What really makes strong neighborhoods? And why cities like Chicago are rich in them


Moss places great value on our home city of Chicago and our local neighborhood of Ravenswood.  We bike and walk on local streets, pick up lunch and snacks at local shops, and go out for drinks after work around the corner at Begyle Brewing Company.  We know its a great place to live and work … but what makes it great?

To help determine the strengths of (and find ways to improve) your neighborhood, we’d like to borrow some theory and terminology from William Morrish and Catherine Brown of the Design Center for American Urban Landscape at UMN.  Their excellent booklet, Planning to Stay, provides a great framework for urban analysis.  They break down great neighborhoods into five components.  We’ll explore them below:

Homes and Gardens


Built environment aside, communities are made of people.  And the strongest communities are the ones in which people work and live in the same area.  Logically one of the most essential building blocks of a neighborhood is the residential component.  But the type and character of the homes can vary widely.  Urban neighborhoods tend to have more densely spaced houses (more people) and have a closer relationship with the sidewalk and street than do sub and ex urban areas.

Every dwelling unit has elements of privacy and also public space (a front yard, the exterior materials, form and style of the building, etc).  There is a big difference in the feeling of multiple family housing that stretches to each lot line as in an apartment building or line of town houses or have setbacks with green space surrounding each building.  Are front yards deep or shallow?  Are they fenced off or do they flow into sidewalks.  Is there a range of sizes, a mix of types and a variety of price points?

Consider how your home fits into the larger neighborhood context.  Is it a corner lot or the middle of a block?  Where are the lines between public and private space?  How does it contribute to the neighborhood at large?

Community Streets

community streetsWhen they say “street”, Morrish and Brown are talking about more than the asphalt or concrete area where cars drive.  A street as a community concept is much more than just pavement.  It is made up of trees, street lighting, the texture and spacing of adjacent buildings and the population of people who regularly occupy it.

Think about where your street begins and ends.  Is it a cul-de-sac or something which extends miles in each direction.  Consider not just the road way (with or without parking lanes) but the pedestrian components, the utilities corridor, even the physical canyon created by adjacent buildings.  Does it feel wide or narrow, deep or shallow?

Neighborhood Niches

nichesWould your community feel as much like “home” without the corner coffee shop or grocery?  A strong neighborhood provides most of the services needed by residents within easy reach.  Here’s where urban living really pulls ahead – in addition to closely spaced homes and well used sidewalks – it will usually have an abundance of local businesses that serve the community.   Local service spots – corner store, bike repair shop, a regular farmers market, etc – can be general or specific, and sometimes draw people from outside the neighborhood but they are most often patronized by people who live near by.

Where are you most likely to run into your neighbors while out shopping?  How does the scale, placement and density of your local niche businesses affect your feel of community?  What can you be sure of getting locally and what do you tend to hop in a car for?  What percentage of your weekly errands can be run in your own neighborhood?

Anchoring Institutions

anchoring instituions

Churches, schools, libraries, and other civic or public buildings play a crucial role in the feel of a neighborhood.  Even people who don’t attend church or have kids in the school system will find themselves attending concerts or community meetings inside them, or pausing in the clear space in front of an entrance to chat with a neighbor.  Their forms (venerable or modern) contribute to the tone of the neighborhood and often stand as the framework for public art.   This category can even extend to a key local employer – if there is a key industry in the area.

How do the public buildings in your local area serve as landmarks – do you use them for way finding or giving directions?  What “represents” your neighborhood to you and to others.  How do the institutions in your neighborhood plug into the larger network of your city or region/?

Public Gardens 

planning to stay

Public gardens are more than merely parks.  This community element refers to any open or green space in the city, playgrounds, sports fields, bodies of water or even the literal – a community garden.  Open spaces, shared outdoor areas are essential in the urban fabric where people are unlikely to have access to private green space and they are a great equalizer.  Chicago is fortunate to have a strong network of green space built into its urban fabric.

What’s your favorite park?  Is it near or far – somewhere you stroll with your dog or wander with a friend on a blustery afternoon?  What is the value of an open green space to you even if you rarely enter it?  What is the size and scale of the open space in your area – are they easy to get to and easily visible?

These five elements provide some food for thought on the quality and qualities of your own neighborhood.  What are the most important elements of your neighborhood?  Are there elements that are essential to your daily life that you didn’t appreciate before.  And, most importantly, what could you do to improve it?