What is a Neighborhood?

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When people use the term "neighborhood" they can be referring to everything from a five mile radius to a few city blocks. In order to develop a nationwide dataset that reflects the diverse nature of U.S. neighborhoods, these neighborhoods must be broken down into "neighborhood types" that convey their size and nature. The ideal hierarchy both supports the "search" needs of neighborhood data users, and effectively captures the social, political and territorial characteristics of a neighborhood.

We at Maponics believe that neighborhoods are best broken into 3 types: neighborhoods, macro-neighborhoods and sub-neighborhoods.


Neighborhoods are notoriously tough to define. An urban neighborhood is a part of a city that is generally not defined legally, and is instead rather informal. "Chinatown" or "Downtown" are cliché examples, but capture the essence. In those cases, Maponics defines "the consensus of perception" - the boundaries as most people would define them. Are there disagreements? You bet. But any informal space like a neighborhood is bound to be open to interpretation - even among people who live there.

Suburban neighborhoods are often more akin to residential housing developments and might be slightly more formal. Most cities with more than about 75,000 population will likely have urban neighborhoods, but as city population decreases there are less likely to be urban neighborhoods and subdivisions become more prevalent.

In all cases, Maponics defines a clean boundary to every polygon. Neighborhoods do not overlap in our dataset (though the macro- and sub- types overlay or underlay regular neighborhoods). Creating overlaps is easy enough to do via an algorithmic buffer.


A neighborhood may also have several names but the names don't refer to the same geographic coverage (differing scale). For instance neighborhoods in Washington DC , such as Woodley Park, Cleveland Circle or Adams Morgan all are clearly bound by parks, streets, and streams, and are each unique in their housing, cultural and commercial nature. What these three neighborhoods have in common is that they are all located with the same regional neighborhood known as "Northwest" Washington. To support this geographic hierarchy Maponics identifies these regional neighborhoods as "macro-neighborhoods".

Another common example of the macro-neighborhood to neighborhood relationship is that of the downtowns or business districts of large urban centers, where downtowns commonly contain numerous distinct neighborhoods. Seattle's "downtown" neighborhood (a Maponics macro-neighborhood) contains the six individual neighborhoods of Belltown, Downtown, Central Business District, Yesler Terrace, International District, and Pioneer Square.

Some general rules:

  • Macro-neighborhoods are generally large (somewhere between 4 and 20 total for a large city).
  • A macro-neighborhood cannot split a neighborhood. That is, a neighborhood cannot fall part in one macro-neighborhood, part in another.
  • A macro-neighborhood may have no neighborhoods but a macro-neighborhood cannot have only sub-neighborhoods. In other words, if an area has a macro- and a sub-, then it must also have a neighborhood.
  • Macro-neighborhoods cannot cross each other.


As you can well imagine the "local" definition of a neighborhood can vary significantly as we look across the country. In cities like Baltimore and other east coast cities, neighborhoods traditionally have been defined along ethnic and cultural lines - Little Italy, Polish Town, and Chinatown. These traditional neighborhoods can vary significantly in size ranging from a few city blocks to several square miles. In large urban areas such as New York, small neighborhoods exist within larger ones. Alphabet City in Manhattan falls within the larger neighborhood of Lower East Side. Expanding the neighborhood hierarchy we introduce the concept of the "sub-neighborhood", resulting in a neighborhood classification for Alphabet City of:

  • Macro-neighborhood: Downtown
  • Neighborhood: Lower East Side
  • Sub-neighborhood: Alphabet City

As we move west into the Sun Belt, neighborhoods are more commonly defined by the developments and growth in that area, where the development names, as often proposed by the developer at the time of permitting, become the defacto neighborhood names. Names such as Sweetwater Estates, Thunderbird Quail Run, Parklinks at Alta Mesa, and Fairview Meadows are some common examples. Within the neighborhood hierarchy these developments constitute a standard neighborhood.

Often the build out of these developments occur in stages, or may contain sections that are built by different developers and accessed as separate areas. Over time, as these areas are populated homeowners groups form and neighborhood names change. To accommodate this neighborhood evolution within planned communities, Maponics utilizes the sub-neighborhood classification. A simple example in Scottsdale, Arizona is the Heritage developments which consist of 4 individual clusters of homes that include Heritage Village 1, 2, 3 and 4. All of these subdivisions are a part of the McCormick Ranch planned community. Each of these villages is classified as a sub-neighborhood of the McCormick Ranch neighborhood.

Some general rules:

  • Sub-neighborhoods are generally very small.
  • A sub-neighborhood cannot cross a neighborhood or a macro-neighborhood.
  • Sub-neighborhoods cannot cross each other.

Do you have suggestions on how neighborhoods can be best classified? If so, share them here!