Does geometry bias our view of how neighborhoods work?

Imagine a neighborhood that looks like this:

On any given block, there might be a handful of small apartment buildings—three-flats—which are usually clustered near intersections and on major streets. Everything else is modest single-family homes, built on lots the same size as the three-flats.

What kind of community is this? Well, if you were to walk, bike, or drive around it, you would spend most of your time in front of these bungalows, which make up, on the block pictured above, fully 75 percent of the buildings. Visually, they define the landscape; the three-flats are accents, notable but clearly in the minority.

If you lived in this community—particularly if you lived in one of the bungalows—this visual character might be something you’re attached to, and identify with. You might begin to define your neighborhood by these bungalows, and expect the neighborhood’s future changes to conform with this identity.

And yet there’s something curious here: equal numbers of families live in bungalows and three-flats in the neighborhood pictured above. There are nine bungalows, each with one family; and three three-flats, each with three. (And if any of those three-flats have converted garden apartments, there are more people in the three-flats!)

But basic rules of geometry mean that if there are equal numbers of people in higher-density and lower-density housing types in the same neighborhood, the people in the lower-density housing will take up much more space—and, maybe, have an advantage in defining the identity of their neighborhood. (You’ve certainly noticed a similar dynamic with maps of the presidential race by county: a sea of low-density counties in red visually swamps the fewer, but much higher-density, counties in blue.)

Does this matter? I think yes, because the power to define a neighborhood’s publicly accepted identity also brings with it a great amount of power in shaping its future development. That’s especially the case in cities like Chicago, where local aldermen representing relatively small areas have near-veto power over new housing, businesses, and many transportation decisions within their wards. A group of people who manage to convince their alderman that a particular development, or streetscape, is “out of character” with the neighborhood’s identity is often able to defeat it.

This is especially relevant because the low-density/high-density housing usually corresponds to other axes of unbalanced power: within any given neighborhood, people in higher-density housing usually have lower average incomes, and are more likely to be people of color. What’s more, they’re also likely to be younger and renters rather than owners—and so statistically less likely to sit on a neighborhood board, or attend public meetings. A dynamic that privileges the ability of people in low-density housing to define and shape their neighborhood, then, is likely to reinforce some of the most basic inequalities of American society.

Nor is this only a theoretical issue. I thought of it after reading articles like this one, about Jefferson Park on the far northwest side of Chicago. “Should Jefferson Park Keep Suburban Vibe?” the headline asks, referring to some locals’ opposition to any new multifamily housing. Much of Jefferson Park looks a good deal like my imaginary neighborhood above; it’s generally identified with the city’s much-loved “bungalow belt” of early twentieth century single-family homes. Thus its identity as “suburban,” relative to the denser neighborhoods to the east.

But this widely accepted identity—one taken for granted in the headline of a story about whether the neighborhood ought to accept new high-density residents—is an artifact of urban geometry. According to the Chicago area’s metropolitan planning organization, 72 percent of the residential land in Jefferson Park is taken up with single-family homes. But most people who live in Jefferson Park—52 percent—actually live in an apartment or condo.

There’s obviously no smoking gun here about the power to define the future of the neighborhood. Can a neighborhood where most people live in multifamily housing be said to have a “suburban vibe” in this sense? If not, does that mean any of the people who strongly oppose new multifamily housing, and the people who would live in it, would change their minds? Or would their rhetoric be less powerful to those (probably the vast majority) who don’t have a strong opinion? To the alderman?

It’s hard to know. But it seems unlikely—especially if you believe any of the arguments made by people like Sonia Hirt about the cultural power of the idea of the single-family home—that these sorts of constructed identities don’t have some kind of effect on the paths that neighborhoods take.

Of course, there is a flip side to the way that urban geometry distorts people’s perceptions of how most of their neighbors live. And that’s that it’s possible to add much more housing without changing the visual character of the neighborhood in the same proportion. The question is whether it’s possible to add that housing—contributing, on average, to more diverse, affordable, and sustainable cities—when people believe (rightly or wrongly) that the character of their neighborhood must change to accommodate it.