Chicagoans seem to love arguing about neighborhoods. Mention a particular spot on the map, and you might get multiple answers about what neighborhood it’s in. To cite just one example: Is Wrigleyville an actual neighborhood? Or is it part of Lake View? Or do you prefer to spell it “Lakeview”?

A new online survey created by a team at the University of Chicago aims to answer questions like that. The Chicago Neighborhood Project’s website,, asks people where they live and what they call their neighborhood. And participants draw a map outlining what they think of as their neighborhood’s boundaries.

Emily Talen, a professor of urbanism at the university, says the goal is to draw a map that reflects today’s consensus about neighborhood identities. She says it will be more accurate than older maps — like the one that divides Chicago into 77 community areas, which U. of C. sociologists originally created in the 1920s. (That map hasn’t changed over the past century, except for Edgewater’s secession from Uptown and the addition of O’Hare.)

Talen urges Chicagoans to make their voices heard by taking the survey. The first week’s responses were dominated by North Siders, so people in other parts of Chicago are especially being encouraged to offer their neighborhood definitions. The survey takes an estimated three minutes, and it’s available in Spanish, Polish, and traditional Chinese. Participants can enter to win a $50 gift card.

Talen talked with Chicago about the project.

What’s this all about?

We are trying to understand what residents of Chicago perceive their neighborhoods to be. We’re looking for how much consensus there is. There’s a lot of reliance on the community areas that were drawn in the 1920s. This is an attempt to see if we can get a better sense of what’s going on out there.

Is the city involved?

No, this is strictly University of Chicago and the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation. The city has been supportive. They did retweet something about it. I think that they’re perfectly happy to see what the results are. Whether or not they’ll actually do something with those results and change policies with an official neighborhood map, who knows?

I went on your website and did my map for my neighborhood, which is Uptown. But I don’t know if I drew the boundaries exactly where they should be.

It’s whatever you perceive them to be. There’s no right or wrong answer. This is a crowdsourcing kind of approach.

You could end up with one part of the city where a whole bunch of people submit maps. And there might be other areas where you don’t have enough people saying what the neighborhood is called.

That is definitely a problem we’re already seeing. We’ve got something like 2,000 responses so far. We’re already seeing a lot of representation on the North Side, and not enough on the South Side. This is where marketing comes in. We are putting ads where we think we will reach a more diverse constituency. We don’t want this to be all a bunch of millennials living in Lincoln Park. It’s gonna take some work.

Did you put a name to your neighborhood?


Did you call it Uptown?

I did. But some of my neighbors may choose to call our area Sheridan Park.

That’s the kind of thing we’re hoping to discover — what kind of variation there is on naming. We’ve gotten a lot of people — hundreds — that do not enter a name. Is that because they don’t know how to name it? One elderly lady told me, “Oh, I don’t know where my neighborhood is, so I can’t do this.” And I said, “No, it’s not about that, it’s not a test of your knowledge of boundaries.”

Why is this important? What good will come of having an updated map?

There’s a school of thought that neighborhood existence in a city is an important thing — having a life where you care about the places around you. You care about social connection. You care about supporting small businesses. You care about what goes on in your neighborhood, and its people and the places. The first step of elevating a neighborhood as being important is naming it and identifying it and thinking of it as a real place.

A neighborhood used to be something that was more real. There were the parish neighborhoods. And people were shopping at the corner grocery store. We didn’t have Amazon and we didn’t have the internet.

 Over the past decades, neighborhood really has lost meaning. It’s just kind of a convenient geographic locator — like, “Oh, I live at this intersection.” The ability of people to act collectively on behalf of a neighborhood has really been missing since the mid-20th century.

You’re probably going to ask about segregation, and how neighborhoods became a means of social sorting and having different enclaves. There’s an argument to be made that the more people care about their neighborhood as a place — perhaps around an important square and a building, a community center, whatever — maybe they stop defining their neighborhood on the basis of social homogeneity. If a neighborhood is defined as “one group lives here and another group lives there,” that way of thinking has not been that helpful.

I often hear Chicagoans blame real estate people for creating or promoting certain neighborhood names they disagree with.

That definitely does happen. It’s been a big thing in New York in particular, and people have really been pushing back against it. But in our case with the community areas, those were determined by a group of sociologists in the 1920s, through surveys and painstaking research. They were trying to find communities that were like mini cities. They weren’t supposed to be neighborhoods. But everybody just defaults to [using] these community areas as neighborhoods, including the city.

I think of the community areas as one layer on the map, with a separate set of neighborhood boundaries layered on top of that. Some community areas match fairly closely with the way people perceive a neighborhood, but others don’t.

I think that’s spot on. Some community areas have many neighborhoods within them. Some have morphed into what people perceive as neighborhoods. They’re very large — on average, 35,000 people. When urban planners think about a neighborhood, it’s more like 5,000 people. That’s the classic neighborhood size.

From what I understand, community areas were created so we’d have geographic areas that would stay the same in every census, so we can easily compare population data across the decades. (An early explanation for the community areas can be read online here.)

You can certainly always do that. But that’s just sort of an academic exercise.

When your project is done, do you envision the resulting map as a replacement for the 77 community areas? Or will the maps be complementary?

I wouldn’t be so bold as to say the city would adopt it. But I would think that the city — as caretakers of neighborhoods — would be interested in seeing how much consensus there is around naming.

Different people have created neighborhood maps and sold posters of them. And there’s a neighborhood map in an ordinance the City Council approved in 1993, based on a 1978 survey. Do you think of that as an official neighborhood map?

The city says very prominently on their website, “We do not have official neighborhoods in Chicago.”

What role does gerrymandering play? If you look at maps from 100 years ago, the wards were more compact. But now they snake all over. And some neighborhoods are split up into multiple wards.

I think it’s terrible. If you want to band together with your neighborhood to do important things, you don’t have that representation, because your ward is straddling all over the place. This disassociation between political power and neighborhood definition is hugely problematic. And it might be one reason the city doesn’t want to get involved in neighborhood definition: If they really were serious about giving neighborhoods some voice in a collective way, then they would run into problems with ward gerrymandering.

We have a lot of neighborhood associations. But those are not covering the whole city. They’re here and there. I love my neighborhood association, which is Sheffield Neighbors. That’s been really effective to have an association covering an actual place where people come together. Why not have that everywhere?

Do you think of Sheffield Neighbors as a distinct neighborhood? Or is it part of the Lincoln Park neighborhood?

The city would call it all Lincoln Park. But that’s kind of crazy, because Lincoln Park has multiple neighborhoods. And that’s way too big of an area. 

What have you noticed in the survey responses so far?

I’ve seen a map that our programmer produced. If you put a transparent color for each drawing, and then you overlay all that, you can see these dark spots where there’s a lot of consensus going on. That’s kind of cool. 

I hope it will start conversations among people — and they’ll start thinking about their neighborhood and maybe take it a little seriously.