The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

More Food For The Micro-Urbanist

Data graphic for Los Angeles’ Wilshire neighborhood.  Source:

Metro areas are the sum of many, many parts.  Jurisdictional boundaries abound.  Highway and transit systems, the interactions with natural areas, and a multitude of other features define the places we live.  In recent years, the open data movement has increased our knowledge of metro areas, to our benefit.

But people don’t live in “metros”, per se.  We live in communities.  We experience our lives in the small and interconnected places where we live, work and play.  We know those places, and the sum of our community experiences becomes our perception of the entire region.  If your communities are safe, accessible and desirable, you are inclined to believe your entire metro is the same way.  If your communities are dangerous and isolated, you will likely believe the same about your metro.  Unfortunately, the many gains made in making data available often don’t reflect this reality.
That’s why I was pleased to see this article about Los Angeles’ new Neighborhood Data Portal at the Atlantic Cities.  The L.A. Department of City Planning, the L.A. County Department of Public Health, and the California Endowment came together to put together dozens of metrics on the City of Los Angeles, and aggregated them at the neighborhood level.  The Portal splits L.A. into dozens of smaller neighborhoods and produces data on economic and social conditions, land use, transportation, housing, crime, education, health and food systems, giving users fine-grain detail on how lives in L.A. are lived.
Beginning in the 1930s, when Chicago’s 77 Community Areas were originally defined, the Windy City used to gather data along the same lines.  It’s in part how Chicagoans came to understand that there was a “Black Belt” and “Bungalow Belt”, and understood subtle distinctions between various communities.  Curiously, however, as the availability of data has grown exponentially, and the perceived disparities between communities has grown with it, collecting data by community areas has steadily declined over the last couple decades.  Why?
I have no answer for that, but the continued collection of data at the community or neighborhood level is crucial.  In fact, I don’t believe it should stop there.  Community/neighborhood level data in central cities should be compared with similar data in suburban locations — giving us an accurate depiction of metro areas.
All the time I come across data that compares metros with one another.  The fact is there is greater disparity within metro areas than there is between them, using virtually all metrics, and understanding that is key to making all parts of our metros better places.

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