A Quest for Consensus on Boston Neighborhood Boundaries

An interactive mapping effort tries to find where locals think their neighborhoods actually are.

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Bostonography

The borders of neighborhoods are very rarely clear. We sorta have an idea about where they begin and end, but we don't often all agree. A new set of maps of Boston neighborhoods shows just how contentious neighborhood geography can be.

The maps come to us from Bostonography, a Boston-focused cartography website we introduced you to back in November. Run by cartographers Andy Woodruff and Tim Wallace, the site uses a wide variety of data sets and concepts to create maps of Boston, from bus information to the colors of pictures on Flickr to the locations of specific breeds of trees.

Woodruff and Wallace have come across more than their share of data sets and maps. One consistent area of frustration has been the city's neighborhoods, which are defined differently by various city departments.

"It seems that nobody can really agree where these neighborhoods are in Boston, except for they know that they exist and they know roughly where they are. But they don’t know where one ends and one begins, or whether one is a separate neighborhood at all," says Woodruff. "Everybody seems to have strong opinions, so why not ask the internet?"

Back in April they did just that, setting up an interactive mapping tool that invited people to physically draw out where they think each of the city's neighborhoods is located. About 300 maps of neighborhoods have been submitted, and they've compiled all the data to map out where the crowd thinks Boston's neighborhoods really are. Just like the city departments, not everyone agrees where one neighborhood ends and another begins. So Woodruff and Wallace created maps showing a gradient of agreement on each neighborhood's boundaries. Each map show areas where there's more than 25 percent agreement, more than 50 percent agreement and more than 75 percent agreement.

This map shows the Jamaica Plain neighborhood. The purplish area in the middle is where most people agree the neighborhood exists. The bluish and greenish areas moving out are where there's less and less agreement.

Map of the Jamaica Plain neighborhood, based on 74 maps. Courtesy Bostonography.

Some neighborhoods, like Beacon Hill for example, have widely agreed upon boundaries, while others, like Roxbury, have huge disparities in where people think the edges lie.

The maps paint fascinating pictures of the movable boundaries of these neighborhoods, but Wallace says they've been limited by the amount of data people have submitted. Their interactive tool is still available, and they're hoping people will continue to add their own maps. "It would be a dream if we could get like 10,000 responses," says Wallace.

The maps are a 21st century version of some hand-drawn neighborhood boundary agreement maps created by the urban planner and author Kevin Lynch for his 1960 book The Image of the City, a seminal work that explores how people perceive cities, especially Boston, and which has clearly had a large influence on Bostonography.

Woodruff and Wallace agree that drawing hard lines around neighborhoods is difficult. It's useful – "tax assessors and school districts, you kinda need lines for that stuff," Wallace says – but hard lines might not be the best way to think about neighborhoods as parts of the city. In many ways, mapping a neighborhood is about mapping where you feel like you're in a specific place. The map of Dorchester, Wallace says, could be thought of as a map of its Dorchester-ness, the parts of it that feel most undeniably like Dorchester.

Mapping a feeling or the identifiable qualities of a place, understandably, is no exact science. A future post on the site will explore some of the areas where there's the most disagreement. Wallace says that some areas have simultaneously been mapped in up to five different neighborhoods. There's also places that have been left off the map completely. Yet another post will explore these places that didn't fit into any neighborhood. Even places without an identity can be mapped.

These neighborhood maps are as much a snapshot of a point in time as they are a reflection of the culture of these places. The neighborhoods being outlined today may not be totally similar to those that might have been outlined 20 years ago, or 20 years from now.

As the map below shows, the North End has a high degree of agreement, thanks mainly to physical barriers. But one, the highway running along the western side of the neighborhood, isn't actually much of a barrier any more. The Central Artery, the mostly-elevated highway that cut through the city, was replaced with a tunnel, the famous Big Dig.

Map of the North End neighborhood, based on 151 maps. Courtesy Bostonography.

Now underground, the highway is no longer the imposing wall dividing two parts of the city. And yet most still see the North End ending at the now-buried highway. The memory of the Central artery still acts as a separating line, but it may not always.

"Part of the stated goal of tearing down that highway was to stitch the city back together," says Woodruff. "That would be a good area to watch."

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.