Here is a fascinating online experiment: let residents of a city, in this case, Boston, illustrate how they would draw neighborhood boundaries. Here are the conclusions of the effort thus far:
Although we talk a lot about boundaries, this post included, the maps here should also remind us that neighborhoods are not defined by their edges—essentially, what is outside the neighborhood—but rather by their contents. And it’s not just a collection of roads and things you see on a map; it’s about some shared history, activities, architecture, and culture. So while the neighborhood summaries above rely on edges to describe the maps, let’s also think about the areas represented by the shapes and what’s inside them. What are the characteristics of these areas? Why are they the shapes that they are? Why is consensus easy or difficult in different areas? What is the significance of the differences in opinion between residents of a neighborhood and people outside the neighborhood?
We’ll revisit those questions in further detail in future posts, and also generate maps of other facets of the data. Next up: areas of overlap between neighborhoods. Here we’ve looked neighborhood-by-neighborhood at how much people agree, so now let’s map those zones that exhibit disagreement. Meanwhile, thanks so much for all the submissions for this project; and if you haven’t drawn some neighborhoods, what’s your problem? Get on it!
This gets at a recurring issue for urban sociologists: how to best define communities or neighborhoods. The best option with data is to use Census boundaries such as tracts, block groups, blocks, and perhaps zip codes. This data is collected regularly, in-depth, and can be easily downloaded. However, these boundaries are crude approximations of culturally defined neighborhoods. People on the ground have little knowledge about what Census tract they live in (though this is easy to figure out online).
So if Census definitions are not the best for the on-the-ground experience, what is left? This crowdsourcing project is a modern way of doing what some researchers have done: ask the residents themselves and also observe what happens. What streets are not crossed? Which features or landmarks define a neighborhood? Who “belongs” where? What are typical activities in different places? Of course, this is a much messier process than working with clearly defined and reliable Census data but it illustrates a key aspect about neighborhoods: they are continually changing and being redefined by their own residents and others.