What Makes a Neighborhood?

What do you consider to be your neighborhood? Is it the proximity around where you live? Is it a sub region of your town or city with identifiable boundaries? Is it a sense of identity centered around landmarks or local institutions such as a school? How much of that is from historical roots of families? Or, is it simply just the relationships between people residing in your area?


Typical neighborhood in Cyprus
[SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons License]

These questions came up in a fascinating conversation among fellow collaborators advising the “Instagreen” project at Vtricity. I look forward to being able to share more about this project soon. What is interesting to me is similarities and differences in how cultures around the world perceived their neighborhoods.

saopaolo_barrioBarrio of Sao Paolo, Brazil
[SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons License]

Vtricity’s founder, Peter Ebert, feels that many Europeans still have a deep sense of family roots tying them to their neighborhoods. I wonder how much of that is a generational feeling as it seems to me that younger Europeans are much more transient, more “pan-European”. Europe also has a much higher degree of non-European immigration over the last couple decades, which in some countries seems to be creating their own communities.


Altstadt of Tübingen, Germany
[SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons License]

Contrast this with urban hubs which have highly nonnative populations such as New York, or San Francisco. I would presume London probably fits this description as well. I’ve heard it said that everyone in New York is from somewhere else, but they are all New Yorkers. While this speaks to a city identity, friends of mine who live in New York speak fondly of their neighborhoods.


Staten Island’s Old Town Neighborhood
[SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons License]

Looking up the Merriam-Webster definition for ‘neighborhood’, I note that the first definition is in fact “neighborly relationship” – congeniality and friendliness between those who live in an area. Missing in that definition is also a sense of hospitality and care. If you want to see this in action, even in neighborhoods with a lot of transplanted residents, just look at the stories of neighborliness from New York and New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Screen Shot 2012-11-07 at 9.29.14 PM

Neighbors catering hot lunch for volunteers helping clean up after Hurricane Sandy

What’s Special About Your Neighborhood?

Let’s face it. Much of our attention is spent on things outside of our neighborhoods: national politics, worldwide celebrities, global brands and shopping outlets. Many of us, myself included, work in large national or global corporations. When I commute to work, I commute well outside my residential neighborhood to a neighborhood that’s pretty much only other software companies.

Globalization has had a transformative effect on the world. To call it all negative is to ignore the benefits of improving the standard of living of many populations, and the opening of new sources of supply and markets for selling goods. However, things getting lost in this macro-optimization include our individuality, and the locality around us. In other words, our neighborhoods and neighborliness.


The Garden Theatre is a central landmark of the Willow Glen neighborhood in San Jose, CA.
[SOURCE: © 2013 Willow Glen Business Association]

I’m fortunate enough to live in a very charming neighborhood in San Jose, called Willow Glen. It revolves around a short shopping main street called Lincoln Ave. There are a number of boutique stores, and unique restaurants with patio seating – important for my dogs Eva and Oban who appreciate dog-friendly dining. I try to do as much of my personal business as I can locally to improve my quality of life, and the quality of life in the neighborhood.


Dog-friendly patio dining at my favorite neighborhood pizza place.

[SOURCE: © 2013 Greg Chase. Released for creative commons use, use with attribution]

Please share a comment about what makes your neighborhood special!


  1. What makes a neighborhood: Places to hang out, have chance encounters, walkways, bike paths, little parks with benches and a grill, may be even a little theater stage, local cafe shops, libraries, community centers. That San Mateo Heighlands has such a great community is the Community Center in the middle that brings folks together and they then create their own 4th of July parade and fireworks. If you are looking to move check walk score: http://www.walkscore.com/ I think it is a good index to find interesting neighborhoods, Mark.

    • Hi Mark,
      Thanks for the comment. I’m a big fan of Walk Score. They do a wonderful job of distilling what makes a neighborhood pleasant to live in. Hopefully they help lead to revitalization of auto-era neighborhoods, and not just abandonment as residents migrate to more urban style neighborhoods.

  2. Such a nice article. Most people I know want to live in a neighborhood and many put the effort in to help create a neighborhood… It seems to be a common thread in humanity to want to belong and feel comfortable.

    • Holly, I know we are very lucky to live in Willow Glen. What do you think of WalkScore.com as a real estate resource? Also, I’d love to show you and your husband what we are up to with InstaGreen when you have time.

  3. Love this piece!

    Love Mark’s comment that a neighborhood is a place to “have chance encounters” — this fits with the Webster definition including “neighborly relationship.” Proximity as the basis for neighbors though must be waning. People are more and more part of the global ‘hood. Via social networking, visiting each other in person is even taking a back seat to connecting online, so much so that owning a car may become a thing of the past, at least in the urban global future. What is left to chance a chance encounter is evolving.

    I’m a fan of shared resources, the bottom-line underneath the thread of becoming global citizens. Must learn more about Vitricity.

    • Hi Moya, Interesting that you point out shared resources as the thread binding global citizens. A book I’m reading called “Debt, The Last 5000 years” makes a similar point, stating that in our most basic relationships, humans are communal.

  4. My #1 goal during my terms on the NWGNA board was to get people out of their houses, get them together, and provide an opportunity for them to get to know one another. However you go about it, I believe building relationships among residents is what makes a great neighborhood. Gatherings create a greater sense of ownership of our public spaces. I am happy to say that in four years the neighborhood association has gone from a faltering operation to one that currently has eleven members who are incredibly dedicated to the care-taking of North Willow Glen. We hold our Produce Share, Garage Sale, Party in the Park, and Holiday Decoration Contest every year now. We have a team responsible for graffiti abatement, each dedicated to a street or two. We have three work parties a year to maintain our parks, traffic calming islands, and gateways. And best of all, I am confident that as I step away at the end of the year the association will continue on, doing great things. In my five years here I have gotten to know more neighbors than anywhere I have ever lived and that is what I enjoy most about Willow Glen.

    • Chris, your leadership in our neighborhood is nothing short of amazing. I love how you focus out activities around our neighborhood parks. And I think the weekly produce share is nothing short of genius. Makes me wonder if there’s a way to help neighbors harvest their trees and do a neighborhood farmers market. Just a nutty idea :)

      • Thanks Greg. It has been a total team effort. I probably get associated with it more than most because I think getting the word out is half the battle. But there are a lot of people that do a lot of work, many behind the scenes and a hand full that have been doing it for 20-30 years.
        As for tree harvesting, it is an intriguing thought, but we have yet to come up with a system we think is going to work. We are up for hearing any suggestions though.
        Unfortunately a market implies goods being bought and sold and then you’re getting into permit and liability territory. We would like to build on the Produce Share concept though. One idea I’ve been mulling is a book share – either at the Produce Share or as a free-standing kiosk in the park. Thoughts?

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