The Neighborhood Effect

Neighborhood Effect Shapes Our Lives

The character of a neighborhood—strongly expressed by how much people help and trust each other—may influence its collective health and economic survival even more than such obvious indicators as income levels and foreclosure rates, a long-term study suggests.

Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson believes it is vitally necessary to understand the neighborhood environment, not just the characteristics of individual residents. In 1994 he became the scientific director of a 15-year-study based on interviews and surveys in 80 economically diverse Chicago neighborhoods. His new book, The Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, is based on the research.

A New York Times story by Benedict Carey describes the community resilience of Chatham, an African American community on Chicago’s South Side that has weathered economic recession and recent violence. Carey describes how the community rallied when Thomas Wortham, a young off-duty police officer, Iraq war veteran, and long time resident was fatally shot after leaving his parents’ house one night in May 2011. Family members, friends, and police officers gathered in Cole Park, near the scene of the murder, and stayed, signifying their support of keeping the picnic areas and playgrounds safe for families and out of the hands of the badly-behaved. Crime in the area stopped afterwards, according to analysis by Sampson, though it rose again in 2012, which has been a violent year in Chicago.

In an interview with Marc Parry in the Journal of Higher Education, Sampson explained that his research team followed more than 6,200 children and families wherever they moved in the US, and interviewed 12,000 city residents. Sampson hopes the twenty-first century will be an “era of context.” The Chicago study exemplifies “ecometrics,” which Sampson calls the new science of context.

The team collected exhaustive data on businesses, civic organizations, clubs, nonprofits, churches, local leaders and officials, networks, and the extent of collaboration among them. Researchers recorded physical and social details they saw in public spaces. In a video, Sampson describes some of the findings and correlations. In areas where homicides were high, child health was poor. Areas most highly segregated in the 1960s had the highest foreclosure rates today, so history matters. People were asked whether they would help an injured stranger on the street. In their “lost letter experiment” researchers scattered stamped, addressed envelopes in neighborhoods across the city and measured the rate of return. High rates of return came from the same areas where people would help an injured person.

What does Chatham have that some similar neighborhoods lack? One thing is a “social efficacy,” or social cohesion, which Sampson says seems to protect cities from internal and external adversities. Chatham has more than 100 block groups and citizen volunteers who organize events as well as monitoring neighborhood tidiness and noise. It ranked second among Chicago black communities on how frequently people worked together for common goals such as organizing events or fund-raising for a cause. It ranked first among all neighborhoods on questions about how highly residents valued and enforced respectful behavior by children. The Times story notes it also has small residential and commercial business buildings, few of them more than three stories high. That makes communication easier, and means one abandoned building is less trouble than a partly vacated apartment complex. Nearby neighborhoods with lower social efficacy and cohesion, even though they have newer developments and more young professionals, have been slower to recover from recession and reduce crime.

“The specific neighborhood has a personality that affects all aspects of social life, the choices we make about where to live, about how much disorder we’ll tolerate, about how we raise our kids,” Sampson told the Times. “Large scale forces like recession of course matter, but they are moderated by local neighborhood factors, whether you’re in Chicago or Stockholm or other cities.”


  • Lessons in Community from Chicago’s South Side
  • Safety and Security: A Community Necessity (McKnight/Block)

Image: h.kopdelaney


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About the Lead Author

Prucia Buscell
Prucia Buscell
Prucia Buscell is the communications director and staff writer for the Plexus Institute. She is the editor of the Institute's newsletter, emerging, and the weekly Thursday Complexity Post and the organizer and host of PlexusCalls. Before coming to Plexus, Prucia was a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.

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