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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey