This post includes an excerpt from my eBook – The 10 Traits of VIBRANT Cities.
Just like a vibrant region needs vibrant cities, vibrant neighborhoods are the building blocks of vibrant cities. A city that lacks vibrant urban neighborhoods cannot become a thriving community.
What is a Neighborhood Anyway?
First, we need to define what a neighborhood really is. The term neighborhood is one of those words in the English language that is thrown around too loosely. Like the words love or innovation or sustainability, neighborhood is often used when it shouldn’t be, and as a result, it has lost much of its real meaning.
If you’re like most people, you probably refer to the area immediately surrounding your home as “your neighborhood”, unless of course, you live in a rural setting. And if you’re like most people, myself included, you are wrong.
An apartment complex is not a neighborhood. A single high-rise residential building is not a neighborhood. A group of high-rises that make up a public housing project is not a neighborhood. A cluster of 500 single-family homes, physically separated from surrounding commercial areas and other housing developments is not a neighborhood. A gated subdivision is certainly not a neighborhood. So, what exactly is a neighborhood? The best way to answer this question is by looking at real world examples.
How Can You Tell if Your Neighborhood is Vibrant?
The most vibrant urban neighborhoods are places that have a very strong identity. Their residents care about them deeply. And yet, despite the fact that the best neighborhoods are very distinct and identifiable, their boundaries are not set in stone. Instead, the level of debate about a neighborhood’s boundaries is one the most accurate indicators of a vibrant neighborhood.
While the previous statement might seem ridiculous at first glance, it actually makes perfect sense. Think about it. Vibrant urban neighborhoods are connected to one another. They are not separated. Vibrant neighborhoods flow into one another. Each neighborhood has its own unique identity, but it is part of a bigger, better whole: a vibrant city with many neighborhoods. So, I promised we would look at a real world example to help define what a neighborhood is. Let’s put my claim that “a disputed neighborhood boundary equals a vibrant neighborhood” to the test.
For this little test, I’ll use a neighborhood that many of you are familiar with: the West Village/Greenwich Village neighborhood in New York, NY.
First, is the West Village a vibrant neighborhood? Yes! At least that’s the response that anyone familiar with the neighborhood would give. For those of you that have visited or lived in the West Village, you can take my word for it (I lived there for a year).
Now, what about the disputed boundary test? The West Village is perhaps the best example of a disputed neighborhood boundary that indicates a vibrant neighborhood. Simply Google “what are the boundaries of the West Village” and you’ll find numerous articles debating the subject, including articles from many years ago. Check out this 2011 Wall Street Journal article about the elusive boundaries of the West Village. Or, take a look at this brief 2005 Curbed.com article. Or this 1999 NY Times article. They still haven’t resolved the debate, even after all these years of arguing! Guess what? The debate will never end. Well, it won’t end as long as the West Village remains a vibrant neighborhood.
New York’s West Village is just one example. There are probably hundreds of examples of vibrant neighborhoods with highly disputed boundaries. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you have any examples of vibrant neighborhoods with disputed boundaries? Or, (this might be even more interesting) do you have examples of vibrant neighborhoods where there is absolutely no question about the boundaries?
Neighborhood Boundary Expansion
A similar phenomenon occurs in the residential real estate industry. The boundaries of the most desirable neighborhoods often “expand” over time. Do they really expand? In many cases, no, not really. But adjacent neighborhoods try to associate themselves with their more popular neighbor. Well, the neighborhoods themselves don’t do this, the residents do. And perhaps the most vocal “neighborhood boundary expanders” are residential real estate agents.
Using New York as an example again, you can witness agents say, “sure, this is Tribeca”, while the apartment hunters are thinking, “no, this is Chinatown”. Or in extreme cases, prefixes and suffixes are added to the neighborhood name to describe entirely new neighborhood names that build on the success of the established neighborhood. The existence of “expanding” neighborhood boundaries is yet another indicator of a vibrant neighborhood.
How Can You Tell if Your Neighborhood is Not Vibrant?
There is also a great indicator to determine if a place is not a vibrant neighborhood. Quite simply, if your “neighborhood” does not have a commonly recognized name, it is not a vibrant neighborhood. In fact, it’s probably not even a neighborhood according to our definition. Is it really that simple? Consider the following scenario:
First, imagine you are standing in the gray zone between two neighborhoods and you ask 10 people walking by on the street what the name of the neighborhood is and 5 of them tell you “Well, this is Chinatown”, and the other 5 say, “No, this Old Town”. This is a very good sign. This means you are standing at the rough dividing line between two neighborhoods with strong identities.
Now, imagine you are standing in another place and you ask 10 people about the name of the neighborhood and you get 5 responses along the lines of “Um, I don’t know”, and another 5 responses with the exact, official name of apartment complexes and subdivisions. This is a very bad sign. This place does not have a strong, unique identity and is not a vibrant neighborhood.
What’s in a Name?
What’s in the name of a neighborhood? A lot more than meets the eye, that’s for sure. The boundaries of a neighborhood are far more important than just an imaginary line between two places in a city. Ultimately, the essence of a vibrant neighborhood is that it has a strong identity. Vibrant neighborhoods are places that people care about. And a collection of places that people care about is what makes a vibrant city.
What do you think? Please use the comment section to share your thoughts on neighborhood boundaries and neighborhood identity.