A Place for Neighborhoods

“Neighborhood” is a term that carries strong emotional weight but little precision.  What is a neighborhood?  A block where my friends and I live? An area of similar architecture or ethnic makeup?  Or is a neighborhood simply circumscribed by obvious geographical borders?   Probably the answer lies in a muddle of those and many other concepts. According to the Ann Arbor Planning & Development Department, “City Council, by resolution, is committed to protect older or established neighborhoods”.  Our master plan process has traditionally recognized the importance of neighborhoods to the character and integrity of the city.  And after all, the neighborhood is the immediate unit of place beyond one’s own home.

But neighborhoods have been under attack lately, both by adverse development proposals and by critics.    Ann Arbor is Overrated, a blog that was discontinued when the blogger graduated and moved on, criticized my campaign call for “quality of life” as an antidensity “dogwhistle” (scroll down to March 17, 2008).  I’m including it here as an example of the disdain shown for neighborhood advocates in certain quarters, some of which seems to be a “have vs. have-not” resentment. Also, neighborhoods can sometimes justifiably be criticized for the attempted exclusion of different types or classes of people. (I don’t personally believe that this is a factor in most recent development disputes in Ann Arbor.) There are other critics who advance principled reasons for a change in the makeup of the city.   I’ll review the “density” argument and the “creative class/talent” argument at some other time. Meanwhile, there are major changes to the zoning ordinance on the agenda.

This is not a new issue.  As I described in an earlier article, there is a long history of neighborhood action to save a piece of greenspace, or to save an historic building, or to prevent adverse development within a neighborhood.  Such civic action has helped to make Ann Arbor the vital city it is.

Urban planning goes through fashions for the replacement of what is current with something entirely different.  One of the reasons Ann Arbor is such a great place is that it resisted this kind of change back in the 1950s and 60s when urban renewal was all the rage.  Cities tore down whole blocks and destroyed neighborhoods as well as historic buildings.  Madison, Wisconsin, where I went to graduate school, tore down its equivalent of the Old West Side. (It was a neighborhood of modest houses populated mostly by people of Italian descent.)  When I lived there, there was a huge vacant lot next to a single street of neat little wooden houses.  Now it is a public housing development made out of concrete.  Our city resisted this change and now we have not only the Old West Side, but many other core neighborhoods with historic buildings and affordable housing, as well as our beautiful historic downtown.  While urban renewal blasted the essential heart of some cities and scattered their residents,  we had a strong and successful campaign that ultimately saved the predominantly black neighborhood (North Central) and old industrial/commercial area (now Kerrytown) north of Huron Street.  So what has made Ann Arbor so attractive both as a city to live in and one that draws quality-of-life oriented “talent” and visitors is what didn’t happen because of push-back against the urban fashion of the day.

During the 2005 “Calthorpe process”, the city sponsored some excellent speakers.  One of them was “Rick” (Roderick) Hills, a lawyer who has, among other things, examined the history and purpose of zoning.  He has since written a number of scholarly papers, including this one, that examine public choice theory, namely, the ability of the public to influence their governments, especially given the possibility of “predatory majorities”. His lecture on zoning showed that its historic importance was in creating some security for neighborhoods so that people living within them could protect their investment, both economic and emotional.  As he said, “They do like to know that they aren’t getting shafted.”  As he explains at some length in his paper, there is a traditional exit-based theory of choice, in that if you don’t like it here, why, you can leave.  But the alternative to that is “voice”, namely the possibility of influencing the course of government decisions.  People living in neighborhoods need a voice, because the alternative of simply exiting is too burdensome, given their investment.

Pat Ryan is a long-time neighborhood activist whom I interviewed for my 2005 article, and who has given me the permission to use her comments here.  She argues that, aside from the right to protect one’s home and investment, neighborhoods deserve consideration because the people who are committed to a place are those who invest personally in it.  It is “neighborhood types” who volunteer, form associations, act as stewards in parks, donate to local causes, create “senseless acts of beauty” (check out FestiFools), and generally make up all the strands of the social network that is a true community.

There are over 90 neighborhood associations in Ann Arbor, some of them overlapping in geographical coverage.  Recently a new group, the Alliance of Neighborhoods was formed in order to ensure that neighborhood interests are considered by those who are making decisions for our city. As they say, ” We believe that urban planning should include quality of life considerations.”.  I think so, too.  And that’s not a dog-whistle.  It’s the outcome that I believe we deserve from our local government.

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One Comment on “A Place for Neighborhoods”

  1. susan wineberg Says:

    I can’t get over how good all the posts are. Thank you so much! I saved a lot of political memorabilia from the 1970s and know that before the Democrats took over council, their main beef with the Republicans was the preservation of neighborhoods. They would often only agree to support certain issues if they were assured that the neighborhoods most close to the central core were protected. How things have changed! Well, we mostly have Republicrats in charge, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

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