AAAS 2014: Research on poor neighborhoods must recognize differences among cities

Editor’s note: The following research is among the many talks that scientists from UChicago and its affiliated laboratories will present Feb. 13-17 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in downtown Chicago. Follow the events on Twitter at #UChicagoAAAS.

Research on urban neighborhoods must take into account differences among cities and rely on some techniques that have not been used extensively by sociologists studying neighborhood effects, according to sociologist Mario Small.


Small, who is also dean of UChicago’s Division of the Social Sciences, studies urban neighborhoods and has examined the diversity of experiences for people living in poor neighborhoods in cities across the country. 

Studying only a few neighborhoods extensively fails to capture important differences, he said in a talk, “Poverty and Organizational Density,” at a session Feb. 15 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.

His presentation was part of a seminar, “A New Era for Urban Research: Open Data and Big Computation.” At the session, scholars discussed the impact of urban growth, which over the next two decades will see the world’s urban population grow from 50 to 70 percent, bringing an additional 3 billion people to live in cities.

These trends require new, interdisciplinary studies and the emergence of new research techniques to better understand the changes.

In order to develop a more comprehensive theory about why some groups in the United States are marginalized economically, scholars need to understand the ways people respond differently to neighborhood circumstances and how neighborhood resources vary, Small explained.

Poor neighborhoods in Chicago have been studied extensively as some scholars consider them examples of disadvantaged neighborhoods nationally. Small’s work has shown that those neighborhoods are not necessarily representative because they are often less dense in population and services than are poor neighborhoods in other cities.

For instance, the average predominantly black, poor neighborhoods in Chicago have 82 percent fewer small restaurants, 95 percent fewer small banks, and 72 percent fewer small convenience stores than do predominantly black, poor neighborhoods in other U.S. cities.  

The level of civic and governmental resources vary as well and create differences in services such as the number of childcare centers in different urban communities with similar kinds of populations.

“The experience of poverty varies from city to city, influenced by neighborhood factors such as commercial activity, access to transportation and social services and other facets of organizational density,” Small said.

He explained that new sources of information, ranging from open city data to detailed, high-resolution imagery from commercial mapping services, provide new opportunities to compare the experience of the poor among multiple cities, in turn pointing cities and service providers toward optimal decision-making about policies, investment and other interventions.