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Cityscape: Volume 14 Number 2 | Article 13


Moving to Opportunity

Volume 14 Number 2

Mark D. Shroder
Michelle P. Matuga

Defining Neighborhoods for Research and Policy

Claudia Coulton, Case Western Reserve University


The neighborhood is a social and geographic concept that plays an increasingly important role in research, policymaking decisions, and practice that address disparities in the well-being of urban populations. Research on neighborhood effects is burgeoning, with an increasing number of policies being directed at reducing disparities through place-based initiatives. Most studies of neighborhoods and community initiatives geared toward neighborhood improvement, however, make simplifying assumptions about boundaries. Most studies rely on census geography or political jurisdictions to operationalize the neighborhood units. Conversely, theories about the interactions between residents and their neighborhoods are seldom simple. Among the many pathways of influence, it is often assumed that social and psychological processes are at work within a place. The effect these processes have on one another occurs when residents interact with their surrounding context or environment to give the place meaning (Sampson, Morenoff, and Gannon-Rowley, 2002; Shinn and Toohey, 2003). To the degree that neighborhood influence is predicated on residents’ experience in, exposure to, or perceptions of the place in which they live, critical examination of the appropriate delineation of the space designated as the neighborhood unit is important. If neighborhood units depart markedly from real-world experience, the result can be measurement error, misspecification of models, and the solving of practical problems by looking for results or effect in the wrong places.

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