The spatial division of cities into districts or neighbourhoods is one of the few universals of urban life from the earliest cities to the present. In the words of the urban scholar Lewis Mumford, “Neighbourhoods, in some primitive, inchoate fashion exist wherever human beings congregate, in permanent family dwellings; and many of the functions of the city tend to be distributed naturally—that is, without any theoretical preoccupation or political direction—into neighbourhoods.” Most of the earliest cities around the world as excavated by archaeologists have evidence for the presence of social neighbourhoods.. Historical documents shed light on neighbourhood life in numerous historical preindustrial or nonwestern cities.
Neighbourhoods are typically generated by social interaction among people living near one another. In this sense they are local social units larger than households not directly under the control of city or state officials. In some preindustrial urban traditions, basic municipal functions such as protection, social regulation of births and marriages, cleaning and upkeep are handled informally by neighbourhoods and not by urban governments; this pattern is well documented for historical Islamic cities.
In addition to social neighbourhoods, most ancient and historical cities also had administrative districts used by officials for taxation, record-keeping, and social control. Administrative districts are typically larger than neighbourhoods and their boundaries may cut across neighbourhood divisions. In some cases, however, administrative districts coincided with neighbourhoods, leading to a high level of regulation of social life by officials. For example, in the T’ang period Chinese capital city Chang’an, neighbourhoods were districts and there were state officials who carefully controlled life and activity at the neighbourhood level.
Neighbourhoods in preindustrial cities often had some degree of social specialization or differentiation. Ethnic neighbourhoods were important in many past cities and remain common in cities today. Economic specialists, including craft producers, merchants, and others, could be concentrated in neighbourhoods, and in societies with religious pluralism neighbourhoods were often the specialized by religion. One factor contributing to neighbourhood distinctiveness and social cohesion in past cities was the role of rural to urban migration. This was a continual process in preindustrial cities, and migrants tended to move in with relatives and acquaintances from their rural past.
But in addition to these benefits, considerable research indicates that strong and cohesive neighbourhoods and communities are linked –quite possibly causally linked – to decreases in crime, better outcomes for children, and improved physical and mental health. The social support that a strong neighbourhood may provide can serve as a buffer against various forms of adversity.
Good starting places for documentation of these effects can be found in the evidence reviewed by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2000), and by Robert Sampson in the Annual Review of Sociology, 2002.
For all these reasons, both social scientists and activists may be rewarded by neighbourhood study and involvement. For further description of community benefits, plus guidance for and examples of successful neighbourhood action, see also the section on Promoting Neighborhood Action (Chapter 26, Section 12) in the Community Tool Box, online at http://ctb.ku.edu.
There is some evidence that neighbourhoods tend to form personalities based upon certain sociological characteristics of the female inhabitants.
In localities where neighbourhoods do not have an official status, questions can arise as to where one neighbourhood begins and another ends. Many cities may use districts and wards as official divisions of the city, rather than traditional neighbourhood boundaries.