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What Makes A Good Neighborhood?

Why do people set apart some places as “Great place to live in”? What are the distinctive features of a good neighborhood? There are innumerable factors to be considered for a place to acquire the title “A Good Neighborhood”. Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND), New Urbanism and Smart Growth design theories are recurrently heard terms and is always favored by planners, officials and common people. Though there are very minor differences in these theories, they all share the common concept of creating a good, sustainable and viable neighborhoods. All the design concepts of a good neighborhood focus on alternatives for sprawling suburbs and mainly feature sense of place. As noted by Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), a high performance, value creating neighborhood should be devised by valuing the space around you. It should be developed with inviting sidewalks and public spaces; should be compact and well connected with transportation network; to be pedestrian and bicycle friendly; to be mixed-use and to be healthier and greener development. Variety of housing types is another prevalent characteristic of a good neighborhood. A collection of housing choices encourage people to find a spot in smart growth community and aids to develop a strong sense of community among residents (SmartGrowth.org).

The American Planning Association recently released the list of 2011 “Great Places in America”. The top 5 nation’s neighborhoods in the list are Highland Park in Birmingham, Alabama; Northbrae in Berkeley, California; Ansley Park in Atlanta; Pullman in Chicago and the Gold Cost and Humburg District in Davenport. Highland Park in Birmingham, a 240 acre neighborhood is situated to the east of U.S 280. It is local historic district featuring 20 different architectural styles in bungalow and ranch houses. The neighborhood is also a group of five national historical districts. Northbrae in Berkeley, California encompasses Solano Avenue to the north, Eunice and Hopkins to the south, Spruce Street to the east and Albany city limits to the west. It is noted for it’s volcanic outcroppings, picturesque views, curvilinear streets, excellent transportation connections and public amenities. Ansley Park in Atlanta, Georgia is famed for its linear green way of 14 parks  motivated by Frederick Law Olmsted, mix of housing, neighborhood aesthetics, sustainability and engaged citizens. The Pullman in Chicago, a historic district and a town replicating the designs of Essen, Germany and Saltaire, England is a neighborhood offering decent housing options. The Gold Cost and Humburg District in Davenport with its great Mississippi river views is renowned for its exemplary architecture, sustainability, planning, preservation, committed residents and organizations.

J.F Rushton House, Neo Classical Revival Style Home in Highland Park, Birmingham

Source: American Planning Association, 2011

 Majestic Public Circle in Berkeley, California

Source: American Planning Association, 2011

Maryland has envisioned lot of success in smart growth development and neighborhood revitalization. Plan Maryland has indicated five planning areas: Targeted growth and Revitalization areas; Established Community Areas in Priority Funding Areas, Future Growth Areas; Large Lot Development Areas and Rural Resource Area. These categories are based on growth, land preservation, revitalization, resource conservation, maintaining public services and quality of life. The targeted areas focus on mixed-use, historic residential development, high density development close to transportation network, better educational, recreational and employment opportunities. Plan Maryland designates Art District and Kentlands as Established Community Areas. Art District in Hyattsville, MD, a mixed-use community with row homes, condominiums, community center and live work units is voted the best Urban Smart Growth Community by the National Association of Home Builders and the best Mixed-Use Design by the Monument Awards. It is also chosen as one of the Maryland’s 15 smart sites by the Governor. Kentlands in Gaithersburg, MD with 1,655 residential units and 2 million square feet of retail and office space is the most successful traditional neighborhoods of United States (Plan Maryland, 2011).

Art District in Hyattsville, MD

Source: www.hyattsville.org

Kentlands, Gaithersburg, MD

Source: www.kentlandsusa.com

The federal investment programs like the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) program mainly focus on basic requirements of lower income households in older communities. However,  the state’s neighborhood revitalization programs insists on creating healthy and sustainable communities with the aid of public investment, to improve the quality of life of residents ( Report by Revitalization Incentive Work Group, 2010) .  In January 2010, the Revitalization Incentive Work Group compiled a list of revitalization programs in Maryland, devised to accelerate new investments in areas with infrastructure, community assets and transit opportunities. The core programs are the Neighborhood Business Development (operating as Neighborhood Business works), Community Legacy and the Heritage Structure Rehabilitation Tax Credit.

As mentioned earlier, all design theories and programs invariably focus on the same characteristics like integrated mixed- use, range of housing types, densities, smart development, good street designs with side walks, on street parking, public spaces and all developments to be adjacent to transportation network.  However, there are certain barriers in every jurisdiction to overcome and create successful neighborhoods. Development codes should be updated to encourage mixed-use developments. Developers adapt immediately to changing conditions and the market environment. In order to sustain oneself, they focus on creating what people need. Developers should be given incentives to foster more mixed-use developments. All revitalization programs can be successful only with the joint venture of both public-private investments. Above all comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances should enrich and support the development of good neighborhoods.


42 thoughts on “What Makes A Good Neighborhood?

  1. Hi, According to (Lynch, 1984), five qualities should be fulfilled in built environments to satisfy users needs: Habitability, sense of place, fit, Access and Control
    Lynch, K. and Hack, G. (1984), “site planning”, Maple-Vail Inc., USA (p. 72)

  2. This is interesting for me (especially Kate’s comment), I used Hillier’s space syntax theory during my MSc thesis. It is really nice to look at and analyse a city using the theory.

  3. At the end of the article you say: “Developers adapt immediately to changing conditions and the market environment. In order to sustain oneself, they focus on creating what people need.”
    Do they? Maybe they do, but they tend to have a short term focus (although: some exceptions, and economic situations does stimulate more creative solutions). And indeed, short term focus is exactly what most people have too. Who thinks about getting old, changing economy, small kids getting older etc etc, when they want to buy their first home. But that is exactly what makes sustainable neighbourhoods work. Places that have dymanics, that allow natural change. Some people, who wants to, should stay, and those who have to, or want to should be able to move. The main challenge for planners is to develop neighbourhoods that combine structure with flexibility: sounds like a dilemma and to some extent it is.
    So, when are we happy? Some things are rather easy. We all want a safe place to live. We want housing that fits our current needs, and we are not willing to pay extra for future needs unless that extra price is quite small. We might be willing to pay more if somebody can convince us that it will positively influence the price if we have to sell in the future. We want freedom to act the way we like, and we want all other people to act the way we like. In other words: we accept a certain range of diverging behaviour, but not much.
    I have heard moving around is quite normal in the USA. Here people tend to prefer staying where they settle down. So, we need to integrate temporary solutions into design. E.g. playing fields that easily can change into places where youth can be, or gardens, or …. We also need to create houses that easily can be adopted to new situations. For example, I saw one upcoming idea now in the US, where two generation houses are being built again, because young people are (no jobs) returning home. Also remember that neighbourhoods are actually composed of small units. There will be more direct contact between people living within a short distance (even if cars and large distances might be much more of a reality in the US).
    So, a good place to be contains ‘my kind of people’, is mixed in age and family composition, allows people to stay if they want, and combines continuity, adaptability, and safety.

  4. All the best planning for best possible use of an area with all the right indicators for a neo-traditional neighborhood plan still can fall short if the community has a different vision. The Traditional Neighborhood Village model, was an award winning TND plan for a public private partnership using 1/3 municipal land. However, what appeared to the municipal leaders and planners to be the best land use scenario. the mixed use tnd plan met with serious local opposition. The plan would have created a significant stream of income for the municipality. The commercial buildings of the village center would have been owned by the municipality at the end of the 40 year lease and the land lease for use of the municipal land and a share of commercial building rents would begin at the start of the project. The municipal park would have been developed at the developer’s expense including a shared connector road along the edge of the park to access to a second signalized intersection north of the site. In addition, the developer would pay for the relocation and upgrade of the municipal services facilities. A wastewater management plant was proposed that would address the needs of the TND as well as other inadequate sewerage facilities in the Highway Commercial Zoning area.

    Opposition and law suits snowballed, new leaders were elected from the opposition. Municipal funds were used to fight the developer’s claims of a bias by a newly elected official and municipal action to negate a previously approved preliminary plan. Court approved agreements were broken by signees to the agreements, including newly elected officials. Appeals and counter suits continued for years, one breach of contract suit reaching the PA Supreme Court. The municipal 537 plan was reworked and reworked and reworked, at untold cost to taxpayers, to avoid any stream discharge of even the highest quality effluent.

    At this point in time, no municipal land is included in the development plan thus no stream of income to the municipal budget, no park improvements or a shared road to an additional signalized intersection, any municipal maintenance facilities upgrade expenses are on the taxpayer. Although the resulting wastewater management plan has a plant capacity to address the original stated needs, it has been limited by land application of its effluent disposal capacity to address only the now approved residential development and the immediate adjacent properties. Insisting on solely land based disposal the wastewater design now lacks the effluent disposal area to address the inadequacies of the entire highway commercial area and the aged and failing systems of adjacent residential areas. Also, in the current approved plan, the rights to the municipal owned signalized intersection are denied to the half the future resident of the proposed residential development. All this was accomplished under the auspices of protecting the environment and maintaining the municipal character. From the start of the planning process, planning organizations were vocal in their support of the original undertaking. However, strategic accusations focused on municipal land use, and environmental issues as well as bias comments about potential future residents rallied public outrage of not in my back yard and not on my public land. Short sound bites are easier to digest. Learning the facts takes time. Nimbyism seems to have won, but at what unknown cost to the current and future residents.

  5. Hi Josephine,

    If you have any interest I will send you a copy of an article I wrote for the STaR newsletter. It links Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood to Smart Growth. It also discusses the link between historic preservation and neighborhood revitalization. Pullman was named one of APA’s Ten Great Neighborhoods for 2011. Any one interested, please submit request to njp@petepointner.com.

  6. Acknowledge human principle needs for survival — clean air, water, food, energy and communication as an input for the population to be served. Then evaluate the worth and concept of handling waste as an output from that population to create energy and other products such as char. Then design a place to live in that is based on pedestrian dimensions that integrates with advanced forms of travel innovation energy efficiencies and safety that does not pollute the planet. Then ensure that there is a 1:1 balance with urban footprint to “Green” footprint in land use areas. The urban footprint must founded on mixed-use spatial habitation enclosures and have two proportionate sustainable resource ratios with agriculture and forestry So far this is defined as urban footprint of 1 to 6 of agriculture added 1 to15 of forest. Sustainability is reached with this formulae and a good place will then be established. Start with a small family neighborhood based on mixed skills with willing labor to share products for adequately satisfying needs for survival, This would be a good place to design a great place to live in.

  7. The relationship of public, semi-public and private space is a defining characteristic of good neighborhoods. The semi-public space provides the “bridge” between the public and private realms and promotes social interaction that reinforces the sense of community.

  8. I note with interest that historic preservation has played a role in at least two of the top five neighborhoods. Development should take full and creative advantage of historic building stock and street patterns where they exist. Federal, state and local historic preservation tax credits are often available to make those efforts affordable.

  9. Perhaps I am just too “something” for this group. Always seems to want to simplify the world which is actually very complex. The definition of “good neighborhood” various by what I would call the components of a market or demographic groups. A good neighborhood for those raising or having children often centers on the quality of education, in some cases matched with affordability and in some not, and numerous other factors. For an empty nester, the definition might differ substantially. Many don’t care about the relationship betwweeen public and private space.To others, it is what planners think about most and to others those are non-factors. All definitons are often premised upon what someone knows or is comfortable in. Some religious folks prefer a homogeneous area. In fact, the City in which the person who started this conversation often studies and writes about has gone out of itsway to help create neighborhoods based on religous practicies.

    In the real world that is the way it is. Different strokes for different folks. Talk to Realtors. Ask them why people want to see or move to where they move. Planning without pragmatism is useless. Yes, one must combine pragmatism with creativity.

    1. Absolutely!

      It would be interesting to find some common or at least relateable common characteristics, but really “good neighborhood” is going to include an awfully wide variety of answers from different people.

  10. Dear Josephine: I think that “The value of Housing Design and Layout”, “The Homebuyers Guide”; “Shaping Future Homes” and “Living Futures” from CABE could be useful. Cheers

  11. Zvi Weinstein: Numerous books and articles been printed to analyse and research the question of how to distinguish a good neighborhoods. There are many creteria among them: Hetrogenious population; accessibility to neighborhood’s services (community, commerce, transportation, health, education, employment and more); resident participation in decision making process concerning their neighborhood; walkability streets; a rational dwelling density; and there are more.

  12. Well Benita, your question is quite broad, the could be a number of books. Anyway, the factors that make the neighborhood quite distinctive are many in fact. However, let me stress the most important at least in my point of view. A part from the LEED ND criteria, the neighborhood that gives the pedestrian the priority in circulation in away they do not need to use the car if they want to do a daily activity with providing very pleasant landscped paths will be the BEST. “Green Community” in Dubai-UAE is a good example where you can google it to see its pictures.

  13. I participated in a community leaders’ effort to find and recognize “great neighborhoods” around Cincinnati. The thinking was that we’d figure out which neighborhoods already had a lot going for them and start an awards program to encourage others to come up to their level.

    We tried to start with a list of characteristics, but it got so long it was obviously not going to be very useful for “sifting.”

    Next we had everybody submit a list, and one person correlated them to come up with a top 10 or 20 list. This exercise went a whole lot better, since about eight got almost all the votes, with a pretty solid second tier rounding out the list to 15 or 20. The winners included all but the most socio-economically disadvantaged. The City of Cincinnati recognizes 52 neighborhoods, but we were also looking out to most of the eight-County MSA.

    The point is, I think you would have to start with a sort of regional consensus on which are the great neighborhoods, then go in and try to find the characteristics that make them so attractive. MAYBE that would generate a list of characteristics that others could strive to emulate.

  14. It depends on many factors. At least, good neighborhoods have been responding to basic people needs, such as, safety, services, infrastructure, connectivity and opportunities. However, other issues are related to the opinion giver, for example, culture, social class, among others.

    1. Hi Hector,

      I agree. The most interesting issue is how all these factors work together. We know that they do, but somehow we are not very good in forcasting, and definitely not in continous management. I see too many cases where areas are ‘allowed’ to decay for a long time. Then we all rush in to make a major revitalisation effort, and then we retreat and forget. OK. I am dramatsing, but still….
      To me an interesting question to address is: Is there a kind of causal main line to be discovered, and if it is, can we find the right places / moments / factors for appropriate interventions?

  15. The amount of tree canopy and plant species diversity is a reliable indicator of high quality of life in cities. Start there and you can get good indicators building off of a green index.

    1. The grren index does nto work – only for a small segment of the population. Nor does “urban” even work. Planners have to start understanding that there are clusters or gorups but each with very different set of criteria important to them.

      1. Howard, I’d appreciate seeing what evidence you have that disagrees with the literature on the green index indicating high quality of life. And the OP says nothing about “urban” being the sole indicator for a great neighborhood. Thanks!

  16. You could also look at something more mathematical such as Bill Hillier’s Space Syntax theory based on excellent placement of chanels of movement (streets and pedestrian movements) to establish successful neighbourhoods, or micro-neighbourhoods such as a town square. It is interesting, and used around the world by urban planners and architects.

  17. Culture is crucial in uniting residents.Good neighbourhoods are places where the cultural development process is ongoing, a continuation of the past. Together, neighbourhoods forms great communities enriched with culture.

  18. Urban Design Compendium


    lists quite a few things to look for.

    See also Gordon Cullen’s 1971 book ‘The Concise Townscape’. I think most modern approaches to providing design guidance on ‘sense of place’ that do not resort to ‘form based codes’ owe something to Cullen.

    And of course: Christopher Alexander’s ‘A |Pattern Language’

    Van Gehl has also done some very good guidnace.

  19. Another complicating factor is that “great neighborhood” has many dimensions, which vary in importance from person to person, and even across time for the same person. That said, I suspect one could tease out some imageability, and maybe walkability or other urban design factors, housing stock, retail qualities, maybe restaurants.

  20. Good neighborhood may be said as a wholesome community for all. It would be such if the ideal elements for an ideal settlement are present. Those elements are the site provides for an adequate interaction among members of the neighborhood, affords circulation amongst people therein, compatible urban uses, adequate power, utilities, with open spaces and efficient protective and safety services. Also, a good neighborhood is one that people abide with accepted norms and practices which respect the rights of individuals while recognizing the need for a united community

  21. Go to a place you think is successful and analyse – i wreckon location of streets leading to focal points is a big factor in making aplace have a good sense of “place”

  22. This is an interesting direction this thread is headed – the Duanys of the world have tried to take many standard indicators and embody them in the physical world as repeatable designs and standards. Does NU work? That is in the eye of the beholder. Again, almost universal is the presence of large trees. Then nearby places to visit – green spaces, shops/services, sense of safety, access…we all know what they are. In which proportion is what varies from place to place, with confounding factors like schools, affordability, etc thrown in.

  23. One of the most critical challenges is how to correctly and efficiently measure the concept (or define the indicators). I think of this topic in terms of Quality of Life – an index much like what has been described in this post. Quality of life is generally described as the intersection between social and structural well-being – community design or layout, crime, civic infrastructure, economic vitality, housing, access to education and employment, arts & culture, “green” amenities and a few more. We must be careful of how we rate/weight each QOL indicator because that is the devil in the details (what people want in their own ideal great neighborhood).

  24. Repeatable designs, Dan? Like a rubber stamp? You will be asked to give examples so be ready. I’ll spare you:)

    Standards can be repeated, surely, with adjustment and calibration to the place in question. A repeated plan sounds specialised and use-specific–like a shopping center or apartment cluster–but this wouldn’t constitute a ‘Healthy Neighborhood’. Far from it.

    People set apart places as ‘great to live in’ in part because it has become obvious and conspicuous that many places are not healthy–they do not enrich life by offering safe and stimulating environments for nature, commerce, social interaction, agriculture, etc., for all ages. There’s not a single answer to the original question, but rather, the acknowledgement that great places continue to evolve. They recognize their neighborhood’s strengths and weaknesses as well as the actions needed to sustain the desired level of vitality.

  25. Differentiate also between residential streets and areas,or town centres/ village centres. In which case the tree canopy in residential streets I agree would be contributing factor for sure.

    1. “Repeatable designs, Dan? Like a rubber stamp? You will be asked to give examples so be ready. ”


      Perhaps I should say around John “universal patterns”…

  26. Hi Kate- good point. I’d add ‘differentiate as weell as mend’.

    To further compliment a thoroughfare’s geometry and frontage, street tree type and arrangement (formal or random spacing) can be asigned system-wide. A neighborhood’s street network becomes more recognizable, comfortable, and reliable with trees present.

    Great neighborhoods, be they predominantly residential or workplace, are more attractive and hold value better with the addition of tree canopy. They’re cooler in warm weather, comfortable to walk and ride bikes on; street trees add a layer of separation from moving vehicles as well as scale and enclosure to the space created by buildings that front the road.

  27. Little mention is given to neighborhoods’ schools. The sight of young people and their parents walking together to start a new day at a high-quality public school is a great marker of a good neighborhood. That school serves as the neighborhood’s center, open after school for community meetings and activities. We need more examples of neighborhoods to which people move because academic and community service reputation of their schools.

  28. good neihberhood are related diferent factorts fo examoele poeple who can to footprit for buying thing and no accidet for them

  29. This is a real tough question as neighbourhoods are about people and is based on what people think their neighbourhood is.However a few indicators are :
    A good sense of community/ sense of place and identity
    green transportation/ walkability
    mix use/mix income
    ability to play earn and farm
    encourages sense of history /culture etc.
    Encourage family resiliency and is resilient.
    Anyhow the real test is if the people are happy/contented to live there(one indicator is turnover rates,)

  30. this is quite an interesting one, however, i would like to say a good neighbourhood is also about a sense of safety and security, one feels secure to be in that neighbourhood. also an added value would be comfort, one should feel comfortable in a place in which one lives and be able to relate well with the people and the environment as well and it must have a lot of trees and grass for fresh air and a good place where children can play and grow up

  31. I wonder if a “Great place to live” isn’t more about the people who live there and the relationships and connections they have with each other, rather than the design features of the place. I am sure there are plenty of places where there great design features yet for some reason did not really catch on and become a great neighborhood. However, I am willing to bet that all the places listed in this article have high levels of civic engagement and dense social networks within them. An enterprising graduate student might find a research study here. Go measure the social capital factors in all the “great neighborhoods” listed in this article. (The top 5 are: Highland Park in Birmingham, Alabama; Northbrae in Berkeley, California; Ansley Park in Atlanta; Pullman in Chicago and the Gold Cost and Humburg District in Davenport.) and maybe include the top 10?
    If you need to know how to ask the right questions to ascertain the social capital levels, go check out the Saguaro Seminar website and look at their survey and questionnaire.

    I dont mean to take anything away from the distinct design features of each of these places. Its more a matter of answering “how do we build or rebuild our community to make it a great place to live?” Do we try to raze sections and build design features, or do we build social networks and relationships within the community?

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