This is a book project devoted to all things neighborhood. My primary thesis is that through a century of debate, neighborhood has been rendered unnecessarily obscure. By working through a set of entrenched debates — about its physical parameters, its social life, its governance — it will be possible to make neighborhoods more of a tangible force in addressing urban problems.

The inability to situate neighborhoods is a situation that has been lamented for more than a century. The first generation of sociologists worried about how the physical and social complexity of the modern metropolis was obscuring the neighborhood, breaking apart the sense of belonging it had long provided. Cities had become fluid, diverse, anonymous; neighborhoods were supposed to provide a spatial unit to relate to, but in that purpose, they were failing.

Thus began a century of grappling over neighborhoods. What are they? Do we need them? Can we design them? What size, form, and social make-up are they supposed to have? These questions have been batted around for over a century in the writings of scholars, activists, and designers who have tied themselves in knots trying to understand them. A century ago, the sociologist Roderick McKenzie was already laying out the narrative that, contrary to the village-in-the-city ideal, “neighborhood” was loose, changeful, and hard to prescribe. The century-long quest to pin them down produced much hand wringing, and the neighborhood was cyclically heralded, denounced, resurrected and branded in constant search of legitimacy.

The car-dependent city deepened this ambiguity and engendered a profound misalignment between neighborhood form and everyday life. It became difficult to see how neighborhood could realistically be leveraged as a potent, positive force for improving cities, or as a way to nurture the sense of belonging needed to address the “crisis of connection” modern life faced. Instead, the neighborhood had become a theater of tensions and contradictions, defined by an increasingly complex matrix of permutations and possibilities. We tried to simultaneously accommodate every inhabitants’ sphere of activity or point of view, pitting physical presence against cognition, perception against behavior, and rhapsodizing the endless variation in neighborhood definition now made possible by endless streams of data – which is to say that neighborhood came to be defined as pretty much anything.

The irony, and the motivation for this book, is that all this scrutiny, complexity and sheer volume leaves us feeling empty-handed. The sum total of the definitions, the designs, the principles, the effects, and the problems meant to be addressed fails to congeal into something truly useful. Rather than a constructive plurality of ideas, there is obscurity. The neighborhood is at once loved, irrelevant, impactful, trivial, necessary, bounded, boundless, intimate, impersonal, made-up. It operationalizes the best in us or the worst in us. It is an orchestrator of middle-class social compliance, the basis of sustainable cities, or an anachronism in service to neoliberal policy and capital accumulation. It is a street block and it is an entire city. A lot of what passes for neighborhood research seems not to be about neighborhoods at all, but who can tell?

The book tries to address this confusion by working through a nuanced understanding of the place-bound neighborhood. Its main task is to facilitate a more coherent discourse about the limits and potentialities of neighborhoods – where neighborhoods are defined not as bundles of social data, but as physical places where built forms, boundaries, identity, and social and economic worlds come together. This is not about settling on singular definition; it is about sorting through the complexity and providing a framework that exposes the tensions and debates about neighborhood in a direct way. Instead of contributing to the conundrum of neighborhood by adding on more layers and definitional possibilities, the goal is directness and comprehension.