There Goes the Neighborhood: Perceptions and Realities of Neighborhoods and Neighborhood Change

Neighborhoods are the stuff of which cities are made. Downtowns are the iconic parts of cities and commercial and industrial districts are important. But neighborhoods are where the people who call the city home spend their non-working hours. This is where the citizens of a place meet each other, form friendships, and act jointly, along with planners, designers and elected officials, to shape the city to their interests. This course will explore neighborhoods from three perspectives. We will begin with discussions of how to learn about a neighborhood. What are the important physical, economic, social, demographic and historical elements that help define a neighborhood? What are the best sources of information about a neighborhood? Which pieces of data are most important? How do the critical issues of race and class impact a particular neighborhood? How do you tell if there is a \’community\’ in a neighborhood? How to you combine all of this information to begin to analyze neighborhood condition and future trends? During this portion of the course, students will be introduced to four Boston neighborhoods which they will explore over the course of the semester. Planners from the Boston Redevelopment Authority will present a preliminary picture of these parts of the city. By the end of the segment, student teams will present preliminary analyses of their neighborhoods. The second portion of the course will address the issue of who impacts neighborhoods and how they do it. Which organizations shape local areas? What role does the public sector play? How important are the non-profits that are active in neighborhoods, particularly the place-based ones? Are profit-motivated developers more significant? How important are individual leaders? Where does their power come from? We will discuss the history of federal, state and local interventions in neighborhoods and we will hear from public and private actors who have made a difference in their communities. We will also undertake an exercise in class focusing on effective communications in the Boston neighborhoods we are studying. How do you organize an effective community meeting about a planning or design issue. With whom do you consult? What is the ideal balance between good community process and quick delivery of a good product? What is the outside planner\’s or designer\’s role? Finally, in the third portion of the course, we will consider the range of tools for intervention in neighborhoods and examine the best ways of deciding which tool fits a particular situation. We will discuss appropriate strategies for four neighborhood types – underinvested, transitional, emerging and stable. When is affordable housing an important initiative, and when will it blunt a neighborhood\’s progress toward healthy diversity. When is it critical to provide for first time homebuyers? Should you limit their equity build-up or not? What conditions suggest that retail retention and development will make a difference? Is gentrification a bad thing? Always? Is eminent domain a good thing? Always? In the final class of the semester, each team will present a Strategy Report for their neighborhood. As the title of the course indicates, a constant theme of our discussions will be \’perceptions and realities\’ We will work hard together to probe beneath the images that neighborhoods and neighborhood strategies carry in order to discover what is truly important about a particular place and its people and how positive change occurs.