Evaluating Your Role in Shaping Your Neighborhood’s Identity

Neighborhood identity” is a challenging concept to evaluate, although it is often an important aspect of the impact of an arts organization.  Outsiders may have a certain powerful image of a neighborhood in their minds, and residents of that neighborhood may hold conflicting images of that same neighborhood.  Those various perceptions of the neighborhood, taken together, are part of a neighborhood’s “identity.”  Some scholars and policy makers speak of neighborhoods with a “strong identity” as those in which community members tend to participate actively in civic life and share a common vision for the future of the community.  This aspect of identity is tied less directly to perceptions of the neighborhood, although high levels of participation in civic life are likely to correlate with positive perceptions of a neighborhood, at least among community residents.

On the “Culture Shapes Community” website developed by Partners for Livable Communities, the complex notion of neighborhood identity is characterized thus:

All neighborhoods have a character, but when local architecture is remodeled, street plans redesigned, and new faces arrive, that character changes and the neighborhood’s history is often forgotten. A strong neighborhood identity can accommodate changes, without being rewritten to push aside long-term residents and their voices. Arts and cultural organizations help build an identity through programs that celebrate the history and character of the community through art, theatre, murals, etc. They empower and maintain that neighborhood’s voice on a city and regional level.

One common technique for demonstrating impact on preserving or building neighborhood identity is to solicit stories from community members about how their perceptions of the community have changed as a result of a particular initiative or cultural organization.  This is ethnographic rather than quantitative evaluation, but it has a role to play in documenting a project’s success and advocating for its continuation or growth.

A relatively recent innovation in this strain of qualitative evaluation is known as photovoice, a participatory research methodology in which a group of community residents take photographs of their community and then engage in reflection and group discussion of the photographs that they find representative of positive and negative aspects of the community.  Photovoice can be used in a variety of evaluation contexts, but is particularly useful for understanding of neighborhood identity.

Community YouthMapping is another popular technique in which youth go block by block identifying resources and things to do in their neighborhoods, providing commentary about how those resources relate to their lives.  If done in multiple cycles over several years, this technique can help to document shifts in neighborhood identity as perceived by youth. Although this technique could also be undertaken by adult “mappers,” it is typically utilized with school-age youth because it requires considerable time and few projects could afford to pay adults for their time spent mapping the neighborhood in this way, but as an educational activity building group cohesion, it is ideally suited for certain youth groups.

Surveys can also be used to gather information on community identity, and with a well-planned pre- and post- methodology covering a representative sample of a particular community, such surveys can be useful in evaluating the impact of a particular program or strategy on community identity.  Some evaluators have used the “Sense of Community Index" as a tool to compare blocks or neighborhoods on a common scale that rates residents’ perceptions of their neighborhood and of their relationships with neighbors.

Other resident surveys may be used to gather data on perceptions of specific problems in a neighborhood, such as crime and housing deterioration. An example is the “Hope VI Baseline Resident Satisfaction Survey" created by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development to collect a combination of demographic data, activity data, and perceptual data using 78 questions.  We recommend that survey instruments generally be much shorter than 78 questions, but the Hope VI instrument offers a broad range of questions to be considered for a survey addressing neighborhood identity and community participation.  Sample questions cover housing satisfaction, perceptions of safety, involvement in volunteer activities, and employment status.

Site © 2007 Zack Sheppard and the Center for Creative Community Development