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.
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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
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
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.
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