December 3, 2006

Revisiting The Neighborhood Unit

Lewis Mumford (1954) described the neighborhood as a natural phenomenon. He cited the development of New York neighborhoods like Chelsea and Greenwich Village despite "the undifferentiated rectangular plan of Manhattan, a plan contrived as if for the purpose of preventing neighborhoods from coming into existence." Like Suzanne Keller (1968), he argued that one's neighbor is someone who lives nearby. (Both Mumford and Keller emphasized the variety and intensity of relationships between neighbors as a significant element in defining the neighborhood - Mumford's "neighborliness" and Keller's "neighboring" or "neighbor role.") Mumford contrasted the naturalness of the neighborhood with the planned neighborhood unit : a unit that would now exist, not merely on a spontaneous or instinctual basis, but through the deliberate decentralisation of institutions that had, in their over-centralisation, ceased to serve efficiently the city as a whole. This "neighborhood unit" concept developed by Clarence Perry in 1929 and detailed in the Regional Plan for New York of 1929 has been an organizing principle for the redevelopment of urban areas and the development of the suburbs. The unit has also been applied outside the U.S. Writing about the 1948 Nairobi Plan, Donald Freeman (1991) noted that Bahati, Ofafa, and Mbotela, among other neighborhoods of Nairobi were designed according to the neighborhood unit concept. These neighborhoods were designed "to house about seven thousand people, and each unit with its own school, dispensary, playing field, and beer hall." However, by 19171, the concept had been drastically altered. In some neighborhoods, like Pumwani, the population had risen to 30,000 people, a density of 153 people per acre. The neighborhood unit has also been used in the former USSR, at least a neighborhood unit was proposed for the town of Angarsk. According to A. I. Tarantul (1962), the unit would be 68 acres, with a population of 6000 (or 90 people per acre), a school for 920 children, and a footpath network connecting the residential area to the school (similar to Radburn, NJ). Like proponents before and after him, Tarantul asserted, the concentration of the service buildings in the community centre of the neighbourhood unit creates conditions for intercourse and contact between the inhabitants, and assists the fostering of the collective spirit which is the characteristic mark of our society. Previous posts in The Neighborhood series Ode to the neighbor(hood) (October 9) A city of neighborhoods (September 11) Why do fences make good neighbors? (July 30) What types of institutions make a neighborhood? (June 20) Jane Jacobs' neighborhood (June 17) Nora Ephron on "the sense of neighborhood" (June 16) The Neighborhood Unit (April 9) Neighbor, neighboring (February 2, 2006)

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