Most of us can identify our city or town easily enough, but closer-in definitions elude some of us: “Yeah, but what neighborhood?” And why is it called that, anyway?
The Seattle-based Annie E. Casey Foundation has been examining the impact of neighborhood designations through its Making Connections initiative, aimed at fostering lasting changes in 10 U.S. cities over a 10-year period. Claudia J. Coulton, a professor at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University who’s been part of the project, says understanding the challenges associated with resident involvement necessitated a serious look at neighborhood identity.
Researchers, for a report Coulton co-authored, asked residents in the 10 participating cities to name their particular neighborhood and then draw a map of it. The study revealed a striking disconnect between residents’ definitions of their neighborhoods versus official boundaries. Altogether close to 70 percent of those surveyed provided a name for their neighborhood, but only 25 percent of them provided the right one.
The survey respondents also consistently misidentified the size of their neighborhoods to be drastically smaller than their formal boundaries. While residents drew, on average, 0.35 square-mile maps of their neighborhoods, the typical neighborhood area was 2.2 square miles.
The executive summary of that report suggests that the development of neighborhood identity generally does not proceed from the top down:
Local experts confirmed that the resident-defined neighborhoods revealed through this method were understandable based on a variety of historical, physical, and organizational factors. Moreover, they concluded that the spaces and names that showed resident consensus had already been serving or could serve in the future as the basis for resident-engagement efforts. The findings from this analysis suggest that the adoption of externally imposed or arbitrary neighborhood boundaries may be problematic for community initiatives. The lack of fit with place as experienced by residents is apt to be a barrier to authentic resident engagement. If successful community work requires collective action, then arbitrary neighborhood units are unlikely to bring together residents who share the common purpose that comes from identification with a place and a sense of its possibilities.
We are perhaps fortunate in Oklahoma City in that we have an active Neighborhood Alliance to provide support for neighborhoods looking to improve their visibility or viability. My own neighborhood is defined by city ordinance, but that ordinance was sought by actual residents, petitioning for recognition (and zoning) as an Urban Conservation District. (The UCD was set up in 2003, just before I moved in; real-estate agents were already using it as a selling point.)
The level of “resident engagement” varies across town. I suspect it’s a bit higher in the northwest quadrant, where most of the special residential-zoning districts (UCD or Historic) are located.