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The goal of Cityscape is to bring high-quality original research on housing and community development issues to scholars, government officials, and practitioners. Cityscape is open to all relevant disciplines, including architecture, consumer research, demography, economics, engineering, ethnography, finance, geography, law, planning, political science, public policy, regional science, sociology, statistics, and urban studies.

Cityscape is published three times a year by the Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

  • Moving to Opportunity
  • Volume 14 Number 2
  • Managing Editor: Mark D. Shroder
  • Associate Editor: Michelle P. Matuga

The Tyranny of Census Geography: Small-Area Data and Neighborhood Statistics

Jonathan Sperling, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Point of Contention: Defining Neighborhoods

Guest Editor: Ron Wilson, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Neighborhoods are a natural construct widely used for analytical purposes in research, policymaking, and practice, but defining a neighborhood for these purposes has always been difficult. This Point of Contention offers four articles about precisely bounding this often fuzzy concept. The authors provide a range of perspectives, from practitioner to researcher, about the construction of neighborhoods and the complexity of what neighborhood really means.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.


Census-defined small-area geographies and statistics in the United States are highly accessible, relatively easy to use, and available across time and space. The singular and strict use of block groups, census tracts, or ZIP Codes as proxies for neighborhood, however, are often inappropriate and can result in flawed findings, poor public policy decisions, and even situations in which families or businesses are disqualified from place-based government programs. Perceptions of neighborhoods are social constructs and context dependent. Yet social science literature is replete with an unquestioning use of these geographies to measure neighborhood effects, despite evidence that the use of alternative spatial scales and techniques can deliver very different results.

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