THE IMPORTANCE OF PLACE
For families having the intent and means to do so, selecting a residence in the “right” neighborhood is a decision made with great care. Many factors are considered in this decision, including the prevalence of crime, the reputations of school districts and local hospitals, the quality of public services, the accessibility of local businesses (such as grocery stores, banks, and child care), and local tax rates. Working parents also make choices about how close to live to work and how much time to commit to daily commutes. It is not uncommon for families who can afford to do so to choose long commute times and large monthly mortgage payments in order to live in the “right” neighborhoods.
These choices suggest that many parents believe that the social environments of neighborhoods and public services such as the schools represent important influences on their children. Thus far, research has supported this common wisdom that place does matter, though perhaps to a more modest and complicated extent than might be expected. For example, research seeking to measure the power of neighborhood effects on residents has yielded a range of results, suggesting in some cases that neighborhood has an important impact and in others that its effect is minimal. Complexity has also been found in the types of influence place may have on residents: in some cases place may have positive effects (e.g., young people in affluent neighborhoods tend to have higher levels of academic achieve
ment), whereas in other cases the influence is negative (e.g., joblessness seems to be perpetuated in places having high rates of unemployment). There are also a number of intervening variables that complicate the extent to which and in what ways neighborhoods affect individuals. For instance, good parenting skills can mitigate many potentially negative neighborhood influences.
The effects of place and neighborhood on the well-being of residents are somewhat complex, suggesting a need for additional research, and there are more than a few compelling reasons beyond scientific curiosity to study place in a critical manner. For example, although safe neighborhoods, good schools, and community centers contribute positively to the neighborhood environment, their existence certainly does not guarantee that residents will prosper. On the other hand, neighborhoods in which residents fear for their physical safety, have limited or no access to such services as child care and health care, and are geographically isolated from jobs and informal employment networks create a set of constraints that make it significantly more difficult for their families to prosper. Knowing what basic conditions and opportunities in neighborhoods represent a minimum standard for residents to prosper could be extremely helpful to policy makers. In addition, a thorough understanding of the complex relationships between neighborhood factors and spatial barriers that concentrate disadvantage would be useful in designing more effective and efficient intervention programs.
Place is also the vehicle through which public policy meant to improve the lives of citizens is translated into programming and services. Even though the services may not be centered on influencing neighborhood effects, services can be and are delivered through neighborhoods and neighborhood institutions. Place may well determine the success of social policy implementation. It will also greatly affect the precise shape and design of programs meant to put policies into action because each location comes with a certain set of social relationships and spatial challenges as well as its own set of institutions and institutional relationships. Research that can help policy makers and practitioners anticipate these issues has the potential to lead to more effective social policies and interventions.
WORKSHOP ON EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY: THE IMPORTANCE OF PLACE
In 1996 the National Research Council (NRC) formed the Committee on Improving the Future of U.S. Cities Through Improved Metropoli
tan Area Governance. The committee’s charge was to focus on the inequality of opportunities in metropolitan areas, the disparities that result, the causes of the disparities, and the role of governance and the government system in contributing to, and potentially solving, these problems. The committee reported its findings in a volume entitled Governance and Opportunity in Metropolitan America. That report identified a number of areas that current research suggests may cause disparities and an unequal distribution of opportunities in metropolitan areas. For example, spatial mismatch (i.e., geographic isolation of a potential pool of workers from jobs appropriate to their skill level), concentrated poverty in urban neighborhoods, social isolation of the poor, neighborhood effects (i.e., the influence neighborhoods have on residents), racial and economic segregation, and tax/service disparities were all cited as likely causes that limit opportunities for poor inner-city workers.
After completion of the study, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asked the NRC to convene a workshop with the objective of expanding a discussion from the findings of Governance and Opportu nity. In addition to developing a selected set of key themes from the report’s findings, such as spatial barriers to opportunity and neighborhood effects, workshop participants would discuss areas of further research, identify the types of data needed to develop that research, and consider possible policy options to implement research findings.
ASPE’s interest in this subject springs from its concern for intrametropolitan distribution of particular conditions, such as concentrated poverty, social isolation, and physical and social aspects of inner-city neighborhoods that affect employment, health, and child development outcomes. ASPE’s programs have traditionally been shaped by people-oriented policy, meaning that programs deliver services directly to individuals. The proceedings of the NRC workshop offer a resource to ASPE in enhancing its understanding of how place may influence the outcomes of people-oriented programs through an examination of how the negative impacts of distressed inner-city neighborhoods affect welfare and employment, child development, and public health. In addition, the workshop proceedings provide a second resource to ASPE by highlighting the opportunities that programs and policies addressing conditions of place may have for ameliorating the negative impacts of distressed neighborhoods.
The Steering Committee on Metropolitan Area Research and Data Priorities was formed to develop the workshop for ASPE. William Morrill
served as chair of the committee and was joined by members Harold Wolman, Gordon Berlin, and Barbara McNeil. The “importance of place” was chosen as an organizing theme for the workshop in order to capture the multiple ways in which the location of one’s residence can create barriers or opportunities to access various resources as well as influence the well-being and development of individuals. Because of the effects that place can have on residents, it is also an important research theme (e.g., how can the influence of space and neighborhood be measured?) and has important implications for the ways in which public policies are implemented to improve the opportunities available to residents. The theme, “the importance of place,” also served as an effective bridge between key findings in the Governance and Opportunity report and issues such as child development and concentrated poverty with which ASPE is particularly concerned.
Five papers were commissioned for the workshop to explore this theme. These papers were prepared by Tama Leventhal, Claudia Coulton, Jeffrey Morenoff, George Galster, and Timothy Smeeding. Each paper addressed a topic pertinent to intrametropolitan public policy: Leventhal considered neighborhood effects and child development; Coulton’s paper explored spatial factors that could influence the success or failure of welfare-to-work programs; Morenoff discussed the way in which neighborhood effects might “get under one’s skin” and affect the health of inner-city residents; Galster described the data needs and interactions of variables complicating any investigation of place and opportunity; and Smeeding considered the interaction of people and place in light of creating effective public policy.
On November 14, 2001, a workshop entitled “Equality of Opportunity in Metropolitan Areas: The Importance of Place” was held at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. The workshop explored questions about how place and neighborhood are related to opportunity on several key fronts—employment and transitions from welfare to work, public health, and child development—and sought to answer how or in what ways place and neighborhood affect residents, why they might have an effect, and what we need to know in order to deal with spatial challenges and positive and negative neighborhood effects in the future. More specifically, the workshop considered disparities in various measures of well-being among residents of different kinds of places (e.g., city and suburban residents, neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and nonpoverty neighborhoods) and identified data and research that could assist policy makers, scholars, and political leaders to understand the underlying issues and take action to address them.
Papers prepared for the workshop were presented, and each was discussed by a distinguished panel with relevant expertise. The discussion at the workshop centered on the spatial distribution of socioeconomic inequality and, in particular, the isolation of low-income minority populations in inner-city neighborhoods, meaning central-city and inner-suburban neighborhoods. Workshop participants also discussed the availability and accessibility of employment, social and health services, and educational opportunities in urban and suburban areas; the mismatch between where most unemployed people live and where employers are located (“spatial mismatch”); and the effects of concentrated poverty, social isolation, and social characteristics of inner-city neighborhoods on the health and well-being of individual residents (“neighborhood effects”).
This report summarizes the proceedings of the workshop, and, while it offers insight from the presenters on the potential of future research and the implications of certain types of policy approaches to overcome the challenges facing inner-city neighborhoods, it does not contain conclusions or recommendations. Rather, it reflects the views of the workshop participants on the viability of a number of research and policy opportunities and offers a distillation of the workshop dialogue, highlighting key issues and viewpoints that emerged from the rich discussion that took place. Every effort has been made to accurately reflect the speakers’ content and viewpoints. However, because the report reflects the proceedings of the workshop, it is not intended to be a comprehensive review of all the issues involved in neighborhood or place-based policy or research.
The next three chapters in this report cover a broad range of topics pertaining to place, opportunity, and the body of research that may be useful in providing a framework for creating better neighborhoods and solving place-based challenges. The second chapter provides background information on why place matters by reviewing research on the development and current status of the modern U.S. city, neighborhood effects, and spatial mismatch. The research history of the latter two concepts—spatial mismatch and neighborhood effects—underlies much of the discussion that developed at the workshop and in this respect provides an important context for the workshop discussion.
Chapter 3 examines how place matters by reviewing the content of the papers presented at the workshop, each of which explored a particular way in which neighborhood and spatial challenges can affect residents. It begins with Tama Leventhal’s recent data from an ongoing social experiment involving neighborhood mobility and explores the relationship between child
and adolescent development and neighborhood effects. Claudia Coulton’s analysis of spatial mismatches and the effects that create barriers in transitions from welfare to work is then presented. Finally, Jeffrey Morenoff’s discussion of the relationship between neighborhood and the health outcomes of residents is reviewed.
Chapter 4 focuses on future challenges and opportunities for research and policy. This is in keeping with the workshop’s goal to offer an analysis that could assist policy makers and practitioners in future actions to address place-based challenges and to guide scholars in pursuing new lines of research. A summary of George Galster’s paper on factors important to conducting comprehensive and rigorous research on neighborhood effects is presented, as well as key points of discussion of future directions for neighborhood and place-based research. Timothy Smeeding’s discussion of the public policy options that are available and which are in need of additional research before becoming viable is summarized. The ensuing policy discussion concludes the chapter.