Category Archives: Thoughts

The Messy Practice of Defining Neighborhoods

What neighborhood you live in can often be point of contention among city-dwellers. In some cases, the geography of city neighborhoods can leave little doubt about neighborhood boundaries, as when bold features like major avenues, highways, railroads, and waterways make for obvious boundaries. Other cities have neighborhoods that are explicitly defined by city governments, often for political representation purposes. In a similar case, Chicago’s 77 “community areas”, which often include multiple neighborhoods within them, provide concrete boundaries at a hyper-local level, primarily for urban planning purposes.

Source: Wikimedia

But for many other cities, neighborhood boundaries, and even names, are vague, ambiguous, and inconsistent. Where I am in D.C., I’m all too familiar with this phenomenon. From blogs covering the “in-between” neighborhood areas to the repeated attempts at redefining parts of the city “already assigned” to certain names, the practice of place-making through neighborhood naming and boundary negotiation is fairly common. I’m more of a traditionalist, and I want current notions of neighborhood that have a historic significance and track record to stay put. Besides, just because a neighborhood undergoing gentrification is changing rapidly, and that change is not uniform across the neighborhood, it doesn’t mean a splintering of area identities is needed. But stepping back from my persuasion, I would also argue that this attempt to hyper-define the urban landscape is a perfectly natural practice. Whether we reside in dense cities or rural countryside, most people want to connect with their “place” and be able to define part of themselves in relation to their named surroundings. When some people deem geographic naming conventions for their place to be weak or outdated, the inclination is to redefine and recharacterize the place, which is just what these D.C. neighborhood re-namers are going for.

CH_hoodsI remember attending a Trivia Night in Columbia Heights where one question was “Name the 4 neighborhoods surrounding Columbia Heights.” “Only four?” I thought. “Oh boy”. The quizmasters later revealed the answers: “U Street Corridor (Shaw), Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, and Petworth”. And with that, trivia anarchy erupted. “What about Pleasant Plains!” “What about Park View!” “Ummm Sixteenth Street Heights?!” The quizmasters stood in humble silence, realizing their question wasn’t as cut and dry as they had predicted. For those familiar with D.C. geography, my guess was that the quizmasters took Columbia Heights as extending east all the way to the US Soldiers and Airmens Home and Washington Hospital Center, thereby eliminating Pleasant Plains and Park View, while considering everything north of Spring Road and Rock Creek Church Road to be Petworth, thereby eliminating Sixteenth Street Heights. While certain neighborhoods certainly have more cultural and social supremacy than others, it’s not a surprise that people who live in the less popularly named areas will want to stick up for their hood. It becomes a part of identity, after all.

What D.C. could use is a project like the one conducted by Bostonography, a fantastic site that creates beautiful maps and infographics all about Boston. The site conducted an online survey asking users to outline city neighborhoods on a map as they saw them, then mapping the certainty of results. While the problem of neighborhood name supremacy and “sub-neighborhoods” still lingers, the overarching design of the experiment yielded interesting results that work towards a more uniform understanding of popular notions of neighborhood borders. This is really a must read for Bostonians, with its hood-by-hood analysis, and the maps themselves are very well done.

Source: Bostonography (Full Version)

While I’ve been caught up in the geographic shapes and boundaries of neighborhoods in this post, Bostonography’s Andy Woodruff reminds us about what’s truly important:

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?

(DC map from

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Harnessing Open Data for Transforming Cities

A few days ago The Atlantic Cities published a great collection of open government data applications that are enhancing our understanding of and interactions with urban life. As you can see from the list, most applications rely heavily upon the spatial, which is not surprising, but still a powerful testament to the tremendous value of GIS applications in cities. Among the most fascinating to me are Floodprint, which maps flood footprints determined from a variety of data sources (something of particular use for New Orleans redevelopment), and Possible City, which encourages organic neighborhood growth through identifying and mapping vacant properties in Philadelphia.

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The Dream of High Speed Rail, on a Map

I love mass transit, from its efficiencies to its environmental merits to it being an alternative to gridlock traffic on I-495. So I’m a huge fan of any fantasy map envisioning a burgeoning transit system, and all the possibilities for car-free travel. So Alfred Twu’s map of a idealistic, nation-crossing high-speed rail system, which has received a ton of internet buzz since its creation last month, naturally makes my mouth water.


Source: Alfred Twu

While the realization of the plan like this is highly doubtful, at least in the foreseeable future, Slate’s Jeremy Stahl offers an interesting assessment of the map’s effect on the political dialogue over actual plans for high-speed rail corridors. Stahl comes to a logical conclusion: build where there’s already a demand. The first priority location for a high-speed rail line should undoubtedly be the Washington to Boston corridor, where rail travel in the dense mega-region has long been a mainstay. In California, plans are actually underway for a line spanning the state’s major cities from San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento. I myself would love to see high-speed rail connecting Chicago to the east coast. But for all of these routes that seem to be no-brainers, there are others that one can see struggling for ridership. A high-speed train travel from Chicago to LA may have a ton of novelty value, but at that point, isn’t flying by far the most pleasant and sensible option for such a long trip?

There are a ton of real-world issues to realizing Twu’s plan, and I’m sure even he understands that. Besides the economic stresses of building the system and the low-demand on remote segments of the network, the daunting challenges of running track across vast deserts and rugged mountains would surely complicate matters. But for all of the map’s quirks, it’s fun to dream. Even if I’m pretty sure high-speed rail will never reach Cheyenne.

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The Pitfalls of “Celebrity Architecture” in Post-Katrina New Orleans

Photo by JanetandPhil

For all of its great intentions, the Make It Right foundation doesn’t seem to live up to its name. The New Republic details the problems with the strategy of the organization, which was founded by Brad Pitt in 2007 to build homes in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Providing homes for returning residents is a noble mission, but evidently, the effectiveness of the program in revitalizing the neighborhood is clearly in doubt.

The home designs are modern and extravagant, but unsurprisingly very expensive to build, costing upwards of a whopping $400,000 each. Part of the bloated expense is due to each house being designed to be LEED certified. Since 2007, 90 out of the originally promised 150 new homes have been built, and at a cost of  nearly $45 million. As a result, the organization is struggling to finance the endeavor and has gone so far as to offer up new homes for sale to people who didn’t live in the neighborhood before the storm. Even if the full extent of the program could be implemented today, 150 homes pales in comparison to the estimated 4 to 5,000 homes lost in the neighborhood in Katrina.

The MIR homes are concentrated in the western portion of the neighborhood, particularly along Tennessee Street and Deslonde Street. Below is the Streetview for Tennessee Street where you can explore a number of the MIR homes, whose sleek and modern design make them unmistakeable and in sharp contrast to the rest of the neighborhood.

On top of the questionable strategy of Make It Right, the economic and physical geographies of the area make the project seem all the more misguided. While residents have been trickling back into the neighborhood, local businesses and essential services, which were scarce even before the storm, have not yet returned, forcing current residents to travel far for basic errands like grocery shopping.

Additionally, the environmental characteristics of the neighborhood have not changed since the storm: it is still below sea-level, surrounded by canals, and in an area especially vulnerable to levee breaching. In a comprehensive rebuke of the program, offers the view of Dr. Richard Campanella from Tulane University, who eloquently describes the physical and cultural geography at work in the site selection:

What I, as a geographer, can opine on is the decision to build MIR at that site, precisely in front of the high-velocity breach flooding, on land that is mostly below sea level and adjacent to two risk-inducing manmade navigation canals. This was a bold, high-minded, and morally majestic decision, but a foolish one. It reflects a romanticized notion of the relationship between place and people (culture). It indulges in the tempting (and popular) but problematic presumption that “place makes people,” whereas in fact the opposite is more commonly the case. It attempts to “save” the culture of that neighborhood by rebuilding in that exact spot, as if culture emerges from soil. The truth is that human beings adjust their place all the time. They move to different houses, neighborhoods, cities, states, nations, and continents incessantly. Most of the pre-Katrina housing stock near the MIR project only dates to the 1920s-1960s; residents moved there from other neighborhoods only a couple of generations ago, at most.

More troublingly, MIR’s site selection decision reveals a breezy arrogance (note the name “Make It Right”) and a misguided sense of defiance. At whom are they shaking their fists by insisting on making their statement at that unsustainable site? Global warming? Under-engineered levees and floodwalls? Centuries of delta urbanism and their deleterious impact on the landscape? The whole Katrina tragedy?

Looking at maps of the area confirm the misgivings Campanella lays out. As you can see in Google Maps and from this 2007 Army Corps of Engineers map, the Lower Ninth Ward (including the Holy Cross sub-neighborhood south of St. Claude Avenue) is surrounded on three sides by water: the Mississippi River to the south, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to the west, and the Main Outfall Canal to the north. In the ACE map, the Lower Ninth Ward is situated just to the left of the “Alternative 2” label.

Source: ACE via the Times-Picayune

The Make It Right foundation’s questionable tactics raise a number of difficult questions for New Orleans, with the ultimate one being a politically volatile idea: should the Lower Ninth Ward be saved at all? In a battle of geographic determinism versus the emotional push to rebuild, it appears the latter is winning.

Photo by John Donaghy

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The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

For anyone interested in urban planning, public housing, and the lessons we can draw from the past in those fields, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is essential viewing. It chronicles the rise and fall of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex that “graced” the St. Louis skyline from 1954 til 1972. If you don’t know of Pruitt-Igoe, perhaps you’ve at least seen this iconic photograph, showing its demolition:


In the decades since Pruitt-Igoe’s demise, much has been speculated regarding what exactly caused the project to fail so dramatically. Mismanaged social welfare? Modern architecture? Poor economic conditions? In interviewing past residents as well as experts on urban policy and St. Louis, the film makes clear the Pruitt-Igoe complex had all the above factors and others working against it. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth aims to bypass the generalities and get at the heart of why Pruitt-Igoe failed from a decidedly personal perspective of the tragedy.

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Achieving “One City” in Washington, D.C.

Cultural diversity should be a strength for any city, but when those diverse groups aren’t communicating with each other like good city-dwellers should, there are bound to be problems. Issues of city unity here in Washington, D.C. have been brought to the forefront in recent years as the city undergoes dramatic changes, namely in the gentrification of long-impoverished neighborhoods and the massive influx of affluent, mostly white new residents to the District, pushing out many blacks. Indeed, D.C. is “Chocolate City” no more.

Current mayor Vincent Gray came to power in 2010 in a surprise upset over the sitting, and generally popular, former mayor Adrian Fenty. Despite both candidates being black, their campaigns were exaggeratedly characterized as representing two separate directions for the city inflected by race: an embrace of young moneyed professionals flooding the city (Fenty) or a refocus on D.C.’s long-established, less-affluent black community (Gray). While Fenty beat Gray in the city’s wealthiest wards and wards experiencing the most recent gentrification (Wards 1, 2, 3, and 6), Gray’s victory rested on his strong support in more heavily black and/or less affluent parts of the city (namely Wards 4, 5, 7, and 8) (full election results here). The campaign’s portrayal of Fenty’s leadership style as rude, abrasive, and cutthroat certainly had a role in swaying voters, but nonetheless, Gray’s win was moreover hailed by the Washington Post’s Courtland Milloy as a “populist revolt”. And while I’m not a fan of Milloy’s usual bombast and confrontational treatment of race issues in Washington, his over-the-top language on the election does, I believe, speak to certain, more rational, perspectives among D.C.’s black community. He has a point.

The election of Mayor Gray hasn’t slowed the march of gentrification and neighborhood change in D.C., but Gray has tried to focus on uniting the city’s diverse socioeconomic and ethnic groups, in part with his administration’s ever-present motto: “One City”. It’s a noble goal, as D.C.’s geographies of division become more obvious and pronounced. Even at the D.C. Council level, much of the political dialogue among council members focuses on what is good or bad for “my” ward, rather than the city at large.

It seems neighborhood civic associations aren’t playing nice either, according to an illuminating piece in the Washington Post. For nearly 100 years, D.C. has had two separate organizations serving as bodies “unifying” civic associations across the city: the Federation of Citizens Associations and the Federation of Civic Associations. The Citizens federation was formed in 1910 and soon became an all-white organization, excluding blacks through a formal vote. The Civic federation was formed in response to the exclusion eleven years later to serve Washington’s black community. Today the blatant racism of the past is all but a memory and the federations’ influence has waned considerably since successful home rule developments in the 1970s. But the racial foundations of the organizations linger today, and while each group claims to represent a voice for all District residents, in effect they still represent two distinct Washingtons: White D.C. and Black D.C.

In the respective meetings covered by reporter Mike Debonis, twelve of the 13 people at the Citizens federation meeting were white, while 24 of the 26 people at the Civic federation meeting were black. While the Citizens federation has an unorganized internet presence, leaving their leadership difficult to gather, the Civic federation’s website lists current officers as hailing from Dupont Park, Fairlawn, Northeast Boundary, Kingman Park, Congress Heights, South Manor Park, and Queens Chapel — predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Wards 4, 7, and 8. Recent efforts to merge the two organizations, or at the very least cooperate in open dialogue, have unfortunately failed, apparently due to petty squabbling and political territoriality. While these civic groups certainly don’t have the political clout they once did, the divisions between them are indicative of the rifts occurring in the city as a whole, as the geographies of race and socioeconomic status morph and, as in many American cities, become more sharply segregated.

Ensuring a city can maintain diverse neighborhoods in the face of population growth and economic boom is no small task. But a healthy public dialogue addressing city issues should be possible regardless of race and where these communities are. Understanding the need for cooperation across the divide is fundamental to achieving “One City”.

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A Look Back at “American Murder Mystery”

In 2008, Hanna Rosin investigated the troubling patterns of violent crime in Memphis that cast doubt upon what we thought we knew about urban crime prevention. This fascinating, in-depth article is nearly four years old, but just by taking a look at a 2012 ranking of America’s most dangerous cities, it feels just as relevant now. That’s because, as Hanna Rosin describes, the patterns of urban crime in the U.S. are changing, and rather than our largest cities also being home to the highest crime rates (Chicago’s recent homicide troubles notwithstanding), mid-sized cities like Cleveland, Orlando, and the story’s focus city of Memphis are now showing up on these lists regularly. In Rosin’s words, she wonders, “why has Elvis’s hometown turned into America’s new South Bronx?”

But the crux of Rosin’s article is that within Memphis, the destruction of concentrated public housing hasn’t brought down city crime rates nor has it granted low-income residents new opportunities for improvement. Instead, the results of decentralizing the city’s public housing (via new, smaller developments and Section 8) has broadened the geography of crime throughout Memphis, bringing gang activity, drug dealing, and violent assaults to once quaint, care-free neighborhoods. This flies in the face of what so many sociologists and urban theorists have been led to believe, including myself, since the failure of public housing towers in the 1960s and 70s: mix low-income families throughout middle- and upper-income communities and they will be raised out of poverty and crime through stronger social and economic networks.

But as Rosin points out in her analysis, de-concentration shouldn’t take all the blame for Memphis’s crime woes because the fundamental problems facing the urban poor in large part remain and haven’t been addressed in full. This actually reminds me of the well-intentioned but incompletely thought-out plans for public housing in the 60s that would house hundreds of families in giant “towers in the park”. The new buildings started out clean and new, and there was an assumption that these beautiful surroundings would inspire people to be lifted out of poverty. But if the services, maintenance, and general long-term upkeep plans aren’t established, things fall apart quickly. This roughly sums up the saga of Pruitt-Igoe, a story I’d like to go more in-depth on in later posts. Just as towers in the park were ill-equipped for long-term habitation, perhaps so too are the HOPE VI-style public housing that still fails to address core needs. For example, Rosin notes that one major problem facing the relocated poor in Memphis is that the services they depended on remained at their old sites or were concentrated downtown, leaving many with less support than before the move.

For a more eloquent exploration of these issues, I highly recommend this read. In particular, the video featured alongside the article featuring Phyllis Betts from the University of Memphis describing the current the national dialogue on urban crime is really fascinating.

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99% Invisible: Skateboarding and the Control of Public Space

I could probably devote this blog entirely to promoting each new 99% Invisible podcast because the series is just so damn interesting. But for now, I’ll just highlight a recent episode focusing on skateboarding in Philadelphia’s famous LOVE Park and the city’s efforts to crack down on the “anti-social” behavior. Kudos to park designer Edmund Bacon for standing up for his original design and supporting the organic use of his park as a skateboarding mecca.


Photo by Robert Francis

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“Scum Villages” in Amsterdam?

Late last year I was alarmed to read about a program put forward in Amsterdam to create so-called “scum villages” to house “persistent troublemakers” tormenting city communities. It’s a fascinating and rather morally questionable way of dealing with anti-social citizens: relocate and isolate them. While I think anyone would love to see their havoc-wreaking neighbors shipped out of sight so you can finally get a good night sleep, if you look at it from the perspective of greater societal welfare, the repercussions of the plan are more alarming. So many questions arise: What evidence is there that isolating bad seeds is the best way to pacify neighborhoods? Is the goal to preserve quality of life for all Dutch, or to nurture the model citizens while damning the rest? Are the poor or ethnic minorities more subject to relocation than the rest of society? Will facilities in these “scum villages” truly be on par with those in the rest of Amsterdam?

As the article notes, this kind of project has been done before, with predictable results for anyone familiar with public housing pitfalls:

The Dutch Parool newspaper observed that the policy was not a new one. In the 19th century, troublemakers were moved to special villages in Drenthe and Overijssel outside Amsterdam. The villages were rarely successful, becoming sink estates for the lawless.

My vision for these “scum villages” (a term which ironically seems to fly in the social welfare-friendly Netherlands, and yet one that I can’t imagine being tied to public policy in the U.S.) is in line with what has happened in Pruitt-Igoe, Cabrini-Green, Queensbridge, and any specialized public housing system that provides “modern” housing for society’s fringe while leaving them without adequate building maintenance, retail, recreation, or public services. And that is a vision of hopelessness, crime, and a general breakdown of the social order. But if Mayor van der Laan’s goal is to simply keep anti-social Amsterdamers out of sight and out of mind, perhaps such consequences would still count as a success.

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