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Summer/Fall 2002 Vol. 2 No. 2



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Surveying the Landscape of Opportunity


When it comes to real estate sales, it's been said that what matters most in negotiating the best deal is "location, location, location." Likewise, where people live can significantly shape the quality and breadth of resources available to them -- from educational, employment, and public safety offerings to the availability of hospitals and parks.


Many factors contribute to social and economic disparities between neighborhoods. As a result, the location of one's residence can either put up barriers to resources or open doors to them. Neighborhoods also can influence the well-being of individuals and families. For example, inner-city communities that are marked by deep poverty often have characteristics that can degrade the quality of life for residents of these areas. Rates of crime, illness, and chronic disease tend to be high. Student achievement is generally low, and strong community groups that supervise children's behavior are scarce. Inadequate public transportation makes it difficult for poor inner-city residents to take advantage of jobs in the suburbs, where much of today's employment growth occurs. Further, the physical environment suffers as abandoned buildings become havens for illicit activities. Clearly, location matters.

The social dynamics of metropolitan neighborhoods is an important research area that should be further studied to help policy-makers better understand fundamental problems, and work to build stronger neighborhoods, says a new National Research Council report that presents the findings of a workshop on the topic. Experts at the meeting explored how place and neighborhood relate to opportunity on several key fronts: employment and the transition from welfare to work; public health; and child development. They also considered research that could inform public policy. The Research Council held the workshop to broaden discussion of findings from its 1999 report, Governance and Opportunity in Metropolitan America, which examined how the sheer number and variety of local governments, each going its own way, often make socioeconomic inequalities between city dwellers and suburbanites worse.

On the whole, workshop participants agreed that sophisticated studies on the "importance of place" certainly could contribute to successful policies and help address issues that concern troubled neighborhoods. They also may reveal ways to connect inner-city residents with suburban jobs.

Urban residents waiting for bus ŠPeter Turnley/Corbis The road to gaining this knowledge may be long and winding, however. Researchers have taken steps to factor into their studies more of the details that affect people's lives, and these improvements in methodology have been heartening. Still, such work should go further, the report says. Studies need to systematically blend in larger issues related to metropolitan governance and demographic trends. Broad policies -- zoning and taxation, for instance -- also shape neighborhoods. The same can be said for a community's overall context, which includes its racial composition and employment prospects.

Researchers also should look into new and creative ways to use statistical models to figure out how certain neighborhoods have evolved and how they produce effects on people, the report says. Trying to examine the big picture may be akin to looking through a kaleidoscope. But society could only benefit from knowing more about the basic local conditions that represent a minimum standard for residents to prosper.    --Vanee Vines


Equality of Opportunity and the Importance of Place: Summary of a Workshop. Steering Committee on Metropolitan Area Research and Data Priorities, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2002, 84 pp.; ISBN 0-309-08467-9; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $18.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The steering committee was chaired by William Morrill, consultant, Caliber Associates, Fairfax, Va. The workshop and its summary were sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.



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Copyright 2002 by the National Academy of Sciences