the spatial logic of cities

Michael E. Smith writes, “The spatial division of cities into districts or neighborhoods is one of the few universals of urban life from the earliest cities to the present. Neighborhoods are even found in some large village settlements, and they seem to appear quickly in ‘spontaneous’ informal settlements (shantytowns).”

I found this article via a note in Robert Sampson’s Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Sampson shows that neighborhoods have durable characters and reputations that deeply influence the prospects of their residents. A neighborhood’s character may remain even if its entire population changes–for instance, African Americans replacing Italian Americans. Although people make choices about where to live, our choices are much more influenced than we believe by the logic of the city. Given vouchers to move to higher-income neighborhoods, for example, residents overwhelmingly move to particular neighborhoods linked to their current locations.

Sampson’s study focuses on a brutally unequal and racially segregated city, but the same patterns have been found in Stockholm. The most dangerous neighborhood of Stockholm are safer than Chicago’s safest neighborhoods, but in both cities, neighborhoods differ and are related in the same ways.

Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography is far less systematic and persuasive than Sampson’s book, but Ackroyd also cites intriguing evidence that particular spots in London have retained the same character since Roman times. A given street corner near Holborn may be mildly scruffy and transitional now, and archaeological evidence suggests it had the same function 2,000 years ago. I think a pattern was established by the high Middle Ages that the dominant areas were north of the Thames, the commercial center lay to the east, the government center to the west, and the socioeconomic gradient generally rose as one moved westward through London. That logic has withstood everything from a Great Fire to the Blitz and the Docklands restoration.

Clearly, there is no one pattern to the spatial organization of cities. In many American towns, the poor districts are central, and the suburbs are affluent. The reverse is basically true in Paris. But there may still be some general principles. The affluent want to live apart from the manufacturing center. It needs to lie near transportation hubs. The political/military core occupies the most strategically valuable land, whether a hilltop, an access point, or simply the center of town. The rich want to live within easy access of the political core.

The implication is that we must consider the spatial organization of cities as well as the bundle of goods, rights, and services that individuals receive, if we want to help improve lives.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.