Mapping Oakland

February 10, 2009

Think you know where you live? Go fill out a survey for the new Mapping Oakland project and let Robert Lemon, a Cal grad student in landscape architecture, know! A while back, a friend of mine sent along some information about this project, which is being conducted by a classmate of hers. At the time, the website wasn’t live yet and the project was still in its infancy. But I finally remembered to check again, and lo and behold, everything is up and running!

The Mapping Oakland project sets out to create a mental map of people’s perceptions of neighborhoods and urban space within the City of Oakland.The project is specifically looking at perceptions and uses of public open spaces (parks to streets and everything in between), but is also exploring how people identify and bound their neighborhoods as part of this. Funded by the American Society of Landscape Architecture, the project’s broader goal is to research how culturally and demographically distinct neighborhoods in Oakland perceive and use public space.

Umm, a mental map?
What’s a mental map, you ask? To create a mental map (or cognitive map, as it’s also called) you basically take a physical map and you superimpose ideas or emotions on it. In this case, you’re superimposing concepts of neighborhood—notions that don’t have scientifically definable boundaries (as does something like, say, topography). But you can create a mental map of just about any abstract ideas you can collect data on: hopes, fears, perceptions, stereotypes. The concept came out of the field of human geography, which examines the ways in which people interact with the built environment. Mental maps don’t have to be place-based—in fact, many look more like charts and drawings—but of course the ones I find most interesting usually are!

Steinbergs Manhattan---yup, another mental map!

Steinberg's Manhattan---yup, another mental map!

Most planners who take any theory in school get a taste of mental mapping because one of the forefathers of modern planning, Kevin Lynch, was the first to fully develop this concept as it relates to urban space, and felt that the individual’s mental map of the city was as important as the physical map. Lynch thought of cities in terms of paths (how do people move around the city?), edges (where does the city start and end, and how is this edge demarcated?), identifiable districts (what constitutes a neighborhood?), nodes (where are the key community gathering points?), and landmarks (what are the definable physical features—natural or man-made—that help us find our way and define our places?)

For a long time, this “image of the city” was more theoretical in nature, although periodically planners and geographers would put it down on paper. But in the last decade, GIS has made it possible to create and tweak and change maps in an instant, making and remaking maps in response to new datasets or ideas. Technology has also facilitated creativity in playing with new mental mapping notions and ideas—not that there weren’t people out there exploring these ideas before, but in the world of Illustrator and ArcGIS, it’s become infinitely easier. Mental maps are everywhere: there are user-created conceptual transit maps to clarify how to get around by departing a bit from reality; variations on the mental map notion that popped up after the election to present perceptions of the results across the country, and later to map the new Congress; and maps by young children that present their communities in their own eyes. The Hand Drawn Map Association celebrates the low-tech version—check out what people map when they’re tasked with drawing their own communities, or draw your own neighborhood or favorite route and enter their contest.

Map of fear in Los Angeles, where red areas are feared and green areas are comfortable (from Mental Maps)

Map of fear in Los Angeles, where red areas are feared and green areas are comfortable (from Mental Maps)

Why make a mental map?
For fun! Well, not just for fun. This kind of mapping also reveals a lot about community ideas and understandings of place. The Mapping Oakland project, for instance, asks a lot of questions about where your neighborhood open spaces are. I’m very curious to see the results—first, do people who do live near parks actually know that they exist? Sure, people know about the big ones, but I continue to be astounded by how many people don’t know that Oak Park (on Kempton), Glen Echo Creek Park (off of Piedmont), and Oak Glen Park (on Richmond Boulevard, which is between West MacArthur and Piedmont) exist, for instance. More importantly, though, how do people use public spaces—and especially streets and sidewalks—differently in different parts of the city?

And, of course, I’m curious to see how people self-define their neighborhoods. It’s funny—I’d actually been talking with a friend about whether a survey about neighborhood names for our area could be productive. At a recent community meeting, a city planning consultant suggested hanging banners with the neighborhood name on them as a strategy for building identity. Okay, I admit that I’ve suggested that very same thing on occasion when I’ve been the one in the planner shoes—and there is some strong evidence that neighborhood identity can help bolster cohesion, sense of place, and overall engagement—but as I’ve written before, our ‘hood is a little unusual in that it doesn’t have a well-defined, commonly used name. What would you put on the street banners? (Interestingly, the study area at the meeting where this idea came up includes Orange Street, which is definitively part of Adams Point—residents there thought that “branding” the neighborhood, or at least creating a gateway, was a terrific idea, whereas people in my nameless area were understandably lukewarm on it.)

I’m going to take a look at Robert’s results, I think, and go from there. It would definitely be great to see if there’s a front-runner (or if people have good suggestions of new or historic names to adopt, since it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a neighborhood has tried to start from scratch on the name front), and then to build some cohesion and identity around the name so that we can stop telling people we live near Kaiser, or off of the Harrison/Oakland 580 exit, or by Mosswood Park, or “in that random area between Uptown, Piedmont Avenue, and the lake.”

So, anyway. Mapping Oakland. Check it out when you have a chance, and if you’re an Oaklander, help flesh out the dataset with some info about your own corner of the city.



  1. I definitely had a hard time answering the questions the survey was posing. Maybe it’s because the neighborhood groupings are so large. When you’re talking about a neighborhood like the Fruitvale, Jingletown is a very different place than International or Dimond. In the same way, Rockridge is very different from Bushrod, though they are still both “North Oakland”. I hope this survey is a huge success and the folks behind it decide to take a finer grained approach for round 2.

  2. that survey’s names for parts of oakland i found vague or confusing. you can have walked or driven or visited entire sections of east oakland and never learned their local names.

  3. Agreed on both points. I had to crack out a map to figure out exactly which hills were the northeast hills! (And just last week I saw someone list a school near my house as being in the “Lower Hills,” which isn’t a term I would ever have used for our neighborhood—I think of that area as Glenview/Dimond/Laurel, but who knows what other people think.) I’m curious to find out a little more about the surveyor’s Oakland background—where (or if) he’s lived here, the context, etc.—since I imagine that could have played a big role in how the meta-neighborhoods were chosen/named.

  4. Thanks for pointing me to the survey! I hope they get lots of responses.

    Interesting that you put Orange Street in Adams Point. In my mind it’s caught in between neighborhoods, like Oakland Ave and Harrison St are.

  5. Interesting—if my history is right, Orange Street was traditionally part of Adams Point because it was part of the original Adams parcel, but then again, modern neighborhood identities and boundaries don’t always track to the originals! (Rockridge and Temescal are my favorite examples of neighborhoods gaining and losing ground, respectively.) It is the case that the Orange Street folks at our meeting all assumed the neighborhood banners would say Adams Point, but they may not be representative of everyone there….seems like that edge is very elusive. (I’ve seen it listed as everything from Orange to Oakland to Harrison, and was recently chatting with a former Oakland planner, who remembered a huge debate about where to bound Adams Point for a traffic study of the neighborhood some years back.)

  6. Sorry, I wasn’t trying to present my impressions of the boundaries as being in any way definitive! I really am looking forward to seeing the results of the survey and learning about different people’s perceptions of the same places.

  7. Oh, I didn’t mean my response to be definitive in any way either—I have no idea, but am also very curious to see what folks think! (I was saying to someone earlier today that I’m really much more interested in the neighborhood boundaries part of the survey than in all the pages that follow…. ;))

  8. Yes, I hope they’re not scaring people off from responding to the boundary question by asking all these other questions too! I guess I excluded Orange in my mind just because it wasn’t a street I ever had any reason to walk to, not because it really seemed to be cut off from the other nearby streets.

  9. In response to many of your comments here and on my survey itself, I hope to clear a few things up. This survey was given in three languages and was done in the field for the most part… as I was trying to get into cultural enclaves of Oakland. The survey at first was sent online to graduate students to test how confusing it was. So before the paper ones went out, the whole middle area based on perceptions was deleted. The survey is focusing mainly on neighborhood boundaries and distance to recreation. Since nobody had been using the web page I hadn’t revised the online survey (now I have as after the posting to this blog I have had 65 more surveys completed). So I hope that might clear some of the confusion and complaints about it being too long and the names of the areas being to vague. I knew this section was a problem all along but was really hoping that I would be able to get information about the whole city to map, but this proved to be way too confusing and I scratched it off.

    On the question of race, income, etc. Why are there these types of questions? There are several reasons for this. 1. Since we are looking at neighborhood boundaries in the USA, it is very unclear where one neighborhood begins and another ends. Often people identify with language, race, income, etc. So each person’s boundary will be compared to actual census data to see if this correlation exists, or if it is based on an actual physical element in the landscape, or both and then for what reason. We ask your income, education, etc., b/c this helps inform us as to why your cognitive map is the way it is. For example, income and education might correlate to distance traveled to a park, knowledge of parks and places, etc. Number of children in your household might correlate to types of parks used, type of transportation, etc. i.e.

    Hope that clears up some questions you might have had.


  10. Thanks, Robert—definitely helpful to understand the context!

    And another fun mapping link I found since posting this—the LA Times is currently conducting a neighborhood boundaries survey with the hope of understanding where readers think neighborhood boundaries are so that their articles can more accurately identify places. Pretty cool! Check it out at: http://projects.latimes.com/mapping-la/neighborhoods/

  11. People create their own labels, even when one or some labels|descriptors (often weak|inappropriate) already exist.
    The only reason why you have to lookup the surveys’ labeling is to be sure it’s the same area. Perhaps better naming would use (closed) boundary street (names)? But survey-fillers would still need to check a map for any boundary that is an “obscure” street.
    Regarding different people applying different boundaries, an example: compare realtor “district” maps (or names) to other naming, such as craigslist.
    Might be interesting to let survey-fillers choose which existing map (redrawn for survey-format uniformity) matchs survey-fillers views. Correlate that to other survey data. Surveys are always flakily subjective, but at least entertaining.

    “huge debate about where to bound Adams Point for a traffic study of the neighborhood some years back.”
    but isn’t Adams Point in the Adams Point neighborhood? 🙂

  12. For those of you who are wondering what happened to the project. It is still ongoing, I graduated from Berkeley, took a trip, and moved across the country. I am trying to finish up the project soon and will post updates to my work as I go along to this blog: http://oaklandcognitivemapping.blogspot.com/. This paper for this work should be done by the end of Feb, so at least I hope because I’m on deck to present the findings at in April.


  13. Thanks, Robert—looking forward to seeing the results!

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