Neighbourhoods: Do They Still Matter?

March 2024
Guest Editor: Tali Hatuka
Built Environment

In its simplest sense, a neighbourhood refers to people living near a particular place or within a specific range, sharing infrastructure and amenities. This does not imply that neighbourhoods are synonymous with communities, but rather, communities in the plural may be found in a neighbourhood. This straightforward, yet loose, approach is the lens through which we examine neighbourhoods in this issue. It allows us to do two things. First, to expand the neighbourhood category and include the planned neighbourhoods and unplanned informal settlements, and thus enlarge the places discussed beyond the Western context. Second, it helps us to bypass the conceptual question of what a neighbourhood is to the normative questions: Do neighbourhoods matter? And if so, in what way, and for whom? Also facing the future, what is needed to make them more meaningful to us? In that sense, the issue is engaged more in what the neighbourhood is doing for us, people residing in cities worldwide, rather than addressing it as a unit of analysis or representation of social-spatial processes. It looks at the present but aims to draw possible future paths to our daily places of living.

These aims may seem anachronistic to some scholars. Focusing on the scale of the neighbourhood is not evident in the globalized digital age, which is often characterized by enhanced urban densification and growth. In the contemporary era, regions, cities, and neighbourhoods are often viewed as networks of economic, social, and political power (Hall, 2009; Healey, 2006; Turok, 2009). This approach, enhanced by the digital revolution and the ongoing processes of globalization, challenged the traditional hierarchy of spatial categories. Scholars argue that ‘research needs to break away from the “tyranny” of neighbourhood and consider alternative ways to measure the wider socio-spatial context of people, placing individuals at the centre of the approach’ (Petrović et al., 2020, p. 1103). Advocates of his perspective often adopt a relational approach that perceives places from a ‘non-Euclidean perspective where place boundaries are fluid, and distances are relative’ (Vallée et al., 2020, p. 1). Furthermore, the neighbourhood scale from this point of view may be a trap in analytic research and might lead to ‘inaccurate estimations of the number and types of resources people may have access to in their neighbourhood, and of the magnitude of the social gradient in resource accessibility, what has been called the “constant size neighbourhood trap”’ (Vallée et al., 2015; Vallée et al., 2020, p. 2). As a solution, what many contemporary studies suggest is to ‘have the cake and eat it’: that is to expand the conceptual and theoretical approaches that address neighbourhood, by recognizing a paradoxical pattern in which the formation of regional networks reinforces the dispersion of urban-regional activities while also fostering their concentration in specific locales (Albrechts and Mandelbaum, 2007). This dual approach, that suggests addressing neighbourhood locality but viewing it as part of the wider network, raises theoretical challenges and is part of a heated ongoing debate in urban studies since the 1990s.

However, during the last decade, with the arrival of new digital platforms in our daily lives, new questions have been raised. Scholars start assessing the way digital platforms alter and/or support social cohesion, health, resilience, and infrastructure. Paradoxically, although digitization was expected to affect distance and thus diminish the role of geography and neighbourhoods, the latter are viewed as having an increasing role in our life. This perception and academic interest were enhanced during COVID-19 during which the role of the locale in supporting people was clearly evident. Numerous studies have shown that neighbourhoods affect individuals’ subjective wellbeing, and neighbours are an important source of everyday help and support, even more so in times of crisis (Zangger, 2023). Other studies showed ‘how characteristics of social and built environments affect relationships between disaster experiences and perceptions of risk, mental health symptoms, and food or financial insecurities’ (Finucane et al., 2022, p. 10). Neighbourhoods, again, became a category that raised intellectual interest.

But what do we know about the daily life of contemporary neighbourhoods? The growing role of digitization processes in our lives, and their role in expanding the geographical boundaries of our daily activities, has dramatically changed our daily conduct. We shop, socially engage, and manage using digital platforms; at the same time, we also constantly engage in marking the boundaries between the members we view as our daily community and the rest. Each of us lives in this local–global environment; the local, perceived as concrete and bounded, and the global, conceived as abstract and boundless. Most of us enjoy this duality of bounded locality and boundless globalism without thinking about this contradiction much. We live it!

My argument in this issue is that within this duality localism precedes globalism, in times of peace and even more so in times of crisis. The local–global implies that the concrete is close and comprehensible. It is immediate. This results, in the past and continuing today, in multiple efforts and resources to protect the neighbourhood as a significant locale in a boundless global world. Multiple and varied actors are constantly engaging in defining the neighbourhood and using their definitions to design new frameworks of action from below and from above. With the top-down actors, we can name policymakers, urban planners, or even the police. Their motivation for supporting the existence of the neighbourhood unit is the ability to manage its growth and maintain order in the city. With the bottom-up actors, we can find the residents, community leaders, activists, and real-estate developers. Their motivation varies and includes social and cultural ideas or economic incentives.