2014 Urban Forums conference puts focus on neighborhoods

Where you live matters. That’s the common theme for geographers, sociologists, urban planners and other scholars gathering in April for the 2014 Urban Forums, titled Neighborhoods: The Measure and Meaning of an Urban Ideal, hosted by the University of Chicago Urban Network.

The forums will include exhibits and discussions on new theories of how neighborhoods shape issues like child development, family functioning and risks of violence and crime.

“The Urban Network was launched to support and promote the next generation of high quality urban research and theory across disciplines at UChicago,” said Scott Allard, faculty director of The Urban Network and associate professor at the School of Social Service Administration.

“Urban areas are defined in part by the contours of their neighborhoods,” Allard said. “Neighborhoods are central to how we’ve thought about how people experience their community, how they live, make connections, thrive and struggle.”

The series culminates with a keynote address on April 24 by Kenneth T. Jackson, (AM’63, PhD’66), director of the Herbert H. Lehman Center for American History at Columbia University and author of Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. Following his address, a daylong conference on April 25 will bring together some of the leading minds in the field for panel discussions.

Scholars with diverse views about neighborhoods will be exchanging ideas in various panels during the conference. Violence prevention expert Deborah Gorman-Smith, a professor at the School of Social Service Administration, will be presenting new data from a research study of low-income families in 30 Chicago neighborhoods.

“Much of the research has focused on identifying and understanding neighborhood characteristics that relate to crime and violence occurring within a particular neighborhood. Our research focuses on understanding neighborhood characteristics that relate to risk for individual (youth) involvement in criminal and violent behavior, how where you live matters in regard to risk,” Gorman-Smith said. “It’s not necessarily about the poverty. It’s about other aspects of neighborhood—social processes such as neighborhood’s attitudes towards aggression and violence and support for and management of kids. It’s also about families’ abilities to manage the complex settings of urban neighborhoods and support needed to do that. It is that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ kind of idea.”

Public housing reform has affected many neighborhoods. Results have been mixed for the efforts to remove families from neighborhoods of economic disadvantage and integrate them in to more economically diverse, well-functioning neighborhoods, said Robert Chaskin, Associate Professor and Deputy Dean for Strategic Initiatives at the School of Social Service Administration. “While there is a lot of literature that focuses on how neighborhoods affect youth, we also know youth have an effect on where they live and sometimes become a flashpoint for conflict,” Chaskin said.

Chaskin said it’s unusual to have the opportunity to talk across disciplines about issues such as the importance of neighborhoods. “I hope we can leverage the discussion on how we think about neighborhoods from different perspectives to consider in fresh ways what we know about them and the possibilities and limitations they represent for informing social policy. Neighborhoods are so important to the foundation of urban areas.”

Emily Talen, professor of Urban Planning at Arizona State University and a UChicago visiting professor with the Committee on Geographical Studies, is the curator for an exhibition that shows a collection of different perspectives of neighborhoods. The exhibition, which runs through April 27 at the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, will include about 150 maps and images.

“I’d like neighborhoods to be part of the conversation of urban sustainability,” Talen said. “We want people to care about the place around them. Some neighborhoods seem to promote segregation and others exclusivity. The goal is to have neighborhoods with diversity in race and ethnicity, as well as in ages and incomes.”

The Urban Forums conference also includes an emerging scholars lecture from Adrienne Brown, assistant professor in the Department of English. She is examining the topic of neighborhoods through John Cheever’s iconic short stories about suburban life. She’s also reviewing the impact of real-estate appraisal manuals from the middle of last century that often resulted in “white flight” to the suburbs and the racial and economic reshuffling of Chicago neighborhoods. “My work is about the connections between the built environment (architecture and urban planning) and how narrative helps us make sense of questions of race and perception in the world around us,” Brown says.

Allard said, “From an historic academic standpoint, neighborhoods have long been part of UChicago’s DNA and central to how we’ve thought about urban research. They are part of our outward-facing mission. And today, a lot of the exciting research is rethinking what neighborhoods are and what they mean in people’s lives. We hope we can connect people and ideas in a new way during this 2014 Urban Forums conference.”