August 16 2012

What’s in a Neighborhood? Classifying Our Streets in a Rapidly Urbanizing Age

San Francisco has over 89 neighborhoods in 7 by 7 square miles.

Classifying neighborhoods has always been more art than science. Despite an urban planner’s best intentions, the original vision of a few city blocks doesn’t always pan out.

As populations tend toward urban living and countries invest money into the construction of new cities, it’s important to shift attention not just towards infrastructure, but community building as well.

In the past, neighborhoods have served as units of community identity, but contemporary architects and urban planners often struggle to capture the essence of a successful neighborhood into their new designs. It begs the question — why do certain city streets pull off exorbitant real estate prices while others fall flat?

San Francisco, with some of the most expensive real estate in the country, has 89 neighborhoods within seven by seven square miles. Its demand is indisputably high. With that said, developers have struggled with branding condos and apartments in the city’s newer South of Market (SoMA) district. Critics argue that the flat, bayside tract of land, which served as a former industrial site for the city, can never replicate the hilly Victorian charm of old San Francisco.

Studies on neighborhood preferences show that the typical notions of what makes a great neighborhood are not incredibly surprising. Yes, excellent schools top the list, but the real reasons people flock to neighborhoods are simple:

  • Low crime rate;
  • Fair treatment of all residents, including ethnic minorities, new immigrants, and low-income populations;
  • Aesthetic beauty.

With increased globalization, these considerations are not exclusive to the United States and Europe.

China has partnered with U.S. universities to include the concept of a neighborhood into its new urban design

As urban design projects in the developing world focus on building new cities, more attention has been paid to the traditionally Western concept of a neighborhood. In 2011, China’s Tsinghua University partnered with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to create a series of neighborhood typologies for China’s new city development in order to establish cleaner energy patterns. Without this cross-continental partnership, the conversation would have undoubtedly used a different term and vernacular to describe urban development.

What do you think makes a great neighborhood, and is it important? Have you experienced any urban planning projects in non-Western cities that have focused specifically on neighborhood development?

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

Lillian Mathews

Lillian Mathews graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Environmental Studies (Honors) and a focus on Food Systems and Urban Sustainability. She has designed and implemented an arts-based gardening site at a neighborhood center in Providence, Rhode Island, and has completed work in ecological planning and design, sustainable agriculture, and urban planning. She currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read more at

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This entry was posted on Thursday, August 16th, 2012 at 5:20 am and is filed under Architecture, Branding, Community/Economic Development, Government/Politics, History/Preservation, Housing, Infrastructure, Social/Demographics, Urban Development/Real Estate. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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