Mapmakers goal: Build consensus on neighborhood boundaries

The ongoing confusion around the boundaries of the city’s neighborhoods has been largely caused by decades of indifference by city officials who callously shifted lines and blurred boundaries to reflect political and demographic changes in the last century. This chaotic, cartographic tug-of-war has resulted in large sections of Dorchester and Mattapan being shifted back and forth to the point where boundaries on many present-day maps bear little resemblance to the realities on the ground in disputed areas.

Officials at the Boston Redevelopment Authority are sympathetic to local protests about these changes— including repeated ones from the Reporter. And technology has made it possible for the city to allow anyone to create maps based on individual notions about neighborhood lines. This is much appreciated.

Still, this approach fails to build the consensus necessary to create a broader understanding of the actual neighborhood lines— especially among policy makers who need to make important decisions but don’t necessarily understand the city the way the people who live here do. Then there’s the matter of historical accuracy, which should be reason enough to try to get things right.

This week, we learned of an emerging effort by a pair of professional mapmakers to resolve the issue of Boston’s neighborhood boundaries using a new website, The site is run by two self-described “cartography geeks” — Tim Wallace and Andy Woodruff— who have roots in Boston.
Bostonography allows individual users to draw their own boundaries and submit them to the site. They then generate maps that reflect the boundaries of the city that are more accurate, ideally, because “they include the input of those who know the city well.”

“This map is a tool for drawing top-level neighborhood boundaries… as you see them, and submitting them to a database that will be used to map the areas of agreement and disagreement among participants,” Wallace and Woodruff write.

Currently, there are relatively few submissions to the site for Mattapan and Dorchester, but over time— with participation from our readers— we think this will be a productive exercise to help officials, community development corporations, developers, and the media better understand the “lay of the land.” Thankfully, the Bostonography team has dropped the archaic approach of applying a “north-south” division to Dorchester, which continues to be a divisive and unnecessary tool at the city level.

We encourage everyone to visit the site and spend a few minutes to create (if we can do it, it’s not too hard) your own map of the neighborhood. But, the Bostonography team cautions, “You can submit as many or as few neighborhoods as you’d like, but please only draw a neighborhood if you think you have a decent idea of where it is.” Now, that’s a novel idea.

– Bill Forry