Fall colors flourish among homes and buildings in the Avondale neighborhood, as seen from above on Oct. 24, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — Chicagoans love to debate neighborhood borders — but a new university study is giving them a more, er, constructive way to define their area.

The Chicago Neighborhood Project, run through the Urbanism Lab at the University of Chicago, is inviting Chicagoans to map their definitions of the city’s neighborhoods. Chicago residents can fill out the survey, which asks participants to draw their neighborhood, identifying the boundaries of where it starts and ends. Participants can stop there, or they can also register to win one of 20 $50 gift cards if they fill out additional demographic information.

The survey will run for six to eight weeks.

Emily Talen, a University of Chicago social sciences professor whose research focuses on urbanism and urban design, is leading the project. She said the survey is meant to be very open-ended, and there aren’t any rules regarding what constitutes a neighborhood. 

In the 1920s, University of Chicago sociologists led an effort on behalf of the city to divide the city into community areas. They conducted hundreds of interviews to divide it into the 77 that exist today. 

“It’s just amazing how [those definitions] have stuck,” Talen said. “The city now relies on them in various ways. They orient policy around these community areas. The idea [of our project] is an update of that and to really understand the resident perception of neighborhood.” 

The city’s 77 community areas are not really neighborhoods, Talen said, especially given their size. She said many Chicago community areas average about 35,000 people, while the average urban studies definition of neighborhood encompasses 5,000 people. 

But the flaws of Chicago’s current system go beyond size. Defining neighborhoods could allow local associations to conduct work beyond garden parties and blocking regulation, she said. Beyond that, centralization of spaces allows for more sustainable, local living, and communities could provide a deeper solution for the “epic loneliness” of the 21st century, she said. 

Historical records indicate this ideal model of a neighborhood was once possible, she said. People used to gather in squares and other physical spaces. Having a strong neighborhood can even influence one’s care for the physical environment — if someone has an attachment to a place, they might be more inclined to pick up garbage if they see it, she said.  

“You can feel connected to your neighborhood by just having a sense of your neighborhood, a sense that it’s there,” she said. “We want to understand: Do people have that in Chicago? Is there a shared understanding of that and where is it strong and where’s it not strong?” 

Certain parts of the 77 community areas, including Logan Square or Lincoln Square, do achieve neighborhood status through a sense of rootedness to a physical space, Talen said. Others, like Pilsen, are strongly identified through their ethnic ties. But many residents, policymakers and researchers acknowledge some of these areas, like West Town and New City, conceal smaller, more vibrant areas. 

There have been other attempts to remap Chicago’s neighborhoods, including one map that featured about 500 ones. In 1978, the Department of Planning developed a map of 228 neighborhoods, which highlighted some places the 77 community areas division obscured, but it collected a limited amount of data. 

It’s time for an upgrade, Talen said, and other cities are on the frontlines of neighborhood development. She hopes Chicagoans will be able to step up to New Yorkers — about 37,000 defined their neighborhoods this year — and turn up to identify those spaces. 

The results will go toward academic research in the lab, Talen said, but she hopes they will also prove useful in shaping the city. Results will be widely distributed, she said. 

For now, there is a baseline need to understand what people think about their neighborhoods, where they think they are and how people perceive their neighborhoods, Talen said. She looks forward to understanding how that will differ from the 77 community areas — and suspects the results will be “a lot different.” 

“From there, hopefully, the city will start to think about how to give these neighborhoods some agency,” she said. “Maybe if there is this really strong, shared sense of collective life at the neighborhood scale, that you could start to give that some purpose and meaning and impact.”

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