Book review: Making Our Neighborhoods, Making Our Selves

by George C Galster and reviewed by David Manley

30 Jan 2020, 11:49 a.m.
David Manley

‚ÄčMaking Our Neighborhoods cover

Book review: Making Our Neighborhoods, Making Our Selves

by George C Galster and reviewed by David Manley

Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2019; 416, pp.: ISBN: 978-0-226-59985-4, US$55.00 (hbk)


This is an ambitious volume, bringing together over four decades of urban inquiry into housing, neighbourhoods, residential mobility and neighbourhood effects. The literature into which this book enters is crowded – as evidenced by the vast number of references included in the book – and one that is also often inconclusive and sometimes contested. Although there are many examples of studies linking neighbourhoods to health outcomes, educational achievement, physical and mental wellbeing and residential preferences and attitudes, the focus of this volume is on socio-economic outcomes, notably labour markets and employment, those areas to which George Galster has contributed most in his wider writing. However, a literature that fails to agree on fundamentals such as what a neighbourhood is, let alone how one can be measured or what impact it can have, is challenging to present coherently, and to encompass the totality of the research field in a single volume is ambitious, yet this is precisely what this book sets out to do.


To achieve this aim, the book is divided into four sections. The first section, entitled ‘Neighbourhoods: Overarching Frames and Definitions’, sets the tone for the rest of the work and is largely based around setting out what a neighbourhood is (or at least what it might be). As with the rest of the chapters, an attempt at a holistic framework is presented to provide an overview of the concepts addressed. For this section, that means a framework through which the notion of a neighbourhood as a residential area is made explicit, highlighting the multiple aspects that can be used to characterise it, focusing on congruence, generality and accordance. In doing so, although the desire may not be to produce something that is (completely) generally applicable, it ultimately represents a generalisation approaching an axiomatic law. What frustrates (here and throughout the work), however, is the omission of explicit work that puts people at the centre of the discussion: for the neighbourhoods to have meaning and resonance, it feels crucial for the collections of individuals that live within them to be accounted for and present. The neighbourhood is less of a container or specified object, then, and more of a means to represent a potential site (across scales and delineations bounded or extended) that exposes people to features, environments, structures and entities (see, for example, the recent volume on neighbourhood by Talen (2018)). This is an untidier definition of neighbourhood than we are given by Galster (and is also one that has more in common with the work of the other recent volume on neighbourhoods focused on health – Duncan et al., 2018). But it is one that may ultimately have more traction.


Moving into the main body of the book, two substantial sections are ‘Making Our Neighbourhood’, in this case meaning the flows, processes and interactions that can be considered to impact on neighbourhoods, and ‘Neighbourhoods Making Our Selves’, dealing with those aspects where the neighbourhood can be seen to impact on the residents who have entered, passed through or lived in the location. The central thread of these chapters, which also structures the volume as a whole, is a set of propositions – these propositions are generated out of the literature and research reviewed, and take the form of statements covering the main themes. For instance, the first of the eight propositions deals with the generation of external neighbourhood change, and proposes that ‘[m]ost forces causing a neighbourhood to change originate outside the boundaries of that neighbourhood, often elsewhere in the metropolitan neighbourhood’ (p. 81). These propositions are useful as a means to pull out the key messages from the chapters in which they appear, although not every chapter directly leads to a proposition, with some chapters providing the supporting evidence for later propositions and chapters. The propositions could have provided an explicit framework for the later policy-related discourse, with the most salient factors from the research literature used to motivate the ideas and processes implemented to ameliorate the worst impacts of the urban environment. As it is, a final single chapter provides a discussion about how neighbourhoods can be targeted and worked with in a (US-centric) policy domain to make them more effective for the individuals living in them.


So what, then, should we make of this volume? Does it provide a complete overview of the topic of neighbourhoods – what they are, how they are formed, how they develop and what they do (or do not do) for and to their residents? Here I suspect the answer is no – but then I am not wholly convinced that any book really could. Others have also tried to do this, and notably Sampson (2012) who focused primarily on a set of projects undertaken in Chicago. But, as with Galster’s, Sampson’s book is still written largely for the disciplinary audience from which the author originates. The inter- (and multi-)disciplinary nature of the housing and neighbourhoods topics would make such a volume a ‘jack of all trades’ (covering not only economics, but also geography, sociology as well as urban studies), mastering none through the resultant necessary compromises in lens. As written, the work is a master economist’s approach to neighbourhoods and neighbourhood effects. Would a student new to the subject benefit from reading this work to induct themselves into the debates? Again, I suspect not; the assumed knowledge required as well as the approach – certainly for a (quantitatively minded) geographer – mean too many questions unanswered. I would use this, however, as a reference work: there is so much ground covered that it is a good way to gain general insights into, for instance, collective socialisation or the process of neighbourhood selection.




Duncan, D, Regan, SD, Chaix, B (2018) Operationalizing neighborhood definitions in health research: Spatial misclassification and other issues. In: Duncan, D, Kawachi, I (eds) Neighbourhoods and Health. 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 19–56.
Google Scholar


Sampson, RJ (2012) Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Google Scholar | Crossref


Talen, E (2018) Neighborhood. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Google Scholar | Crossref


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If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Neighbourhood effects and beyond: Explaining the paradoxes of inequality in the changing American metropolis

Robert J Sampson

Neighbourhood change and the neighbourhood-school gap

Jennifer Candipan


The effects of physical restructuring on the socioeconomic status of neighbourhoods: Selective migration and upgrading

Merle Zwiers, Maarten van Ham, Reinout Kleinhans

Suburban status and neighbourhood change

Whitney Airgood-Obrycki


Neighbourhood social conduits and resident social cohesion

Rebecca Wickes, Renee Zahnow, Jonathan Corcoran, John R Hipp

Neighbourhood change and neighbour complaints: How gentrification and densification influence the prevalence of problems between neighbours

Lynda Cheshire, Robin Fitzgerald, Yan Liu


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