Constructing professional knowledge: The Neighborhood Unit concept in the community builders handbook
TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION …………………………………………………………………………. 1 1. LITERATURE REVIEW ………………………………………………………………. 9 2. RESEARCH DESIGN ………………………………………………………………….. 22 3. INVENTION OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD UNIT …………………………………… 33 4. ADOPTION OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD UNIT ……………………………………. 60 5. DIFFUSION OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD UNIT …………………………………….81 6. EMERGENCE OF RIVALS …………………………………………………………… 112 7. DISCUSSION AND CRITIQUE ………………………………………………………..132 8. ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSION: A PRAGMATIC TAKE ON PERRY’S NEIGHBORHOOD UNIT CONCEPT …………………………………………………... 145 APPENDIX A: GOOGLE SCHOLAR SEARCH FOR CITATIONS OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD UNIT CONCEPT …………………………………………………... 168 WORKS CITED …………………………………………………………………………… 183
An argument could be made that Clarence Perry’s Neighborhood Unit concept was the most important idea in urban planning and development in twentieth century America. It was a guiding concept for post WWII suburban development (ULI 1947), for urban renewal (Perry 1933, 1939) and for the mortgage insurance programs of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA 1935c). By the 1960s, the concept was adopted by no less than eighteen professional and governmental organizations (Solow et.al. 1969). To Solow et al’s list we might include CIAM (Dahir 1947) and more recently the Congress for the New Urbanism (Leccesse and McCormick 1999). In fact, the Neighborhood Unit was so ingrained in professional practices that even substantive knowledge not directly connected to the aims or principles of the Neighborhood Unit were presented in neighborhood terms, as in Frederick Adam’s book for the American Public Health Association, a manual that was largely concerned with sanitation and infrastructure (Solow and Copperman 1947).
Clarence Perry’s Neighborhood Unit concept was neither revolutionary nor wholly original. Published after six years of extensive research as part of the Regional Survey of New York and its Environs, the Neighborhood Unit was essentially Perry’s synthesis of concepts from sociology, architecture, urban planning, and real estate development (Howard 1902, Perry 1914, Yeomans 1916, Unwin 1918, McKenzie 1923, Park et.al. 1925, Perry 1929b). It was not the only conception of neighborhood. Johnson (2002) reminds us that the architect William Drummond seems to have coined the term neighborhood unit a decade before Perry. Stein and Wright’s Radburn model is often cited as a neighborhood unit model alongside Perry, particularly in urban
2 planning literature (e.g. Banarjee and Baer 1984). Other neighborhood models bear little resemblence to Perry’s Neighborhood Unit (Dahir 1947, Ostrowsky 1970). But Perry’s conception of the Neighborhood Unit was the prime example. It was Perry who synthesized various ideas, and Perry who most clearly linked the variety of principles contained within the Neighborhood Unit to the importance of thinking in terms of neighborhood. If Stein and Wright provided more detailed design principles with their superblocks and pedestrian ways, Perry provided a more pointed argument in favor of neighborhoods. The professional literature of the mid-twentieth century overwhelmingly credited Perry with inventing the Neighborhood Unit concept.
Neighborhood is a term that in some fashion has had meaning for a wide variety of cultures and places throughout history. In this sense it has an innate social logic. Clarence Perry’s Neighborhood Unit concept was created by a particular person at a particular time and place, and was used by particular people: if the neighborhood is in some ways a universal idea, it gets defined and articulated in particular ways. In North America in the twentieth century, it was Clarence Perry’s neighborhood unit concept that was the most important, most used articulation of neighborhood. This was not the case in Britain, for example, where planning and development has traditionally been geared more to town planning following Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City idea. In many ways, this dissertation concerns the impact on professional practices of conceptualizing a near-universal concept – neighborhood – through a particular definition – Perry’s neighborhood unit.
3 The Neighborhood Unit was (and is) not without criticism. Interest in the Neighborhood Unit was particularly strong immediately after World War II, when a flurry of articles both supported and criticized the Neighborhood Unit. Lewis Mumford (1954) was alternately supportive and ambivalent about the Neighborhood Unit, particularly as it fit with the larger project of the Regional Plan of New York. Catherine Bauer (1945) attacked it as a racist and elitist concept, particularly in the context of affordable housing and urban renewal. Reginald Issacs (1948, 1949a, 1949b) criticized the cellular nature of the Neighborhood Unit as unnatural and counter- productive. Though his criticism was not accepted by others at the time, it turned out to be fair. Many have questioned the sociological theory – of Cooley, Park, McKenzie and others – underpinning Perry’s Neighborhood Unit and hence the neighborhood unit itself (e.g. Webber 1963). In other cases criticism of the Neighborhood Unit was more practical – Dyckman (1959) noted the difficulties that arose in trying to rigidly match a single elementary school to a single neighborhood unit as developments grow and change. Based on extensive survey research, Banerjee and Baer (1984) argue that residents simply do not percieve their surrounding environs as neighborhoods, and hence planners have misconstrued the nature of their work and residential environment would be a better, more accurate term.
Given this wide and varied criticism – criticism that has often had validity – it might seem strange that the Neighborhood Unit remains a commonly used concept in urban planning. Indeed, the emergence of New Urbanism in the nineties renewed interest in Perry’s Neighborhood Unit concept, so that it is now more popular than at any time since immediately after World War II. Why is this? What about the Neighborhood Unit concept is so powerful?
4 What causes ideas like the Neighborhood Unit to remain popular despite criticism and changing times?
For the most part our field has held one of two views towards concepts like the Neighborhood Unit. Academics (Banarjee and Baer 1984) have viewed the Neighborhood Unit as a sociological concept, a physical instantiation of traditional sociological notions of community. Professional planners and designers – notably members of the Congress for the New Urbanism – have treated the neighborhood as a kind of Platonic ideal, an essential and age-old component of human experience. Whatever their merits however – each camp has many – neither perspective has done an adequate job of assessing the Neighborhood Unit’s impact on twentieth century urbanization.
Part of the problem is that few writers have concerned themselves with how Perry’s Neighborhood Unit concept has been used in professional literature. The discussion has been too abstract and theoretical as a result, relying too often on misconceptions, oversimplifications, and wishful thinking. The professional literature of course is guilty of the same misconceptions and oversimplifications. Yet this fact is critical to understanding the Neighborhood Unit’s impact. Concepts are used and reused, not always appropriately, rarely in quite the same way that their authors intended. Though Perry’s Neighborhood Unit concept was arguably the most significant idea in American urbanism in the twentieth century, its meaning extended far beyond and outside of the original concept. Each organization that made use of the concept adapted it (consciously or not) to suit its purposes, sometimes using only part of the concept and other times applying it to new circumstances. Over the middle decades of the twentieth century Perry’s Neighborhood
5 Unit concept underwent a continual process of articulation and adaptation, of shifting and change.
My interest in this work has been driven by a curiosity about both the persistence of Perry’s Neighborhood Unit concept and its apparently significant impact. In the following study I ask four research questions: • How does professional knowledge develop? That is, how are ideas posited, elaborated, tested and adopted in professional contexts? • What causes some concepts to become leading ideas? • How does the rhetorical form of professional knowledge affect its adoption and use? • What difference do leading ideas like the Neighborhood Unit concept make for the professional communities that adopt and sustain them?
I examine these questions through a close analysis of the extensive professional literature that makes use of the Neighborhood Unit concept. My focus has been on the diffusion of the concept in suburban real estate development. The Federal Housing Administration and the Urban Land Institute were particularly important sources in this regard; there were certainly many others. Analyzing the discourses advanced in the professional literature of a number of organizations – as well as how those discourses changed over time – helped me to understand not only how Perry’s Neighborhood Unit concept became a leading idea but also what impact it had on urban development and the regulation of urban development.
6 Based on this analysis, I will argue that a pragmatic view of professional knowledge is warranted. A pragmatic view of knowledge holds that meaning is grounded in experience. It is thus localized in practice communities, embedded in methods, technologies and know-how, and invested in the successful conduct of tasks (Carlile 2002). Both academic and professional views of the Neighborhood Unit concept by contrast have tended to view it in more universal and essentialist terms. Each perspective struggles to explain the Neighborhood Unit’s adoption and impact as a result.
A pragmatic view of knowledge helps us appreciate the Neighborhood Unit concept’s role as a lever of change that reshapes a practice or way of thinking in a particular professional community. It is in this sense that the Neighborhood Unit concept had its greatest impact. This was the case, for example, early on in the twenties and thirties when the Neighborhood Unit concept helped move developers and housing officials towards thinking of development on an area or unit-wide rather than a lot by lot basis. Professional knowledge like the Neighborhood Unit concept develops and gets validated because it calls attention to meaningful change in exsisting modes of practice.
I will argue that the Neighborhood Unit concept became a leading idea because it held pragmatic significance for such a broad range of professional communities that it attained a critical mass (Rogers 2003), with each professional organization’s use of the concept reinforcing its meaningfulness for others. The rhetorical form of the Neighborhood Unit concept was particularly important in this regard. While professional communities interpreted many parts of the Neighborhood Unit concept in similar ways, each interpreted the concept through their own
7 roles and pragmatic concerns. It thus had to be adaptable. The rhetorical power of the Neighborhood Unit concept lay in its ability to maintain a strong identity while having enough informational ambiguity to allow it to be adapted to a range of professional contexts. The sociologist Susan Leigh Star has described this type of knowledge as a boundary object (Star and Griesemer 1989, Carlile 2002). (The boundary here refers to the gap between different communities of practice; boundary objects help bridge such gaps.)
Many planning scholars have characterized either the Neighborhood Unit concepts or urban planning ideas more generally (Banerjee and Baer 1984, Blanco 1994, Hack and Canto 1990, Garde 2008) as paradigms. This characterization is instructive in the sense that the Neighborhood Unit concept made the greatest difference for the professional communities that adopted it less through its substantive content per se than its ability to act as a guiding exemplar that crystallized a holistic set of theories, problems, and tools informing practice. We should be careful not to use paradigms inappropriately, however. Kuhn himself (1962) suggested that his description of paradigms was restricted to the realm of scientific inquiry, with its emphasis on causal explanation and contribution to a cumulative base of knowledge. Used pragmatically in a variety of professional domains, the Neighborhood Unit concept was never a unitary paradigm even as it was ubiquitous. Further, professional communities adapted and reframed the Neighborhood Unit concept to suit their purposes as urban planning and development evolved. It wasn’t just that the the Neighborhood Unit concept paradigm was elaborated until its inconsistencies made it untenable; it was always changing. For this reason I see the Neighborhood Unit concept more as a leading meme (Dawkins 1976), a unit of cultural transmission that plays a critical role in shaping practice, but one that continually evolves along with the evolution of the practices it
8 helps to shape. Viewing the Neighborhood Unit concept as a leading meme helps to explain the sustained influence of the concept in a complicated and fluid professional environment.
In the next chapter I develop a concise review of the extensive literature on the Neighborhood Unit concept , as a means of demonstrating its importance in twentieth century American development and as a way of framing my approach to the topic. In chapter two I discuss the research design for this dissertation. The following several chapters present a history organized in four stages covering the invention, adoption, and diffusion of the Neighborhood Unit concept as well as the emergence of rival ideas. Chapter three analyzes Perry’s Neighborhood Unit monograph, exploring the connected strands of thought that informed Perry’s research and deconstructing Perry’s argument for the Neighborhood Unit. Chapter four concerns the adoption of the Neighborhood Unit primarily in the real estate development industry, particularly in light of developments in the real estate industry and in the regulation of development in the 1920s and 1930s. Chapter five examines the diffusion of the Neighborhood Unit concept primarily in the literature of the Federal Housing Administration and the Urban Land Institute’s Community Builders Council. Chapter six assesses the waning influence of the Neighborhood Unit concept in the sixties through the emergence of shopping centers, new towns, and Planned Unit Development as rival paradigms. The final two chapters present analysis and conclusions. Chapter seven is a critical assessment of the Neighborhood Unit’s impact framed through a contemporary lens influenced by New Urbanism. In chapter eight I analyze the Neighborhood Unit concept as an example of professional knowledge, focusing on pragmatic dimensions of communication. I then attempt to draw conclusions from this study to broader practice.
9 CHAPTER 1: LITERATURE REVIEW
The significance of the Neighborhood Unit concept is suggested by its extensive use. A rudimentary Google Scholar search of “neighborhood unit” 1 returned 1030 citations. Not all of these pertained to the Neighborhood Unit concept in the sense that we mean here – several hundered referred to the neighborhood unit as a unit of geo-statistical analysis (e.g. a census tract or block group), and many others concerned a local unit of political government. Even after eliminating citations that either referred to other meanings of neighborhood unit or were too incomplete to be certain of their meaning, however, Google Scholar still returns a list of 548 records, a large number for scholarly literature. Moreover, because Google Scholar focuses on scholarly literature and not professional or lay publications, this basic search for citations should not be considered complete, or even roughly comprehensive. It is also likely that Google Scholar does a better job of finding sources that were published after the emergence of the internet age, something that is reflected in Figure 1.1.
1 Conducted 1/2/2009.
10 Citations of the Neighborhood Unit concept (based on a 1/2/09 Google Scholar search) 0 5 10 15 20 25 30 35 40 45 1914 1924 1934 1944 1954 1964 1974 1984 1994 2004 Figure 1.1: citations of the Neighborhood Unit concept, showing number of citations per year.
The 548 citations in this Google Scholar search make reference to a concept of the Neighborhood Unit that has been built up and evolved over the last hundred years, a concept that began with traditions in the Garden City movement (Howard 1902) and early American subdivision practices (Yeomans 1916), gained voice through the Radburn model (Stein 1951) and the work of Perry at the Russell Sage Foundation (Perry 1929b), was reinterpreted in the New Town movement after World War II in Britain and in the sixties in America (Urban Land Institute 1968) and again through the Congress for the New Urbanism (Steuteville 2006). Individual citations of the Neighborhood Unit concept both make use of different aspects of the concept and draw on different sources from within this larger set of traditions. As we shall see, the meaning of the Neighborhood Unit concept evolved in significant ways through this period.
11 The Neighborhood Unit concept, then, precludes singular definition. Loosely we can say that it refers to a primarily residential area of a certain size that includes a complement of additional uses that support residential life. Beyond that, though, it has been established, reformed, reinterpreted and misinterpreted, contested and criticized, with each new citation changing how the concept is used. Identifying and interpreting this change will be an important part of this research.
Uses of the Neighborhood Unit concept run the gamut of concerns that have been amalgamated into the field of urban planning, and they have made significant contributions in associated fields that share urban concerns. The Neighborhood Unit played a significant role in both suburbanization (Adams 1974, Mayo 1979, Morris 1986, Southworth and Owens 1993) and urban renewal (Ascher 1934, Brooks 1937, Montgomery 1965, Mandelker 1967, Fairbanks 1987, Vale 2000, Schwartz 2002, Gordon 2003, Birch 2007). Beyond planning (Perry 1929a, 1929b, Stein 1951, Adams 1974, Banerjee and Baer 1984, Ben-Joseph and Szold 2005) it has been used in architecture (Yoemans 1916, Blumenfeld 1949, Roady 1972, Knesl 1984, Glazer and Lilla 1987, Kallus 2005), urban design (Lynch 1981, Lang 1994, Barnett 1996, Lee and Stabin- Nesmith 2001, Larice and MacDonald 2007), real estate development and finance (Whitten 1927, Weiss 1990, Hoagland 2003, Lins, Novaes and Legey 2005), and law (Ascher 1934, Hanke 1965, Mandelker 1967, Burke and Dienes 1971, Freilich 1971, Kleven 1973, Williams and Taylor 1974, Poindexter 1996, Bohl 2003, Lewyn 2004, Nelson 2004). The boundaries of these fields somtimes blur, of course; the Neighborhood Unit concept has often been used to meld concerns from different fields. In its various guises the Neighborhood Unit concept made a significant impact in specific areas as varied as education (Caudill 1947, Brussat and Riemer
12 1951, Seoane 1954, Dyckman 1959, Howell 1976, Garner and Raudenbush 1991), parks and recreation (Girling and Helphand 1996), transportation (Ford 1932, Beckley, White and Ehler 1969, Canty 1969, Crane 1996, Boarnet and Crane 2001, Gordon 2004), the environment (Arendt 1999, Costa and Noble 1999, Girling and Kellet 2005, Farr 2008), public health (Rohe 1985, Huie 2001, Corburn 2007), and policing (Condlin 1969, Barlow and Barlow 1999, Grubesic and Mack 2008).
The Neighborhood Unit concept was (and is) not without criticism. Much of the contentiousness about the concept concerns either its sociological foundations or its potential to address those sociological foundations. Those who have advanced the Neighborhood Unit concept – Clarence Perry in particular – were influenced by theories of community coming out of the famous Chicago School of sociology in the first decades of the twentieth century 2 . Cooley (1909) saw the local neighborhood as a primary group – the first significant social grouping larger than the family and hence the primary unit of social organization through which individuals socialize with the broader world. Chicago School sociologists built on Cooley’s conception of the neighborhood as primary social unit when investigating problems of the industrial city. McKenzie (1923) emphasized the neighborhood assocation as the baromoter of community health, a theme that has been reintroducted most recently with Putnam (2002). A joint volume (Park, Burgess and McKenzie 1925) by some of the main figures in the Chicago School included a chapter by Park examining levels of community organization and levels or absence of juvenile delinquincy.
2 Urban planning’s professional organization, the American City Planning Institute, was founded in this time period and located in the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, and the influence of the Chicago School of sociology and the emerging field of urban planning would be mutual.
13 The premise of the Neighborhood Unit concept is that the physical environment – including land, buildings, streets, and infrastructure – can affect community life: homes surrounded by factories, railroads and busy streets would likely be unhealthy in a social sense, but well-planned neighborhoods that included community amenities and were protected from negative elements could go a long way in engendering healthy community life. Many have critiqued the early sociologists’ assumptions about the local neighborhood as a significant social unit – Webber (1963) in particular questioned the validity of notions of community based on local ties. More significantly, others have questioned the connection between social theories and physical designs like the Neighborhood Unit concept (Dewey 1950, Rosow 1961). Fairfile (1992) is most critical in this regard. Lawhon (2009) summarizes the debate; Banarjee and Baer (1984) likely had the greatest impact on the planning profession.
The planning literature has been concerned not just with the possibility of designing Neighborhood Units that support community life but also with its desirability. Lewis Mumford was alternately supportive and ambivalent about the Neighborhood Unit, particularly as it fit with the larger project of the Regional Plan of New York and its Environs (Mumford 1954, 1961). Jacobs (1961) argued that it was not formal boundaries that distinguished neighborhoods but the level and character of their activity. Similarly, Isaacs (1948, 1949a) criticized the Neighborhood Unit’s cellular nature: he argued that even if there was sociological validity to the local community and if we could plan developments to engender salubrious communities, the Neighborhood Unit concept as formulated by Perry still did a disservice by fixing organic social life in place and bounding it in cellular units that created an artificial separation between the neighborhood and the larger city or region. Others dismissed Isaacs’ criticism (Stillman 1948,
14 Wehrly 1948, Goodman 1949) or missed its import entirely (Herbert 1963a, 1963b), but he had a point. Though Perry viewed the Neighborhood Unit as a democratizing institution (Perry 1929a, 1929b), he also looked approvingly at the emerging practices of real estate developers like J.C. Nichols, whose real estate practices demanded homogenous neighborhoods backed by strict land use controls (Perry 1929b, 1933, 1939). The egalitarian promise of the Neighborhood Unit did not always match its reality, then, where it was usually homogenous and often explicitly exclusionary. For Isaacs (1949b) and Bauer (1945) the Neighborhood Unit was problematic for enacting racial and economic segregation, something that would be particularly damaging in the context of public housing and urban renewal.
Part of the problem in examining the historiography of the Neighborhood Unit concept is that many authors respond to the hopeful claims of the Neighborhood Unit concept or the mere critiques of others (or worse, to a superficial understanding of the concept) without delving into how the concept was used. Yet the Neighborhood Unit concept’s impact was extensive and tangible. By the sixties no less than eighteen professional and governmental organizations made use of the Neighborhood Unit concept (Solow et.al. 1969; to Solow et.al.’s list we might also add both CIAM and the Congress for the New Urbanism). Solow et.al. also found that fully eighty percent of professional planners made use of Planning the Neighborhood, the American Public Health Association manual that placed the Neighborhood Unit as its central idea. The Neighborhood Unit concept found its way into the typical urban plan of the post-war period (Swanson Associates 1950 3 ). So the Neighborhood Unit concept was adopted by the vast majority of organizations involved in urban development, and we can say that members of those
3 This is, of course, but one sample, selected because it was for the town where I currently reside. Still, we can expect that a larger study would find that it is typical of post-WWII comprehensive plans generally.
15 organizations were well familiar with the concept and made use of it in their work. Each organization had its peculiar mission; the Neighborhood Unit concept fulfilled some aspect of each of these missions. In each case it may or may not be true that the Neighborhood Unit was used in a manner that its authors and critics intended. There is relatively little in the scholarly literature that addresses the Neighborhood Unit concept’s diffusion into professional communities of practice.
Advocacy of the Neighborhood Unit Concept • American Institute of Architects • American Institute of Planners • American Society of Civil Engineers • American Society of Planning Officials • Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (Canada) • Department of Housing and Urban Development • Federal Housing Administration • Housing and Home Finance Agency • International City Managers Association • International Congress for Housing and Town Planning • National Association of House Builders • National Association of Housing Officials • National Association of Real Estate Boards • National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Cities • National Housing Agency – Federal Public Housing Authority • Town and Country Planning Association • United Nations • Urban Land Institute • Congress Internationale de Architecture Moderne • Congress for the New Urbanism Figure 1.2: Professional and Government Organizations giving either clear or general support for the Neighborhood Unit concept (Solow et.al. 1969; italics mine)
Neighborhood, of course, is a natural concept. As long as humans have settled together in groups we have formed neighborhoods. Neighborhoods were mentioned in the Bible (Jacobsen 2003), and have long existed in a variety of cultures (Krier 1992). The Neighborhood Unit concept is a specific formulation of this more abstract idea. In our culture and in our time (that is, in the United States from the 1920s on) we have used the Neighborhood Unit concept to frame our talk of neighborhood.
Particularly given its ubituity in professional practice, Banarjee and Baer (1984) argued that the development and testing of the Neighborhood Unit concept was woefully primitive. Beyond the Neighborhood Unit was an attempt to rectify this deficit. In it Banarjee and Baer conducted extensive survey research in order to develop a model underpinned by legitimate scientific knowledge. Based on their data they concluded that residents tended not to perceive of or use their surroundings as a coherent neighborhood. They argued instead that the Neighborhood Unit concept ought to be replaced by “Residential Environment” – a term that was more accurate if less compelling. Beyond the Neighborhood Unit helped to temporarily shift the planning profession away from the Neighborhood Unit concept. Ironically, though, the wide popularity of New Urbanism in the 1990s soon led to its rebirth.
Although Banarjee and Baer rightly questioned the Neighborhood Unit concept’s sociological validity, they were unduly dismissive of its use. They disparaged Perry and other advocates of the Neighborhood Unit concept as self-proclaimed experts who too often placed the interests of
17 their professions above the social concerns of users. This goes too far. Sociological concerns are important, but so too are the demands placed on the planners, designers, developers, councilmen, city managers, bankers, housing officials and land-use lawyers who work together to create urban form. Where statements advanced by these professions are basely self-serving they may be rightly criticized, but their practices ought not to be dismissed out of hand.
Professional organizations endorse concepts not merely for their abstract cogency but because they contribute useful meaning in a particular context. Recognizing this, it seems appropriate to make a distinction between the Neighborhood Unit concept as a sociological proposition and as a planning or development model. We tend to create the latter in the image of the former, but we need not treat them as the same thing. Dwelling on the former obscures important issues inherent in the adoption of concepts like the Neighborhood Unit. These issues are not restricted to the Neighborhood Unit concept exclusively but pertain to a general class of ideas. We might as easily ask other questions: how did the emergence of sustainability change the culture of the architecture profession? What do real estate developers get out of joining the Congress for the New Urbanism? How might the early work of the Federal Housing Administration have been different if it had been guided by the Radburn model or the Garden City rather than the Neighborhood Unit concept?