Natural Neighbourhoods

I met with Edinburgh Council 10 days ago in relation to their desire to draw boundaries around “natural neighbourhoods” in the city.  The purpose is to ensure that ‘official’ administrative boundaries take account of neighbourhoods in which people actually feel they live, rather than some area created as an official convenience. This turns out to be rather an interesting project. The idea was that a sample of citizens would be polled to determine the name of their neighbourhood, tying this to a postcode and then mapping it.

Of course there are all manner of problems here:

  1. The ‘estate agent’ problem – when you are selling your house suddenly “Craigmillar” becomes “South Duddingston”
  2. What do you do with the inevitable overlaps – spatial analysis can help with a quantitative resolution, but does that leave some people unhappy?
  3. Do people actually know where they live?  Yes, they know the street, but in a world where we rarely think local, do they associate themselves with that which is nearby and perhaps more familiar – not realising that crosses a traditional district boundary?
  4. I like history and think history should inform the present day, including present day geography.  It doesn’t take long looking at a First Edition Ordnance Survey map to realise there is often “area creep” – the farm or mansion which gave an area its name can be a surprising distance from the modern-day neighbourhood.
  5. Developers curdle to pudding; we are lucky to have fairly sensible street naming in Edinburgh – due to robust policies on the part of our Council – but we still have inane names like “Oak Lane” and developers just love to move “nice” names from one place to another.  So Wardie has marched west, Royston and Crewe are used by those who really don’t want to live in Pilton, some people just say they live in the “suburbs” or “North West” or the “city centre”, or give a set of choices.

We did an interesting comparison of a pilot list of names with those held in the Gazetteer for Scotland, which was revealing – well-known areas were well-represented, but the majority of areas didn’t appear in the pilot survey at all.  Does it matter?  Yes, I think it does – place names are emotive, personal and give a sense of belonging.  What we do today will colour the future.  The moral of the story is that people need to be asked at the beginning and end of the process to make sure they are happy, but in between some proper research is required to make sure that the blind are not just leading the blind.

Update: The Council’s Natural Neighbourhood Questionnaire is now online.

– Bruce Gittings


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