What makes a neighborhood great? (© Richmond (Va.) Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau)

© Richmond (Va.) Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau

What distinguishes a great neighborhood from the merely meh? It’s a difficult question, encompassing everything from physical attributes such as good design to the right number of parks and public gathering places.

We asked urban planners, a geographer, an architect and real-estate agents to pinpoint some of the common threads that put an area on the map for buyers and visitors.

Is it a charming Main Street, good schools or an abundance of interesting shops, restaurants and other diversions? What elements conspire to create great neighborhoods such as the Pearl District in Portland, Ore., Boston’s Back Bay or Fells Point in Baltimore?

People and place
If you ask Fred Kent, founder and president of the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces, it’s people, not developers, who create the next big place.

“It’s always a bunch of individuals coming in who think the potential for their community is bigger,” Kent says. “They have this feeling that something has happened there and start to do little things that collectively add up to a big thing.”

That might include a shoe-repair shop owner sprucing up his storefront, a coin laundry adding an attached coffee shop or a resident putting in a park bench on the corner to allow people to stop and talk.

“These twists give a signal that something is going on here. Pretty soon other people put a bench on the street,” Kent says. And voilà, he says, revitalization is born.

In many areas, this urban renewal is started by artists – those who need to live cheaply to pursue their craft but want to be close to cultural and physical amenities.

Just look at the decades-old revitalization of downtown Portland, Maine, says Andrew Schiller, geographer and CEO of Location Inc., which operates the NeighborhoodScout website. Its downtown was once so empty that city officials refused to plow the snow from its streets during the winter. Then artists from the local college started moving into old warehouses along the waterfront, stringing up outdoor lights and opening their galleries to visitors. It was the beginning of a thriving city.

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Ditto for once-moribund Asbury Park, N.J., with its beautiful Victorian architecture that has been turned around by creative entrepreneurs in the past decade.

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Elements that encourage interaction – parks, boardwalks, public plazas and wide sidewalks – serve as people magnets, Kent says. Best of all are sidewalks on a community’s main street that run between café seating and storefront window displays, allowing people to walk dogs, greet neighbors and people watch. Add things such as weekly farmers markets, civic-association pancake breakfasts and multidimensional establishments that offer opportunities to linger, such as a coffee shop with art displays, a lively bulletin board and outdoor café seating, and you’ve got the beginnings of a great neighborhood hub.

These are the places you take friends and family when you want to show them the neighborhood, planners say.

 “People attract people,” Kent says, so when businesses triangulate in one place, such as a theater, bookstore and art gallery, they give people reason to stick around.

Indeed, Kent’s group, the PPS, advocates “The Power of 10” for neighborhoods – capitalizing on the 10 most important and useful places, such as the local post office, coffee shop or park. The more things that can be clustered around these places, the PPS says, the more central and beloved a neighborhood will become.

Location, location, location
Of course, few people are going to settle in a neighborhood if it doesn’t have access to well-paying jobs, Schiller says. “The places that have the most value and that gentrified first were those closest to, or have access to, high-paying jobs. They went up the fastest and the farthest,” he says.

That, he says, is why you see neighborhoods revitalized near the subway lines into Manhattan such as Brooklyn’s Park Slope or Williamsburg districts, or those by light rail, such as South Pasadena, Calif.

Indeed, planners say access to good public transportation can turn even some suburbs into hot areas. A study released earlier this year by the American Public Transportation Association and the National Association of Realtors showed that between 2006 and 2011, home values performed 42% better on average if the homes were within a half-mile of public transportation with high-frequency service, such as subway, light rail or bus rapid transit. Residents in those areas had better access to jobs and lower transportation costs, leaving them with more money to enjoy neighborhood amenities.

Another perk: Transit stations often attract retail shops, services and dining, giving some suburbs without a real downtown a place to walk and linger.

Another study cited in the APTA report found that buyers in the suburbs of Portland, Ore., paid more for houses in neighborhoods with more connected street networks, smaller blocks and pedestrian access to commercial shops and services and light-rail stations.

Let’s not forget schools
“By and large, the highest-value home prices in America are found in school districts of very high quality,” Schiller says, preferably those with access to high-paying jobs.

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These areas, such as the Boston commuter suburbs of Newton and Brookline, are the blue-chip stocks of neighborhoods, even for people without kids, because they attract people with higher levels of education, who tend to be more active in preserving community value.