Hakim, Besim S.
2007    Generative Processes for Revitalizing Historic Towns or Heritage Districts. Urban Design International 12: 87-99.

Lemonnier, Eva
2011    Des quartiers chez les Mayas à l'époque classique? Journal de la Sociéte des Américanistes 97 (1): 7-50.

2012    Neighborhoods in Classic Lowland Maya Societies: Identification and Definition from the La Joyanca Case Study (Northwestern Peten, Guatemala). In The Neighborhood as a Social and Spatial Unit in Mesoamerican Cities, edited by Marie Charlotte Arnauld, Linda R. Manzanilla, and Michael E. Smith, pp. 181-201. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Marcus, Abraham
1989    The Middle East on the Eve of Modernity: Aleppo in the Eighteenth Century. Columbia University Press, New York.

Sampson, Robert J.
2012    Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Smith, Michael E.
2010    The Archaeological Study of Neighborhoods and Districts in Ancient Cities. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 29 (2): 137-154.

2011    Classic Maya Settlement Clusters as Urban Neighborhoods: A Comparative Perspective on Low-Density Urbanism. Journal de la Société des Américanistes 97 (1): 51-73.

Smith, Michael E., Ashley Engquist, Cinthia Carvajal, Katrina Johnston, Amanda Young, Monica Algara, Yui Kuznetsov, and Bridgette Gilliland
2015    Neighborhood Formation in Semi-Urban Settlements. Journal of Urbanism 8 (2): 173-198.