urban institute nonprofit social and economic policy research

Finding Place in Making Connections Communities

Applying GIS to Residents' Perceptions of Their Neighborhoods

Claudia J. Coulton, Additional Authors
Read complete document: PDF

PrintPrint this page
Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Digg Share on Reddit
| Email this pageE-mail
Document date: January 01, 2010
Released online: March 30, 2010


Foundation- and government-sponsored initiatives often want to help disadvantaged neighborhoods and families in tandem. Yet many do not connect with their constituencies because the initiatives find target areas through census tracts and the like, which seldom match residents' definitions of their neighborhoods. Claudia J. Coulton, Tsui Chan, and Kristen Mikelbank (Case Western Reserve University) survey residents from 10 cities served by the Annie E. Casey Making Connections initiative, then employ GIS tools to discover the spaces residents call their neighborhoods as well as compare them with external definitions.

The text below is an excerpt from the complete document. Read the full report in PDF format.

Executive Summary

The growing recognition that place matters has led to numerous foundation- and governmentsponsored initiatives that address the needs of disadvantaged communities and families in tandem. Fundamental to these people-based and place-based strategies is the assumption that residents are both the beneficiaries and the cocreators of improvements in their neighborhoods and the systems that serve them. However, despite the centrality of place in these community initiatives, defining neighborhoods as they are experienced by residents has proven challenging. Various evaluations and critiques have found disappointing results with respect to community-engagement aspects of the work,which may relate in part to failure to properly understand the complexities of place and space.Without the ability to relate these initiatives to the neighborhood as they see it, residents can become disconnected or even resistant to the process.

This paper demonstrates how a household survey can be used to ascertain residents’ views of the place they refer to as their neighborhood.The study used data from the Making Connections target areas in 10 cities.As part of a larger survey, a representative sample of households were asked the name of their neighborhoods and instructed on how to draw maps of their neighborhoods as they viewed them.The maps were digitized and subjected to spatial analyses using geographic information systems (GIS) tools. The analyses sought to determine those spaces that were identified in common by residents and those that were in dispute or excluded by residents’ neighborhood definitions.

The study revealed a disjuncture between resident neighborhood perceptions and target-area boundaries. Although 69 percent of respondents provided a name for their neighborhoods, only 25 percent of them identified with the official target-area name used by the initiative. Despite using a variety of names, 83 percent of respondents were able to draw a map of their neighborhoods.The median size of residents’ maps was 0.35 square miles, but their space was much smaller than the typical initiative target area (2.23 square miles). Indeed, the residents of the target areas showed considerable agreement about the boundaries of 6 to 12 neighborhoods within each Making Connections target area. Although residents’ race/ethnicity and whether they were homeowners tended to influence their neighborhood perceptions, there was also considerable overlap in the spaces that residents viewed as inside their personal neighborhood conceptions.

The residents’ perceived boundaries ascertained through GIS analysis were used to draw maps that showed residents’ perceived neighborhoods for each Making Connections target area and suggested a highly complex and nuanced view. 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.The failure to recognize resident viewpoints can also mask the fact that some spaces are contested, such as when neighbors of varying ethnic groups or housing tenure have conflicting aspirations for overlapping places that are part of their divergent neighborhood identities. Similarly, the lack of awareness of resident perceptions may cause inadvertent incorporation of spaces into target areas that are excluded by many residents from their neighborhood conceptions,thereby either diluting or undermining collective action in those areas.

Externally imposed or arbitrary neighborhood boundaries may undermine the ability to evaluate community initiatives.Community initiatives often assert that they will exert a positive influence on residents’ lives, but the power of this influence is likely to depend on exposure. If residents have no awareness or contact with a place, the potential benefit can be questioned. In fact, this study raises questions about the role of neighborhood as a unit of measure in the evaluation of community initiatives, especially when the success of the initiative is judged by whether neighborhood indicators change.Data collection for evaluation is often dictated by administrative boundaries such as census tracts or zip codes, but these may not match the areas that residents see as relevant to them. Such concerns suggest that evaluators should collect neighborhood data at the smallest geographic unit possible and calculate indicators by aggregating data to neighborhood units that are guided by resident perceptions.

Finally, the study suggests that resident perceptions of neighborhoods may themselves be important targets for community initiatives. Community building can change the way residents identify with neighborhoods and their mental images of the place they live. The boundaries residents draw on a map may shift, and residents may be more influenced in these perceptions by neighbors and local organizations they have worked with through community-building activities.The collective identity of place may have been strengthened and extended by deliberate place-making activities.The survey and GIS tools used here to uncover residents’ neighborhood perceptions could be used for tracking whether place-making strategies are working to change neighborhood identity and the relationships of the people to the places they live.

(End of excerpt. Read the full report with footnotes in PDF format.)

Topics/Tags: | Cities and Neighborhoods

Usage and reprints: Most publications may be downloaded free of charge from the web site and may be used and copies made for research, academic, policy or other non-commercial purposes. Proper attribution is required. Posting UI research papers on other websites is permitted subject to prior approval from the Urban Institute—contact publicaffairs@urban.org.

If you are unable to access or print the PDF document please contact us or call the Publications Office at (202) 261-5687.

Disclaimer: The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Copyright of the written materials contained within the Urban Institute website is owned or controlled by the Urban Institute.

Email this Page