The Rebirth of the Neighborhood

16 Pages Posted: 9 Jan 2014

See all articles by J. Peter Byrne

J. Peter Byrne

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: 2013


This essay argues that new urban residents primarily seek a type of community properly called a neighborhood. “Neighborhood” refers to a legible, pedestrian-scale area that has an identity apart from the corporate and bureaucratic structures that dominate the larger society. Such a neighborhood fosters repeated, casual contacts with neighbors and merchants, such as while one pursues Saturday errands or takes children to activities. Dealing with independent local merchants and artisans face-to-face provides a sense of liberation from large power structures, where most such residents work. Having easy access to places of sociability like coffee shops and bars permits spontaneous “meet-ups,” contrasting with the discipline of professional life. Such a neighborhood conveys an indigenous identity created by the efforts of diverse people over time, rather than marketing an image deliberatively contrived to control the perceptions of customers. At its best, a neighborhood provides a refuge from the ennui of the workplace and the idiocy of consumer culture, substituting for churches (or synagogues), labor unions, and ethnic clubs that structured earlier urban social life.

What changes in land use law have contributed to or supported this transformation to neighborhood-based living? Several legal developments outside land use seem very important. Perhaps the most central legal development has been local government legal protections for gays, who often have been in the vanguard of the revival of urban neighborhoods. Crime reduction has significantly enhanced urban living since the 1970s, but which laws have contributed what to that reduction is a matter of intense debate. Civil rights laws and immigration reform have arguably nurtured a comfort with multi-ethnic urban neighborhoods that has turned discrimination and resentment to a comfort with and even celebration of diversity.

But changes in land use law, broadly understood, also helped provide the context for the revival of neighborhoods. This brief essay highlights those aspects of land use law that have supported this new urbanization since the founding of the Fordham Urban Law Journal. The claim is not that legal reforms caused the revival, but that they contributed to a broader social trend. These reforms have supported neighborhood revival primarily by securing the physical environments people want to live in. The three chief legal tools for neighborhoods have been zoning for urban form, historic district preservation, and environmental protection.

Keywords: neighborhoods, urban property, historic district preservation, urban land use law

JEL Classification: K00, K11, K19

Suggested Citation

Byrne, J. Peter, The Rebirth of the Neighborhood (2013). Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. 40, pp. 1595-1609, 2013, Available at SSRN:

J. Peter Byrne (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
(202)662-9066 (Phone)

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