Neighbourhood Fundamentals: six takes on the notion of neighbourhood
KoozArch presents a series of extracts from the book 'Mission Neighbourhood – (Re)forming Communities', which comprises a body of research stemming from the 2022 edition of the Oslo Architecture Triennale. In this first excerpt, we share some highlights from the chapter 'Neighbourhood Fundamentals.'

Through the book Mission Neighbourhood – (Re)forming Communities, edited by Christian Pagh and Thomas Cook, its authors aim to shed light on some of the defining discussions around neighbourhoods and urban qualities that have emerged over the last century, and the role of the neighbourhood in contemporary urban development. Its first chapter, ‘Neighbourhood Fundamentals’, lays out the basics — adding critical perspectives to the concept of neighbourhoods as a scale and horizon for urban thinking, planning and management.

Over the last few years there has been an increasing interest in the notion of neighbourhood. The concept is used by many different actors, each with their own agendas, stressing different aspects of what neighbourhood means. Real estate sales pitches have enthusiastically coined the phrase ‘attractive neighbourhood’, referring to a lifestyle phenomenon. It appears in political battles, where certain groups claim to speak on behalf of the neighbourhood.

On the most fundamental level, a neighbourhood — as opposed to a virtual community — is about physical proximity to places and people where you live. It has to do with the constellation of the everyday touchpoints where we act or interact — or not — as we go about our daily activities and trajectories in our built (and natural) environment. A neighbourhood is characterised by the practical and cultural constellations, local organisations and businesses, as well as the rhythm of activities unfolding at that specific place over time.

We find the concept of neighbourhood to be particularly interesting because it forces us to reflect on how all these different layers of personal aspirations, social commitment and large-scale planning issues are intertwined.

THE POSSIBILITIES IN A NEIGHBOURHOOD. A neighbourhood opportunity can be small and large — from the bench to the square. The Birkelunden park in the Grünerløkka neighbourhood of Oslo, Norway, offers a series of social opportunities. The scale and design allows for many different groups to be there together, whilst still feeling safe and free. It works as a good hangout place for the regular crowd to come have a beer, but also for random bypassers and families with small children. Photo credit: Signe Fuglesteg Luksengård / Ultima 2022.


In today’s functional urban reality, it may be easy to forget that where we live is where our life unfolds itself in all its many facets. Renowned Finnish architect and author Juhani Pallasmaa has spent a lifetime exploring the relationship between humans and the built environment. His thinking roots architecture in the very fundamental aspects of being and dwelling, rooted as it is in a specific physical and social context. In From Space to Place — Existential Meaning in Architecture, he outlines the importance of place and placing:

Places constitute a gradually growing scale, from our most intimate situations, all the way to regions, countries, and continents. In a rich and humanly meaningful lifeworld, this entire scale of nesting places, one inside the other, supports a distinct sense of identity, coherence, association and meaningfulness. Places evoke emotions and feelings of belonging. A study of the emotions of slum residents arising from the loss of their homes, when obliged to move, revealed emotions similar to the mourning of a lost relative.

The notions of place and placing have two connotations; the first task is defining man’s place in the cosmic context, and the second is the concretisation of the location of his body and mind in the worldly settings of life. The first place is metaphysical, the second is relational to the reality of our lifeworld. Plato’s argument, ‘nothing is that is not placed’, makes ‘place’ a constitutive condition for anything to exist in human consciousness. But ‘placeness’ also implies a distinct human experiential quality through which we structure and organise our lifeworld and concretise experientially its qualitative articulation. The latter meaning of ‘placeness’ projects both biological and human meanings. In accordance with the recent discoveries in astronomy, our celestial ‘place’ is constantly growing.

Places articulate our lived world, from the child’s realm under the kitchen table or stairs, to the scale of the home, and further still to the village or town, then eventually to the region, country and continent. We all live in a multiplicity of nested places.

— Juhani Pallasmaa

DWELLING ON DWELLING. Juhani Pallasmaa’s thinking roots architecture in the very fundamental aspects of being and dwelling, rooted as it is in a specific physical and social context. This seems absent in today’s fluid societal and urban environment, but fruitful to keep in mind, with the strong longing for belonging that seems to haunt the inhabitants of late modernity. Here from San Gimignano, Tuscany, Italy. Photo credit: Maurizio Moro, 2019. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons AttributionShareAlike 4.0 International License.


A fundamental aspect of the concept of neighbourhood is that it connects the physical fabric with everyday activities and ways of going about in the city. An understanding of neighbourhoods must include observation and curiosity about everyday human life and how it unfolds in space.

One of the most recognised proponents of such practices is Jan Gehl. The Danish architect and urbanist’s 1971 classic Life Between Buildings includes a series of acute observations of how people move around, where they stay, and what they do in public space. Gehl’s work is driven by an interest in how the (smaller) aspects of the urban experience affect the (larger) totality of a place or neighbourhood. How does an open or active edge zone of a building offer opportunities for interaction? How does a square support public life?

In the interview On Challenges and Conditions for Neighbourhood Life, Gehl shares some of his main arguments on what is at the heart of fostering thriving urban communities. He states that:

My work is to a large extent a matter of understanding how people use and experience places in real life — and about challenging an abstract, modernist approach to urban planning that has had no interest or method for interpreting what actually happens between buildings. To my mind, the neighbourhood depends on everyday meetings, the places you move to and from, and this includes fleeting meetings with your neighbours. All of these small encounters, where people use public space and bump into each other, has the potential to be an enabler of community life.

Making great places for people and communities to come together is really about forming great conditions. It’s about concentrating on uniting people, on inviting them to stay and have a look around, to exchange with one another. In my books, we have these checklists that can be a sort of reminder of good conditions. I often say that a good urban space is like a good party: you stay longer than you expect because you enjoy yourself, you have a good time. Socially and spatially. Just like the party, it’s not about having a lot of space — it’s rather the opposite, of having just the right amount — but about having the right functions. A good public space is like the kitchen at a party. You have to work hard to concentrate on the functions and the people — and not spread life too thinly. The main attraction of places tends to be other people!

We have in fact been too concerned with mobility as such and we’ve forgotten the quality of the places we’re driving to and from, all too obsessed with getting from A to B rather than caring for A and B! Consider the amount of money spent on infrastructure — now imagine that money being spent on developing more considerate residential areas and neighbourhoods instead — places where people’s need to move to work and to socialise have been greatly reduced.

— Jan Gehl

LIFE BETWEEN BUILDINGS. The Bo01 neighbourhood in Malmö, Sweden, initiated as a part of the city’s 2001 European Housing Exposition, is among the neighbourhood discussed by Jan Gehl in the book. Small plots, and a variety of developers and architects make for a diverse neighbourhood in the Swedish city. – The area really works with different types of public, semi-public, semi-private and private spaces. There are many openings and doors in the buildings — buildings that are generally not too high either. Some buildings are twisted a little bit to create variation in the streetscapes, which also helps, says Gehl in the interview. Photo credit: Maria Eklind. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0


While the term ‘neighbourhood’ is generally attributed a positive meaning in this book, we must ask ourselves what perspectives are not included or rendered invisible. In Who are Neighbourhoods Made For? — a conversation between curator Victoria Bugge Øye and architect and activist Jos Boys, Boys points out that a neighbourhood in itself is neither good nor bad — they are expressions of the prioritisation of certain groups’ needs, tastes and modes of transport, over others:

What I find interesting about concepts like neighbourhood or community, and particularly in the field of urban planning and urban design, is that they are automatically understood as something good. These are terms that cover a whole range of really complex nuances about what it is to live in different places with other people. And they completely ignore power. So often, the term neighbourhood acts to obscure differential relationships in how space is allocated and used, and how this has been changed and contested through time. So, these concepts always need unpicking and unravelling — and gender is a central part of that interrogation.

The return to the neighbourhood is obviously a reaction — and a good reaction — against the kind of single-use zoning and planning that was dominant for a long time, and against an emphasis on the car and on being able to travel everywhere easily at the expense of pedestrians. So, there is a certain value in it because it is a challenge to those values. But it is still problematic [...] because most discussions about the neighbourhood are not about who is actually there, or the even distribution of resources. What are people’s relationships to that place financially and socially? What is really going on? Very often these complexities get blurred out.

For example, we decided to move away from the motor car; instead, urban planning wants to make it very easy for people to bike. But if you look at who bikes and who does not, then it mostly benefits young men. Obviously in a lot of the Nordic countries some of these things have been figured out, but here in London you do not take your children around in a big basket in front of your bicycle. Cyclers are always quite risky for people with disabilities — if you are blind you cannot see them, and if you are deaf you cannot hear them. So, there’s a handing over of space to particular groups in a way which appears to be very nice and friendly, but it actually is not. [...]

Personally, I would not use the word ‘good’ — it’s not about it being good. A word we often use in disability studies is ‘thriving’. It’s about a neighbourhood being robust or having continuation through time.

— Jos Boys

To form more thriving neighbourhoods, it is urgent to keep unravelling how different people relate to a place — financially, socially, culturally — and consider to what extent a diversity of users and uses can be encouraged.

FOR WHOM? Originally trained in architecture, Jos Boys was co-founder of the feminist architecture and research collective Matrix in the 1980s, and one of the authors of Making Space: Women and the Man-made Environment (1984/2022), from which this image is taken. As Joys puts it: – Every time architects make material space itself central, then the messy realities of a place can be missed. The realities are always about everyday practices and the ways some people get enabled and others disabled (using that term in the widest sense). We should look at that first, even before we look at things like gender, class, race, or disability. Photo credit: Courtesy of Matrix Open feminist architecture archive.


In urban discourse, the concept of neighbourhood is often linked to New Urbanism, and the term might evoke the image of a certain type of controlled, petit-bourgeois and over-planned microcosm, packaged by real estate agents. The story of the (over)planned neighbourhood is unfolded in Learning from Neighbourhood Planning by urbanism professor Peter Hemmersam.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, neo-rationalist and New Urbanist architects criticised modernist urban planning and architecture for not being place-based and relatable. The pre-modern architectural forms suggested by designers like the Luxembourgish architect Leon Krier, or the American architect Andreas Duaney, sought to stabilise the relationship between people and the built environment by adopting universal and timeless anthropological principles for ‘good’ towns.

New neighbourhoods were designed as insular districts on the outskirts of cities, such as Poundbury, a suburban extension to Dorchester in England. It was conceived by Krier and its traditional architecture was supported by the then Prince of Wales. Neo-classical and mock vernacular buildings line mediaeval-looking streets [while] residents rely on their cars. [...] The insistence of these architects on a neo-classical style may celebrate the agency of architecture, but this form of urban planning reduces a complex social world to a series of design recipes and a checklist of bullet points.These new neighbourhoods may appeal to popular taste, but they are problematic in that they prioritise certainty and control of the urban development process over open-ended citizen engagement. Most New Urbanism communities like Poundbury, are social enclaves, physically isolated from the social diversity of cities.

Whilst the history of urban planning provides us with numerous neighbourhood models, transforming existing urban areas into more compact and sustainable communities remains challenging. The problem of neighbourhood planning arises when you try to reduce the complex relationship between the social and material world to just a simple matter of design. The challenge for planners and architects is to reconcile an understanding of the neighbourhood scale with a focus on cities at large. [...]

It seems possible to reinvent neighbourhoods as physical and social spaces by focusing on how they are connected. A new form of neighbourhood planning can address inhabitants’ well-being and neighbourhood space can be a shared resource, supporting a wide range of people and functions as a community generator. Neighbourhoods without borders have a genuine potential to improve the quality of urban life.

— Peter Hemmersam

A contemporary approach to neighbourhoods must, according to Hemmersam, go beyond borders and regard neighbourhoods as integral parts of the larger urban fabric. Future neighbourhood planning must weave together functions, building on diversity and the sharing of places and resources.

THE NEW TOWN. Peter Hemmersam shows how the concept of neighbourhood has been used throughout modern urbanism to articulate notions of the ideal community. In the 50s, neighbourhood theory became public planning policy in the UK, the New Towns movement agitating for urban decentralisation. A proposal of 32 new towns with abundant housing away from the congested cities was made, of which Stevenage was one of the realised ones. View of Stoneyhall, Stevenage, from Harrow Court tower block. Photo credit: The JR James Archive. (CC BY-NC 2.0), jrjamesarchive/9263567684.


Pushing forward the idea of a polycentric urbanism, Colombian-French professor Carlos Moreno argues that all citizens should have access to basic qualities and amenities — including workplaces, shops, institutions, health services, parks, education and sports facilities — within fifteen minutes of walking or cycling. In The 15-minute City in Action he explains the potential in a shift away from the centric urban model, where many commute between the (rich, diverse, lively, attractive) centre and (poor, monofunctional, boring, unattractive) residential areas.

Intersections are very important to the concept of the 15-minute city, given that in modern urbanism, after Le Corbusier’s Athens Charter, we developed the intensive creation of zones: segmented, fractured cities, with corporate business districts, industrial areas and big malls for shopping outside the cities. We have constrained people to use cars to access essential functions. We want to break with this type of ‘zonification urbanism’ and to rediscover the Brussels declarations from the 1980s. It was a time when European urbanists proposed a more compact city with multi-services at shorter distances, providing hybridisations between housing, working, entertainment and public spaces. We want to transform cities into polycentric places, mixing together all the essential functions — so we are able to work, live, supply, access medical services — in the different city districts.

At the same time, we need to develop an intensive social mix to break the surge of the gentrification process. In a lot of cities, we have zones for working and housing, and at the same time intensive social segregation in residential areas: the wealthy district, the working class and immigration areas. We want to highlight the importance of not only bettering local access to essential services, but of also offering more intensive social mixing and blending. I consider this to be the real democracy of cities: mixing different people together and breaking up these segregated areas. [...]

For a long time, the different services in cities were very vertical services. In the 15-minute city we need to have impermanence — a lot of interactions and a criss-cross approach. Cooperation gives us the flexibility we need to develop more interactions between ecological, economic, and social activities in an integrative way. This shows the importance of voting for new local master plans, where new multi-sector developments for better coordination are defined.

— Carlos Moreno

STREETS FOR KIDS. Carlos Moreno works closely with the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who upon adopting Moreno’s 15-Minute City concept in 2019 proclaimed the school to be ‘the capital of the neighbourhood’. The ‘Streets for Kids’ project is banning cars in front of Paris’ 169 schools and transforming street areas into mini-parks. The streets near schools are turned into public spaces for the school and the community to use. A dangerous non-place for cars becomes a shared, everyday scene for the neighbourhood to come together. Photo credit: Joséphine Brueder / Ville de Paris.


A fundamental question of this book is how the formation of everyday urban environments can be seen as missions, guided by notions of the public good. The title of our book, Mission Neighbourhood, is inspired by Italian-American economist Mariana Mazzucato and her book Mission Economy — A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism (2021), in which she makes a strong argument for why and how the state must take a leading role in solving societal challenges. The simplicity required in Mazzucato’s mission-oriented innovation framework seems an awkward fit for the complexity of cities. But in Missions × Neighbourhoods, design strategist Dan Hill explores how we can consider the mission-based model on the scale of the urban and the neighbourhood. Using a series of examples from Bogotá, Colombia, to Stockholm, Sweden, he illustrates how challenges like social justice, street life and inclusion can be addressed in new ways, by ambitious urban operators and actors. Focusing on how systemic, cross-sector collaborations can prepare the ground for local cultural activity, human exchange and collective wellbeing, Hill opens up important questions about how public, private and civil service actors can be brought on board on local missions:

Perhaps the neighbourhood scale is ‘complex enough’ to throw larger questions onto the table — economies, identities, infrastructures and even interconnected global systems — whilst also enabling us to meaningfully approach the complex, the qualitative, and the everyday? Could we pull the thread on our system diagrams with an intent not to make ‘the most innovative’ or ‘the greenest’ neighbourhood, but to ask instead how a linked set of missions might weave together to produce new forms of shared wealth well beyond our immediate streets, squares, stations, and blocks? The neighbourhood is the ‘way in’ to these challenges, but its physical form does not obscure or limit its systemic impact. [...]

Whatever neighbourhood missions may be — and their specifics can only emerge from participative processes at the local level — we must ensure they also include a sense of the bigger picture. In this way, neighbourhood missions can also encourage the ‘public luxury’ of shared infrastructures — for culture as well as local services — these richer forms of wealth that the former ArkDes Curator and Director, Kieran Long, describes as implicit to the Nordic Model. There is an urgent need to be entirely pragmatic about value, given the context of our global climate and biodiversity crisis.

In 1949, the scientist Aldo Leopold developed a new ‘land ethic’, which can be summarised as ‘What’s good for us is what’s good for the soil’. But we cannot allow cultural value to be neglected in favour of ecological value; we must find a way to embrace both. What might the notion of ‘value’ evoke, beyond its simple utilitarian or financial meaning?

— Dan Hill

In trying to grasp the concept of neighbourhoods, we are pointed in many different directions as exemplified by the diverse themes and texts in this book. Although there is no single formula for forming neighbourhoods, we argue Dan Hill that certain urban designs, modes of transport, economic models and governance practices offer better conditions for communities to grow than others.

The foundation for more sustainable, diverse and inclusive neighbourhoods is an understanding of the rich social and infrastructural network that makes up the framework for everyday life.

MISSION BOGOTÁ. Super CADE Manitas is an ‘anchor building’ in the Ciudad Bolívar-Manitas Care Block programme in Bogotá, seen just left of the middle of the photograph. This community function for women is integrated in a station in the innovative TransMiCable gondola system connecting the poorer areas in Bogotá with the city. A great example of a physical infrastructure that doubles as an important social infrastructure, highlighted by Dan Hill in his text Missions x Neighbourhoods. Photo credit: Llano Fotografia.

This edited extract of the chapter ‘Neighbourhood Fundamentals’, taken from the book Mission Neighbourhood — (Re)forming Communities (The Danish Architectural Press: 2023) is the first of three sections to be published by KoozArch in partnership with the Oslo Architecture Triennale. Future extracts will be published this Spring bringing further insights on the neighbourhood scale.

Cover image: Anne Valeur


Christian Pagh is Director and Chief Curator of the Oslo Architecture Triennale and has dedicated his curatorship to exploring the concept and reality of neighbourhoods. With an academic background in philosophy and modern culture, he has led a variety of projects within urban planning, strategic design and placemaking in both the public and the private sector.

Thomas Cook is Head of Development of the Oslo Architecture Triennale and has previously worked within urban development in the public sector and
through the small-scale community initiative of a neighbourhood café. Educated in architectural history and urbanism, he regularly writes about urban culture as a freelance writer.

Juhani Pallasmaa is an architect, professor emeritus and writer. From 1983–2012 he worked as an architect through his office Juhani Pallasmaa Architects. He has been Rector of the Institute of Industrial Design, Director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture and Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, Helsinki University of Technology.

Jan Gehl is an internationally renowned and acclaimed architect, academic, urban thinker, and author. As founder of Gehl Architects he has advised cities across the globe, including New York, Melbourne, Oslo, and Copenhagen. Over the course of his career, he has published several books, including ‘Life Between Buildings’, ‘Cities for People’, ‘New City Spaces’, ‘Public Spaces — Public Life’. He continues to research and develop the ‘people first‘ approach through his books and lectures.

Jos Boys is co-founder and co-director, with Zoe Partington, of The DisOrdinary Architecture Project which brings disabled artists into built environment education and practice to critically and creatively re-think access
and inclusion. Originally trained in architecture, she was co-founder of the feminist architecture and research collective Matrix in the 1980s and one of the authors of Making Space: Women and the Man-made Environment (1984/2022). Since then, she has been a journalist, researcher, consultant, educator and photographer; and has published several books.

Peter Hemmersam is an architect and Professor of Urban Design at the Oslo
Centre of Urban and Landscape Studies at The Oslo School of Architecture and Design.

Carlos Moreno is an internationally recognised researcher and university
professor, known for his pioneering concepts and innovative perspectives
on urban issues. His contributions, including The 15-minute City and The
30-minute Territory, have earned him significant acclaim in his field. He
currently serves as an Associate Professor and Scientific Director of the
Chair ‘Entrepreneurship — Territory — Innovation’ at IAE Paris 1 — Sorbonne University.

Dan Hill is Director of The Melbourne School of Design at the University of Melbourne. His previous design leadership roles include Vinnova, Arup, Future Cities Catapult, Fabrica, SITRA and the BBC. Hill is also a Professor at The UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, a council member for Urban Initiatives, and a former professor at The Oslo School of Architecture and Design.

05 Apr 2024
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