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The Neighborhood as Commons: Reframing the Problem of Neighborhood Decline

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Type: Conference Paper
Author: Oakerson, Ronald J.; Clifton, Jeremy D. W.
Conference: The City as a Commons: Reconceiving Urban Space, Common Goods and City Governance, 1st Thematic IASC Conference on Urban Commons
Location: Bologna, Italy
Conf. Date: November 6-7
Date: 2015
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/10535/9967
Sector: Urban Commons
Region: North America
Subject(s): neighborhoods
Abstract: "Neighborhood decline in the U.S. is typically viewed as inexorable—a product of forces beyond the control of cities. Yet if urban neighborhoods have the characteristics of a commons, homeowners may adopt strategic behaviors that lead to a cycle of disinvestment in the housing stock, followed by abandonment: a tragedy of the commons. Low-income neighborhoods are especially vulnerable to this dynamic. If decline is a tragedy of the commons, however, commons research suggests that it is potentially avertable by neighborhood collective action; following principles of commons governance, neighborhood organizations and municipalities can facilitate collective action. We begin our inquiry by reviewing research on neighborhood decline as widely viewed through the lens of neighborhood 'succession.' In this model neighborhoods pass from upper to lower income groups while housing maintenance costs increase. Interestingly, the research casts doubt on the succession model. We argue that framing the neighborhood as a commons offers an alternative explanation based on the strategic nature of housing upkeep in an urban setting. Neighborhoods are exposed to highly subtractive uses that discourage maintenance. After delineating the commons-like attributes of neighborhoods, we use design principles drawn from research on common- pool resources to frame an analysis of an illustrative case on the West Side of Buffalo, NY: a single block in an advanced stage of decline collectively engineered a turnaround by overcoming holdout problems. Applying commons theory, we can explain both decline and turnaround in terms of collective action primarily at the block level.Based on our analysis, we discuss three ways to facilitate collective action: - Fostering a joint sense of responsibility for the neighborhood among its residents, e.g., through block club activity; - Making strategic 'counter-investments,' e.g., one or two prominent improvements on a run-down block, to leverage further investment among neighbors; - Securing neighborhood access to legitimate means of coercion for the enforcement of housing rules, obtained in Buffalo through a separate housing court and its innovative use of neighborhood liaisons to monitor property-owner compliance and neighborhood effects. We conclude that the commons offers a useful frame for the analysis of neighborhood decline and turnaround: neighborhood decline need not be inexorable. Because neighborhood effects are multi-level, the urban commons requires multi-scale collective action. The primary commons unit is a single block-face, i.e., opposite sidesof the same street between intersections. At this scale neighbors directly affect one another’s strategic choices regarding housing upkeep. Adjacent blocks similarly affect one another—just as deteriorated housing affects others on the same block, deteriorated blocks affect neighboring blocks. The wider neighborhood interest in specific blocks means that larger neighborhood districts can be important sources of social capital for block clubs. On a still wider scale, municipalities can facilitate collective action at both block and district levels if they recognize the legitimacy of neighborhood collective action and provide low-cost access to coercion to constrain potential holdouts."

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