In the words of the urban scholar Lewis Mumford, “Neighbourhoods, in some primitive, inchoate fashion exist wherever human beings congregate, in permanent family dwellings; and many of the functions of the city tend to be distributed naturally—that is, without any theoretical preoccupation or political direction—into neighbourhoods.” Most of the earliest cities around the world as excavated by archaeologists have evidence for the presence of social neighbourhoods. Historical documents shed light on neighbourhood life in numerous historical preindustrial or nonwestern cities.
Neighbourhoods are typically generated by social interaction among people living near one another. In this sense they are local social units larger than households not directly under the control of city or state officials. In some preindustrial urban traditions, basic municipal functions such as protection, social regulation of births and marriages, cleaning and upkeep are handled informally by neighbourhoods and not by urban governments; this pattern is well documented for historical Islamic cities.
In addition to social neighbourhoods, most ancient and historical cities also had administrative districts used by officials for taxation, record-keeping, and social control. Administrative districts are typically larger than neighbourhoods and their boundaries may cut across neighbourhood divisions. In some cases, however, administrative districts coincided with neighbourhoods, leading to a high level of regulation of social life by officials. For example, in the T’ang period Chinese capital city Chang’an, neighbourhoods were districts and there were state officials who carefully controlled life and activity at the neighbourhood level.
Neighbourhoods in preindustrial cities often had some degree of social specialisation or differentiation. Ethnic neighbourhoods were important in many past cities and remain common in cities today. Economic specialists, including craft producers, merchants, and others, could be concentrated in neighbourhoods, and in societies with religious pluralism neighbourhoods were often specialised by religion. One factor contributing to neighbourhood distinctiveness and social cohesion in past cities was the role of rural to urban migration. This was a continual process in preindustrial cities, and migrants tended to move in with relatives and acquaintances from their rural past.
Neighbourhoods have been the site of service delivery or "service interventions" in part as efforts to provide local, quality services, and to increase the degree of local control and ownership. Alfred Kahn, as early as the mid-1970s, described the "experience, theory and fads" of neighbourhood service delivery over the prior decade, including discussion of income transfers and poverty. Neighbourhoods, as a core aspect of community, also are the site of services for youth, including children with disabilities and coordinated approaches to low-income populations. While the term neighbourhood organisation is not as common in 2015, these organisations often are non-profit, sometimes grassroots or even core funded community development centres or branches.