Book review: The Changing American Neighborhood: The Meaning of Place in the Twenty-First Century

reviewed by Richard Harris

17 Jan 2024, 8:49 a.m.

The Changing American Neighborhood book cover

Alan Mallach and Todd Swanstrom, The Changing American Neighborhood: The Meaning of Place in the Twenty-First Century, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2023; 396 pp.: ISBN: 9781501771132, US$31.95/£27.99 (pbk); ISBN: 9781501770890, US$125.00/£112.00 (hbk); ISBN: 9781501770913, US$20.99 (eBook)


Most of us live in some sort of urban neighbourhood and want it to work well – to be, as Mallach and Swanstrom put it in The Changing American Neighborhood, ‘good’. But, they point out, the number of such neighbourhoods has been declining for decades. Technological change (the rise of TV, air conditioning, the internet, social media), along with fewer stay-at-home parents, has eroded local community; the rise of supermarkets and online marketing has shuttered local stores; and the polarisation of incomes has done the same for neighbourhoods, eating into the once-ubiquitous, average sort. Plausibly, the authors argue that we should pay more attention to such places, the ‘neglected middle’, and proportionately less to those that have been gentrifying or concentrating poverty. They explore and document these ‘good’ neighbourhoods, tracing and explaining their fate and briefly suggesting ways they might be restored.

In many ways, they do a fine job. The Changing American Neighborhood is balanced, comprehensive and sometimes eloquent. The authors are experienced, both as researchers and in the fields of community development. They know, draw on and synthesise an extensive literature, while presenting some of their own research through case studies as well as statistics. They cover many angles. Appropriately, they open by defining what they mean by the ‘good neighbourhood’, discuss ways of understanding how it changes, and trace its rise in the first part of the 20th century, its challenges in the early post-Second World War decades, and its recent erosion through polarisation. They then turn to the forces of change. Emphasising that neighbourhoods are markets for services as well as homes, they consider the evolving significance of race, the changing demography of American households which has seen the decline of nuclear families with children, the growing inequalities of income and wealth, and the diverse agents of change, including local governments, neighbourhood associations and non-profits. In the final section, they consider the range of neighbourhoods that now exist: the gentrifying, the middling sort, the areas of concentrated poverty and the inner suburbs. A concluding chapter is a renewed plea to pay attention to ‘good’ neighbourhoods and to think about how they might be restored.

Much hinges on what Mallach and Swanstrom mean by ‘good’. They concede that they are speaking of ‘what might be called “traditional” neighborhoods’ (p. 6), with their middling range of incomes, these being confined to central cities and some inner suburbs. They define them as ‘places that meet our basic needs as individuals and as social beings’ (p. 306). They suggest that these needs comprise ‘safety, a decent quality of life, access to public goods and services’, along with ‘a modicum of community identity and commitment’ (p. 306). Anticipating criticism, they insist that they are not guided by ‘nostalgia for the good old days’ (p. 4). In the past, such neighbourhoods were both ‘gendered and racialized’, and in any case the world has changed, such that for most people ‘intense [local] interactions and intimacy’ are a thing of the past (p. 307). Moreover, ‘good’ should be ‘determined not by any objective standard but instead by the people who live there’ because, after all, ‘different people need and want different things from their neighborhood’ (p. 13). That, they say, is why they had toyed with using the phrase ‘good enough neighborhood’ (p. 5).

That sounds reasonable, but here we encounter a difficulty. Most Americans now live in suburbs. Mallach and Swanstrom concede that in one sense ‘suburbs are neighborhoods too’, but then they argue that, at best, built around cars, low-density suburbs can only be ‘communities of interest’ (p. 302). They might ‘meet the needs of people who have a common interest in buying … open space, excellent schools, and public safety’ (pp. 302–303), but they cannot support community, and so fall short of being good. That is why they speak only briefly about some older, inner suburbs and ignore the sprawl beyond. The problem with this is that for many people such places are in fact good, or at least good enough: they meet residents’ needs and wants. It seems that there is an additional element to Mallach and Swanstrom’s understanding of ‘good’– something akin to ‘walkable’.

In this, of course, they are aligned with much recent discussion. They do not explicitly discuss the idea of 15-minute neighbourhoods, but in effect that is what they are talking about. They outline the evidence and arguments that dense and well-serviced places are good for our physical and mental well-being. Walking is healthier than driving, especially if there is local greenspace; even the ‘weak ties’ fostered by walking and spending time in denser settlements may reduce loneliness and build community. Even if you don’t drop in unannounced, or have them over for dinner, knowing your neighbours is a good thing: it encourages the sharing of information and builds trust.

In making their case, Mallach and Swanstrom underline the importance of a perspective that could be called common sense, except that it is too rare: neighbourhoods are always changing. This is because they respond to diverse social, economic, cultural and political contexts that are always in flux, while being dependent on earlier forms of development (pp. 33–34). To make sense of them, we need to think historically and in an interdisciplinary way. In such terms, the authors critique much of the literature on gentrification, with its simplified narratives of causality and consequences. Here, and in their discussion of the experience of Black middle-class neighbourhoods, Mallach and Swanstrom make some good points. One thing that holds back the latter, they note, is that their investment potential is undermined by limited demand (pp. 246–254).

In general, however, and despite devoting a useful chapter to neighbourhoods as markets, Mallach and Swanstrom underplay the influence of two trends that have made homes and neighbourhoods more commodified than ever: the rising importance of real estate investment and of school quality (Harris, forthcoming). Like others, they praise home ownership for promoting property maintenance, residential stability and neighbourliness. What they downplay is how, in recent decades, investment considerations have come to dominate the thinking of home buyers. This trend has supercharged the incentive to exclude people and land uses perceived to be undesirable, including racialised minorities and anything other than single-family homes. Home ownership is now associated with NIMBYism, a term coined in the 1980s which, curiously, Mallach and Swanstrom do not discuss. Reinforcing this inclination to exclude, and to defend turf, has been the growing importance of good educational credentials for job prospects. The great majority of American children are educated in local schools that are funded through the local school system. Financial as well as educational considerations encourage parents to pay more for homes in neighbourhoods and districts that provide advantages to their children. Moreover, as the authors point out, school quality is even valued by the childless, as a proxy indicator of a neighbourhood’s investment prospects. Coupled with the growth of income inequality, these two trends challenge those who wish to restore ‘good’ neighbourhoods: there is a finite number that can offer excellent schools and investment returns, especially when there are so many suburban districts in the same competitive market.



Harris R (forthcoming) How neighborhoods came to matter more over time: A broad historical sketch. Journal of Urban Affairs.


Related articles

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

On the nature of neighbourhood by George Galster

The paper advances the conceptualisation of neighbourhood by specifying it as a bundle of spatially based attributes associated with clusters of residences, sometimes in conjunction with other land uses.

The Donald Robertson Memorial Prizewinner 2003 The Nature of the Neighbourhood by Chris Webster

Webster considers the order that emerges in cities as individuals exchange and pool rights over resources in pursuit of individual and mutual gain. 

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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