The Market for Neighborhoods

Salim Furth

Current Issue

How much is a strong community worth? How much money would an apartment complex make, for example, through retaining residents and improving referrals, if it could grow a strong internal community? Surely the value could be at least equal to the rental income from an apartment. Some developers and owners are betting on it: A Christian nonprofit organization called Apartment Life connects interested apartment complexes with "community coordinators" whom it trains. The coordinators receive a free apartment in exchange for working part-time to build community in their own complex.

With Apartment Life, community passes the market test. But outside this kind of managed micro-community, does it even make sense to speak of a "market" for neighborhoods?

A neighborhood is not a strictly defined good, but it is a good nonetheless. People work to produce good neighborhoods, and some pay handsomely to live in the best ones. Residents who skip out on election day sometimes become activists if their neighborhood's character is at stake.

But despite the evident value that people place on neighborhoods, the barriers to an intelligible economic analysis are obvious: Neighborhood strength is not quantifiable, and different people mean different things when they use the term. Nor would we expect a market for neighborhoods to have the efficiency properties of a free, competitive market, with many buyers, many sellers, and few externalities. It is not that a "free market" in neighborhoods cannot exist; it's that we have few clues as to what such a market would look like.

Scholarship on the economics of neighborhoods is sparse. But sketching the contours of what an economics of neighborhoods would look like can help us figure out what makes a strong neighborhood and how individuals, organizations, and policymakers can work together to allow neighborhoods to thrive.

WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?

The word "neighborhood" covers a broad range of meanings and has been endlessly debated. I will use the term here to refer to a social phenomenon that exists in a particular geographical area.

Neighborhoods exist in places, but they are not places. Not every location, or even every residence, is part of a neighborhood, nor is every community necessarily a neighborhood. Neighborhoods are social entities: They are communities, sets of relationships and potential relationships that enrich or impoverish the lives of those who live in the same place.

Most people find it enjoyable to participate in community life, and neighborhood community participation frequently produces public or common goods, such as well-kept lawns and streets, crime deterrence, and the presence of useful businesses. Strong neighborhoods may have valuable social impacts, such as improvements in child development, public safety, or employment. But in considering the value of neighborhoods here, we should not rely on those kinds of potential external effects. Setting aside their effects on economic value in other spheres, let us here consider how neighborhoods might be directly valuable and enriching to those who encounter them.

Two concepts in existing economic scholarship can offer us some analytical help, though both suffer from the fact that they are purely individualist. The first is "spatial polygamy": the sensible notion that people habitually do different activities in different places. The second is "egohoods." An egohood is a half-mile (or so) circle drawn around a specific block or home. John Hipp and Adam Boessen, who introduced egohoods in a 2013 paper, argue that this better represents the places where people live than do administrative boundaries such as census tracts or zip codes. It also tracks better with how people think about their environments: When asked to map his own neighborhood, each resident tends to shift the boundaries so that his own home is closer to the middle.

Both of these concepts can help guide an analysis of the individual's relationship to his social environment. A neighborhood, by contrast, is a social entity that emerges from diverse individual definitions and contributions. Not every person who dwells within the neighborhood contributes much to it, although virtually all residents experience it. Likewise, some of the pillars of a successful neighborhood — teachers and small-business owners, for example — may well reside elsewhere.

As the research on egohoods suggests, neighborhood boundaries are not well-defined unless by a physical barrier such as a river. But their centers, which often include retail or civic buildings, are usually clearly defined. It may even be valid to think of all the people whose egohoods contain a common neighborhood center as comprising the neighborhood in question. You and I may live far enough apart that we never visit each other's streets, but if we visit the same neighborhood center somewhere between us, we can be part of the same fabric of overlapping relationships, shared loves, and common concerns that makes us neighbors.

Neighborhoods can be larger than their participants realize. Each samples a portion of it, and thinks of that as his neighborhood. I was once involved in an illustrative debate among Google Maps contributors about the boundaries of Washington, D.C.'s Petworth neighborhood, where I lived at the time. Residents of each side of the neighborhood frequent their own local streets and the common main street, which is Georgia Avenue. So one contributor insisted Georgia Avenue is Petworth's western boundary; another that it is the eastern boundary. Both were wrong. Far more than its imprecise exterior borders with Park View, Brightwood Park, 16th Street Heights, and Columbia Heights, Petworth is defined by the gravity of a Metro station, library, and shopping area along the main avenue.

Finally, "neighborhood strength" can denote the density and depth of the social ties that form the neighborhood community. Neighborhood weakness thus refers to disconnectedness — not low home prices or low incomes.

Thus, when I use the word "neighborhood," I am usually thinking of an area that contains tens of thousands of residents in an urban context, or thousands in a suburban context. For reference, St. Paul, Minnesota; Boston, Massachusetts; San Diego, California; Oklahoma County, Oklahoma; and Stark County, Ohio, all have one public library branch per 24,000 to 42,000 residents. Thus, if civic buildings like libraries may be said to form the center of gravity of a neighborhood, then neighborhoods have a reasonably similar size across very different cities.

DEMAND FOR NEIGHBORHOODS 

The most obvious demand for neighborhoods is among homebuyers and renters, who choose homes on a bewildering number of dimensions. (As an economist who just bought a home, I can confirm that home-buying is bewildering to both economists and homebuyers.) The market for homes, unlike the market for neighborhoods, has been heavily studied, and presents its own inefficiencies. Housing is a durable good, so the supply of homes changes slowly and is responsive to expectations of future demand. Homes are also packaged with land and locational amenities. And the market for homes is "thin" : there are relatively few buyers and sellers in a local housing market at any given moment.

There are many regulatory and financial distortions of the housing market, but even a laissez-faire housing market would include severe inefficiencies. Flint, Michigan, might have remained a healthy town if its excess housing stock could have been taken away behind U-Haul trailers by departing residents. Midland, Texas, has the inverse of Flint's problem: Housing cannot be built fast enough for its fracking boom. The cliché about the value of location in real estate arises precisely because of a departure from the classic competitive-market model. When demand for bottled water rises, companies bottle more of it. But when demand for waterfront property rises, property owners just raise their prices.

Locational amenities pose an analytical problem as well: They cannot generally be unbundled. A home in Irondequoit, New York, is a specific distance from the lakefront and a specific distance from jobs in downtown Rochester and suburban Henrietta. It has its own nearby parks and shops, and it is assigned to local schools, all specific distances away. Its block has a specific crime history and a perceived risk of future crime. Distinguishing the valuation of the physical characteristics of the home is hard; distinguishing among all the various locational amenities is probably impossible. Their illegibility, however, does not mean they do not exist.

One such locational amenity is neighborhood strength. It is unnecessary to argue that home-seekers value some of the potential effects of strong neighborhoods, such as clean streets and parental investment in local schools. But I hypothesize that home-seekers value neighborhood strength in its own right, as a source of enjoyment and an indication that the neighborhood is equipped to solve future problems.

Of course, home prices will not reflect the value of neighborhood strength if homebuyers cannot observe it. Community can be hard to see from the outside. In this regard, realtors and friends can sometimes help. Realtors often obfuscate, however: Their listings tend to stretch the borders of high-priced neighborhoods, while neighborhoods with bad reputations go unnamed in listings. Since accurate information eludes potential buyers, only a portion of whatever valuation they place on neighborhood strength can be reflected in the prices of homes.

For homebuyers trying to identify strong neighborhoods, one promising indicator is the frequency of sales. Among neighborhoods at a similar price point, frequent sales indicate dissatisfaction, and they also erode neighborhood strength by severing neighborly relationships. Long tenure and neighborhood strength form a virtuous circle. Although sale frequency is not made available as a statistic by popular real-estate websites like Zillow or Redfin, it easily could be.

Residential choices are the most important neighborhood choices, but not the only ones. Residents who open businesses or nonprofit organizations in their own neighborhoods may do so partly out of the desire to reinvest and engage in a community they already love. They might also have better information about how to serve their own locality. Research has shown that entrepreneurs are most profitable in places where they are rooted. Social capital and social networks are well-studied determinants of entrepreneurship and success. It is probable, although not demonstrated, that being a member of a strong neighborhood community makes local entrepreneurship more likely to occur and to succeed. Neighborhoods can also attract outside businesses as well as shoppers, diners, and flaneurs. For these non-residents, the underlying community is less likely to matter, although they value some of what it makes possible.

The demand for neighborhoods may thus follow a pattern that economists can name. As consumer goods, neighborhoods are "non-rivalrous"; that is, my enjoyment of the neighborhood does not lessen yours. Whether the neighborhood is "excludable" is more complicated. Neighborhoods cannot usually exclude visitors. But the consumption of individual houses is both rivalrous and excludable. A visitor can enjoy the neighborhood for free, but one must pay to live there. Thus, one could call a neighborhood a "club good," a term coined by Nobel laureate James Buchanan in the mid-1960s to describe non-rivalrous, excludable goods.

Neighborhood consumption, however, has an uncommon feature. Many, though not all, types of neighborhood consumption tend to strengthen the neighborhood. Not only is the quality of the neighborhood not depleted by additional participants and visitors, it is usually augmented. Demand literally creates its own supply.

SUPPLY OF NEIGHBORHOODS 

Communities come in many forms. But strong neighborhoods typically emerge where many residents, too numerous to know each other, all interact with and value a common group of social or socially created public goods. Common concerns and loves create fellow-feeling and a sense of belonging among residents. Even those who do not participate in the public goods at the heart of a strong neighborhood can sense and enjoy the neighborhood's value. Neighborhood strength can thus emerge around social and socially created public goods, but it is not synonymous with those.

Some social public goods are socially created — a parent-teacher association or a weekly pick-up basketball game, for example — while others are created by government or private actions. Governments loom large in creating social public goods around which strong neighborhoods can form: Schools, playgrounds, and libraries are social public goods at the center of children's, and thus parents', lives.

In a society rooted in personal choice (and where transportation is often easy with personal cars), the local elementary school takes on outsize significance. For example, although the children of the Stoney Creek development in Lee's Summit, Missouri, may be shuttled all over Jackson County for activities, most of them are educated together at Summit Pointe Elementary. They will matriculate together to Summit Lakes Middle School and Lee's Summit West High School. Schools, more than any remaining American institution, bring people together on the basis of geography.

Privately provided public goods are less obvious but are also important. In my neighborhood, the Giant Food supermarket is a valued public good. (The items sold in the supermarket are private goods, but the opportunity to transact is offered to all freely.) I live in a congested city, so being able to walk a few minutes to pick up a bag of groceries is a meaningful amenity. But Giant's prices are not the best, so my wife drives two miles to Aldi for her major weekly grocery run. This public good, food-market access, is privately created by the investors of Ahold Delhaize (Giant's parent company) and the company's managers and employees. It is sustained by private action: Enough shoppers patronize the store to keep it in business. My family is a partial free-rider, using the Giant only when we want a few items in a hurry. If all shoppers took our approach, the location would be untenable, and the public good would disappear.

Finally, some socially created public goods are not socially consumed. Alabama Coastal Cleanup mobilizes volunteers along the state's southern waterfront each September to create cleaner waterways. Enjoyment of that public good may be primarily private, but because the good is socially created, it engenders shared concern and pride.

A salient feature of neighborhood quality is that most residents and visitors contribute very little while a handful of neighbors contribute disproportionately. These overachievers do the organizing to create the frameworks within which the majority can make small contributions effectively. The majority of residents — and more obviously the vast majority of those who only work, shop, or seek leisure in a neighborhood — are mainly free-riders on neighborhood quality. They commute away during the day, maintain geographically dispersed social networks, and use neighborhood amenities without forming relationships there. When they do participate in community activities, they conform themselves to the institutions established by others.

Yet even the free-riding majority's active enjoyment of the neighborhood strengthens it. Consumption is production in this case. When you attend a nearby church or a PTA meeting, shop at a local establishment, or even take an evening stroll down your street, you make each of those things slightly better. Thus, strong neighborhoods tend to remain strong.

Where neighborhoods do exhibit unusual strength, one can find a small number of identifiable "good neighbors." Some fill professional roles: sports coaches, school principals, local elected officials, small-business owners, and pastors, for example. Their jobs put them in the neighborhood daily and give them a reason to know people and, often, an interest in the health of the neighborhood. They are widely known. Many of them are the docents of the social public goods — church, school, business — around which a strong neighborhood is likely to emerge.

The "good neighbor" of the non-professional type is the compulsive volunteer. She (or sometimes he) has served a term as head of a neighborhood association, set up a listserv, and seems to know everybody for several blocks around. She keeps a history of the place in her head, even if she is much newer to the neighborhood than some others.

Joanna Taft of the Herron-Morton neighborhood in Indianapolis is an archetypal good neighbor. Jonathan Coppage's profile of Taft in Philanthropy magazine details her virtues: energy, persistence, and vision. She and her husband, Bill, moved to a struggling, half-empty place, connected with local leaders, and poured themselves into creating local public goods: two schools, a church, and an art gallery. Taft's impact came through a mix of personal relationships and investment in formal institutions.

Walter Sgroi is another good neighbor. Every Saturday and Sunday of every summer for two decades, he drove from his home in Waltham to Milton, Massachusetts, picked up his nephew, and played pick-up baseball at Andrews Park or Cunningham Park. The most eager kids would show up at 9 A.M. to greet Sgroi and play ball until lunch. The afternoon game was usually reserved for an older crowd, teens and dads. "Sgroiball," as we called it, finally faded as the families aged and youth sports schedules became too demanding.

Deborah and James Fallows, in their 2018 book Our Towns, tell a dozen such stories: entrepreneurs, civic leaders, volunteers, and local boosters building communities in small towns across the country. In almost every case, the Fallows could identify specific people whose outsized energy and willingness to serve were vital to the recovery of an old main street or the creation of an innovative institution. Writing of Columbus, Mississippi, they say, "Allowing for all the other explanations, it still seemed clear that a handful of forceful people made the difference in shaping the region's economy as a whole. In a way, this is consistent with the pattern we were beginning to see around the country."

Having a small network of good neighbors is necessary for the emergence of a high-quality neighborhood, but not sufficient. Geography is another key component. The natural boundaries and the built environment of a place determine which social connections are feasible and which are attractive. Without an environment conducive to a fairly dense network of relationships, the social weave is thin, and the neighborhood remains weak.

THE NEW URBAN GEOGRAPHY 

The easiest place for a high-quality neighborhood to emerge might be a neighborhood-sized island. With defined borders all around and few options for other connections, those who live there are practically forced to form a dense network of social connections. But limited mobility can impose something close to an island economy even in a large metropolis. In The Lost City, Alan Ehrenhalt depicts three Chicago neighborhoods of the 1950s that were stronger than practically any urban neighborhood today, and far less mobile. But he makes clear the tradeoffs: Community radically limited privacy, and people socialized as much by necessity as by desire.

American society is generally no longer rooted in place in this way. The personal automobile and, to a lesser extent, the smartphone have allowed us to order our social lives à la carte. We gain a great deal from this: the ability to pursue uncommon interests without being lonely, friendships that are not cut short by necessitous moves, and liberation from the gossip and petty wars of tight-knit networks. And we gain choices. To give an account of the geography of neighborhood creation today requires us to reckon with a society in which a 20-minute drive can bring most Americans to the driveway of any of hundreds of thousands of "neighbors." For people with access to cars and highways, the daily choices of which store, church, sports field, or restaurant to patronize are not dictated by proximity.

Given all our options and the ease of travel, the informal neighborhood communities of the pre-war era could well have been replaced by communities of choice, formal associations to pursue every end imaginable. But rather than flourishing in the last quarter of the 20th century, associational life in the U.S. withered, as Robert Putnam and others have documented. We are now able to maintain personally curated associations of all kinds, but we generally choose not to. Instead of choosing a new social life, we chose choice. We kept our options open.

Where modern associations based on shared interests do exist, they are limited by their compartmentalization. Modern churches illustrate this point. My own church has some 150 members. But in spite of our intention to be a community church — "Community" is in the name — members drive up to 30 minutes from every direction. If you drew a circle on the map that covered all the members, it would include perhaps 3 million other people. As a result, church members see each other at church services and other gatherings, but rarely in daily life. The church is a wonderful community, but it is not part of any meaningful larger community.

The scattering of the sheep is not unique to this particular church; one sees it in most U.S. congregations. And it is certainly not unique to religion. Other than neighborhood-specific associations, most forms of community now draw their participants from among hundreds of thousands of non-participants.

The principal organizing feature of the American suburban landscape is an accident called the "stroad." Charles Marohn coined the term to describe roads that have been pressed into service as streets, combining the vices of both streets and roads while losing the virtues of each. Unlike proper roads, a stroad mixes entrances, exits, lights, and turning traffic with high speeds. Consequently, stroads have much higher accident and fatality rates than highways or local streets. And unlike traditional main streets, they lack charm and lend themselves to very low dollar-per-acre retail use.

Connecting with car-borne customers is straightforward for a business: Locate on the busiest road that allows retail curb cuts. If your local Applebee's or your church were offered its own exit from the interstate, it would probably accept; thankfully, the interstates have limited access, allowing them to serve their intended function of moving drivers between places. But major surface roads have rarely enacted similar limits, so businesses, workplaces, churches, and even schools have chosen high-traffic locations on those arterial roads, slowly transmogrifying them into stroads. Widening a stroad can lead to a vicious cycle: More traffic makes them more attractive to businesses, attracting yet more traffic.

Even if one cared only about traffic, not neighborhoods, one would avoid locating retail destinations along these arterial roads. Nonetheless, stroads are now everywhere. Prime examples include Route 1 outside of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and Poplar Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, and Route 161 in South Hill, Washington, but there is a similar stroad in virtually every American town.

So why do stroads exist? It's individually rational for the businesses to locate there, and (more to the point) it is individually rational for each local tax authority to encourage as much retail as possible along its roads. So stroad-side retail often receives local tax subsidies, as well as an implicit subsidy through excessive retail zoning.

While stroads are an inconvenience for drivers, they have been a disaster for main streets and, by extension, the neighborhoods that drew their strength and identity from those main streets. Knightdale, North Carolina, for example, grew from a rural village into a suburb of Raleigh over the past few decades, and pursued stroad-based retail. As the stroad Knightdale Boulevard grew, the prospects of the village's old main street, First Avenue, shrank. Despite having a walkable core, Knightdale residents now have little to walk to and thus few opportunities to build the relationships that make up a high-quality neighborhood.

Stroads hurt neighborhoods not only by competing directly (and often at a subsidized advantage) against the main street's shops, but by putting people in the habit of leaving. In most newer suburbs, there is no main street to begin with; they were built under the assumption that all retail shopping and civic buildings would be stroad-side stops. Without centers, the relationships that are built in these suburbs are scattered across various stroads and lose their geographic grounding.

Seven miles east of Knightdale, at the very edge of Raleigh's suburban growth, the Town of Wendell will soon face the choice of remaining centered or embracing stroads. Wendell has already annexed land along the main roads toward Raleigh, and could encourage retail development along those corridors to augment its tax base. Doing so, however, would put at risk one of the city's chief assets: a healthy town center of small shops and light manufacturing, within a short walk (or an easy drive) of most of the town's 6,000 residents.

With its strong town center and relative isolation, one is more likely to find a strong neighborhood in Wendell than in Knightdale today. Wendell's private and public leaders will influence whether that remains true a decade or two from now. Geography does not make neighborhoods: neighbors do. But geography influences whether neighbors have a shared interest in nearby social public goods.

MARKET FAILURE? 

It seems clear that people value strong neighborhoods. But it is no less clear that neighborhood strength has declined drastically in the past 50 years. Why, in a time of growing wealth and consumption, has neighborhood strength declined so drastically? When people get richer, they buy more of the "normal goods" that they value. Growing wealth, especially among suburban professionals, has led to larger homes, better cars, richer diets, more years of education, and so on. So why aren't people buying strong neighborhoods?

One simple explanation, which turns out to be unsatisfying, is that most of the cost of both enjoying and creating community is time, not money. So maybe we have not grown richer over the past 50 years, since our days are still 24 hours long. Or one might expect that the rise in wages has led to more work, especially for women, and so has crowded out time spent in the community. But Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst have shown that leisure for both sexes increased by about an hour per day between 1965 and 2003. Women have increased their market-work hours, substituting away from non-market-work hours, but the magnitude of that shift is less than an hour per day. It may be the case that the shift from time spent at and near the home to time spent in the workplace is much larger than these averages for a key group of people: affluent women with strong leadership skills. These women tend to be neighborhood leaders, and the returns to their skills in the market have risen sharply in two generations. But without documentation, such a narrow explanation must be considered speculative.

There are at least four other potential explanations for this puzzle, and some combination of these is likely correct. First, it may be a matter of taste. If our culture's desire for community has decreased, then the decline of neighborhoods might be expected. It might also be the case that neighborhood communities are in fact an "inferior good" relative to some other forms of community that are now available. One can imagine that humans crave community but prefer the fellowship of selected friends to that of the random people who happen to live nearby. This latter explanation seems less likely, since participation in associations and other gatherings of choice appears to have also declined.

Second, there may be spatial tradeoffs in the way that neighborhoods are built. Perhaps the desire for big houses and rapid mobility is fundamentally at odds with neighborhoods, which usually require low speeds and some walkability and density. This cannot be the only explanation: Old, walkable neighborhoods have also weakened. Nor does the fact that most late-20th-century neighborhoods were built without walkable destinations or walkable streets mean that the tradeoff was necessary. The misnamed "New Urbanist" style (which imitates old suburbs) has shown that the early-20th-century style of suburb is appealing. Indeed, 21st-century suburban developments are substantially more "old-fashioned" than developments from the 1980s and '90s.

Those observations lead to the third potential explanation: It could be the fault of regulation. It would take another essay, at least, to document all the ways that land-use regulation determines urban form. The "not in my backyard" motivation for regulation is widely known. Another major motivator for regulators is the short-term financial impact of different styles of development; for example, local regulators favor approaches that dump costs on the state.

The absence of regulation would not necessarily have led to neighborhood nirvana, though. Developers rarely account for the benefits of neighborly design, as the benefits spill over to plots in which the developer has no financial interest. Tellingly, the largest private developments, such as The Woodlands, Texas, are the most neighborly, putting shopping and schools in easy reach of residents, incorporating sidewalks, and using parkways rather than stroads to move traffic. This suggests that small-scale development is a natural candidate for regulations requiring developers to account for the externalities of their choices. The problem, as just noted, is that the regulators are also self-interested, trying to minimize their own costs.

The fourth possible explanation is a straightforward case of what an economist would clumsily call "market failure" in the social creation of neighborhoods. This cannot completely account for the change either; non-market behaviors like sociability and volunteering are still rewarded by social status and other appealing advantages. Perhaps earlier generations gave more honor to those who did the unremunerative work of community building.

NEIGHBORING BETTER 

Reviewing the evidence, can one really speak of a "market" for neighborhoods? The answers are yes, no, and maybe. On the demand side, for homebuyers, there is a real sense of choosing among available options and weighing price against quality, and that makes for a kind of market. But it is far from a perfect market. Buyers' information about neighborhood strength is limited, and they cannot unbundle neighborhood from the many other locational amenities.

On the supply side, we have identified two key contributing factors to neighborhood strength. For the first, the socially active "good neighbors," there is nothing approximating a market. The geographic aspects of neighborhood supply are closer to being marketable, although only imperfectly. Urban geography arises from stable institutional arrangements that, however imperfect, endure. The "market" for institutions moves slowly.

Even if all the hypotheses offered above to explain the paucity of strong neighborhoods were correct, that would not necessarily mean we need to do anything about the problem. Neighborhoods are not the only form of community, and community is not the only or the highest good in human life. It is not necessary to be embedded in a dense network of relationships across 10,000 neighbors to have fulfilling personal relationships. But for those who do wish to live in stronger neighborhoods, these hypotheses hold out hope and offer some clear courses of action.

The most obvious is not a matter of public policy but of personal commitment. Being the kind of "good neighbor" who makes an outsized contribution to a strong neighborhood is its own reward: Good neighbors are well-known and well-loved. They can experience community intensely even in a relatively weak neighborhood. And, of course, they make it more likely that a strong community will coalesce around their and others' efforts.

People choosing a new place to live who wish to be in a strong neighborhood can look for visible signs of strength. Busy playgrounds and stores are good indicators. So is low real-estate turnover. Conversely, neighborhood-seekers should avoid places where realtors disagree about the name of the community. In addition, you will be more likely to find real community in your neighborhood if you locate near a friend's home or some other social base — a club, church, or workplace to which you are already connected.

Businesses can have large roles in neighborhood strength or weakness. Facility location is the first and often the most important decision. To again take Wendell, North Carolina, as an example, contrast the location decisions made there by Universal Chevrolet and the Food Lion grocery chain. Universal Chevy has maintained and reinvested in its North Main Street location since shortly after the invention of the automobile, bringing outside shoppers into the town center. Food Lion, a weekly destination for many locals, chose a site a mile out of town. Implicit in Food Lion's location is the assumption that Wendell is a place you drive away from, not a place you spend your day.

Governments at all levels make the same types of location decisions, and Wendell again furnishes examples. Wake County located Wendell Middle School a full three miles from the town, convenient to almost nobody. The state built a driver's license center to serve the area, but put it out beside the Food Lion. And even the U.S. Post Office has moved away from Wendell's busy Main Street, choosing a location just at the edge of the town.

The issue is not whether patrons drive or walk — most in-town trips are assuredly by car — it is whether they leave town. The Food Lion and the middle school are outside the egohoods of Wendell residents. Their proprietors have little vested interest in the condition or safety of Wendell's streets or property values. By contrast, a rural resident whose daily routine brings him into Wendell may be very much part of the neighborhood despite living several miles away.

In addition, businesses can engage with their communities in many ways. Some are overt: sponsoring sports teams, hosting events, or visiting schools. Others are implicit, such as hiring locals and getting to know their customers.

Governments affect neighborhood strength far more than any business does. As long as governments build roads, they will remain the implicit urban planners. Where urban planning is done explicitly, it can be done poorly or well. Where it is not done explicitly, it is done implicitly and almost always poorly. Planners in growing suburbs ought to refocus their efforts on the local government's own role as the provider of roads, streets, and other utilities. Government, when administered correctly, provides a clear frame within which private developers do their own work to the public benefit. Local planners routinely miss the mark by paying too little attention to their own responsibilities and, often at the same time, micro-managing private development.

All of these can be important steps toward encouraging strong neighborhoods. And all suggest that the work of restoring neighborhood strength has to begin with some basic questions about what people want, and what matters most about where we live.

Salim Furth is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. 


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