The Importance of Understanding Neighborhood Outreach

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Since its inception in 2007, Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley has attempted to foster vibrant neighborhoods where children and families can capitalize on the unique assets they possess that contribute to their success. In Allentown, as in other communities where Promise Neighborhoods have been established, the goal is to mobilize the people, businesses, resources, and programs and services, in such a way that allows for the development of shared decision-making, shared resources, shared accountability, and shared outcomes for the children and families living in the area. The initial Allentown Promise Neighborhood (APN) outreach and organization started in a 9 square block section of the city bordered by W. Turner and W. Liberty Streets to the north and south, and N. 10th and N. Hall Streets to the west and east.

Allentown Promise Neighborhood

In order to provide the type of outreach necessary to realize the goals of the organization, it was important to develop a well-rounded understanding of the people who lived in the targeted area, how they viewed their neighborhoods, and what they felt were the issues that influenced their quality of life. But neighborhood-centered work of this type is not easy because of the diversity that one finds in any community of this type. Researchers[i]  have long recognized the fact that the definition of a “neighborhood” is not universal, even among people in the same area. The term “neighborhood” typically means a small geographic area that has a relatively homogeneous housing and population type, and shares some level of social interaction and symbolic significance of its residents. But the boundaries of this working definition are subjective[ii] and can even change based on the context of the conversation[iii].

Because the concept of a neighborhood is so difficult to define, we often define it in terms of geographic designations established by the US Census Bureau, such as block groups and census tracts. The advantage of using this type of designation is that there is a great deal of publicly available data that can be used to compare one area to another. This comparison is desirable because of the wealth of information that is available through the Census Bureau and because it provides population-level and community-wide indicators that are measured consistently across geographical areas.

APN embarked on the task of collecting their own community-based data in order to obtain granular data about the perspectives of community members as they relate to their 9 promises, recognizing that neighborhood geography matters. They developed a Neighborhood Survey through support from their Measurement and Evaluation committee and trained community members to go door-to-door to have as many households in the neighborhood complete the survey as possible. With 824 households in this 9 square blocks, APN also recognized that the opinions, attitudes, and concerns of the residents may be different from one neighborhood to the next. So, when the data was analyzed from a spatial perspective, we attempted to divide the neighborhood into even smaller regions to determine if there were differences in the data that could be identified. Figure 2 depicts the six regions that the original 9 square block neighborhood was divided into.

Figure 2

Recognizing that major traffic arteries often serve as natural barriers by which neighborhoods are thought of[iv], the 9 square block area was divided by N. 9th street to the north and south, and W. Chew and W. Gordon Streets to the east and west. The survey results collected from the APN were then coded by zone to explore differences in the attitudes, behaviors, and opinion of the residents in the zones of the neighborhood. Differences in survey responses were indeed found  across zones for a number of survey questions.

In particular, there were statistically significant and meaningful differences between the sections of the larger neighborhood in five of the questions. With respect to issues of community satisfaction, there was statistically significant difference (p<.05) in the response to, “If you had a choice, would you continue to live in the neighborhood?” Figure 3 displays the results of that question by section.


Figure 3

As can be seen in Figure 3, the top left zone of the neighborhood had the greatest number of households who would continue to remain in the neighborhood if given the choice, followed by the top two zones on the right side of the neighborhood. Two additional zones had the lowest endorsement of wanting to stay in the neighborhoods, with less than half of respondents replying that they would stay in the neighborhood given the choice. The interpretation of the results suggests that there are other neighborhood variables that are at play that might have influenced the perceptions of residents of the different areas. This is a very clear example of how, even over a small geographic area such as this 9 square block region, there are neighborhood differences that can be detected.

These survey results highlight that neighborhood context does matter in some cases. Analyses like this can be used to guide investigations of the variation within a given neighborhood. This information can then be used to determine how to partner with neighborhoods to develop ways to improve the quality of life in all the neighborhoods within the APN and recognize and celebrate the individuality of the neighborhoods within Allentown.


[i] Sampson, R.J., Morenoff, J.D., & Gannon-Rowley, T. (2002). Assessing “neighborhood effects”: Social processes and new directions in research. Annual review in Sociology, 28, 443-478. doi: 10.146/annurev.soc.28.110601.141114

[ii] Weiss, L., Ompad, D., Galea, S., & Vlahov, D. (2007). Defining neighborhood boundaries for urban health research. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 32(6), 154-159.

[iii] Sastry, N, Pebly, A., & Zonta, M. (2002). Neighborhood definitions and the spatial dimension of daily life in Los Angeles. Retrieved for the University of California – Los Angeles, California Center for Population Research:

[iv] Sampson, R.J., Morenoff, J.D., & Gannon-Rowley, T. (2002). Assessing “neighborhood effects”: Social processes and new directions in research. Annual review in Sociology, 28, 443-478. doi: 10.146/annurev.soc.28.110601.141114

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