This is part 1 in a series of posts about designing 5BlocksOut.com around neighbourhoods. We describe the challenges we’ve encountered and the solutions we’ve come up with so far.
Neighbourhoods are central to the 5 Blocks Out user experience. They’re part of navigation, overall site structure, and our “following” feature that lets you subscribe to everything happening in a geographical area. We’ve hit many interesting design challenges along the way and we’d like to share a bit of that with you in this series.
Let’s start at the beginning:
Q: What is the list of Toronto’s neighbourhoods and where is each ‘hood located?
A: There isn’t an official answer to this question. Many older cities have put this debate to rest, but Toronto’s neighbourhoods are still a topic of discussion and occasional flux. That’s in part because Toronto is still changing fast: new ‘hoods like Junction Triangle pop up from time to time as people move in and demand recognition. It’s also because our municipal government has remained fairly quiet on the topic, although not entirely mute.*
When we first started researching Toronto’s neighbourhoods we went direct to the City, where we discovered a lovely hand-crafted neighbourhoods map that corresponded pretty well to how real Torontonians talk about their neighbourhoods. “Paydirt!”, we thought. Then we spoke with the city employee who originally put it together, and realized it wouldn’t work for us. The map was no longer being maintained because of the high volume of feedback and complaints it received. Furthermore, the City explicitly didn’t want to become the arbiter of neighbourhood boundaries. Sadly, the map appears to have been retired, as we can no longer find it on the city web site. A trip to the archives awaits.
What you’ll currently find on the City of Toronto website is a set of neighbourhood profiles and a list and map of neighbourhoods with demographic info. It’s a valuable resource, especially if you want to do statistical analysis, because it was created for that purpose using Statistics Canada census tracts. Unfortunately for us, census tracts don’t correspond to the way people commonly talk about neighbourhoods — “Hey, wanna meet at that new pub in CMA Tract 0039.00 tonight?”. Not practical as a starting point for 5 Blocks Out.
The Toronto Real Estate board and various real estate-related companies all have their own lists and maps, of course. These maps tend to correspond to MLS regions, which is nice if you’re a real estate salesperson, but again, not useful for 5 Blocks Out’s purposes.
Google recently added neighbourhood names to its Toronto map to make wayfinding easier… zoom in far enough and you’ll see them. Unfortunately Google doesn’t offer a corresponding list of these ‘hoods, at least none that we’re aware of.
The Toronto Star published a nice neighbourhoods map in March 2009 and improved it subsequently with feedback from readers. The Star map is also available in KML format for Google Earth. This is probably the closest thing to what we were looking for, but it didn’t exist when we began our design process. We’ll definitely pay attention as it evolves further.
Then there’s CoachHouse Books, which published our favourite Toronto maps e-vah in their visionary uTOpia. The book includes two beautiful city maps, a realistic map by Alfred Duggan and another, more fanciful and aspirational map by Marlena Zuber.** These arguably do the best job of helping one understand the cultural fabric of the city.
Last but not least, Wikipedia has a wealth of information on Toronto’s neighbourhoods. In the end we went with Wikipedia as our primary source of data for 5 Blocks Out, since it has not only a great list of neighbourhoods that match closely how everyday people talk about Toronto, but also a few hundred detailed articles, one for each neighbourhood, and a little bit of high-level history as well.
We derived over 170 ‘hoods from Wikipedia, and we put these all on the 5 Blocks Out Toronto neighbourhoods map, using descriptions in the neighbourhood-specific articles to take a best guess at a geographic center. (We haven’t dared define boundaries yet; more on that in part 2.) Wikipedia really is a great source for this kind of thing, especially if you want the “citizen’s view”.
One major learning for us was that defining a list of neighbourhoods in a city like Toronto is an editorial exercise: you need to set policies about which neighbourhoods will be included in your list, and you’ll often run into gray zones where the answer is unclear. For instance, “The Pocket” is a great little neighbourhood on Toronto’s east side, south of the Danforth, and people who live there definitely know it as such, but you won’t find it on the City of Toronto neighbourhood list. For 5 Blocks Out we generally err towards inclusivity and defer to the views of real people who live in the area. So The Pocket is in, as far as we’re concerned: voila.
Stay tuned for part 2: “What are the neighbourhood boundaries, and does it matter?”
* Unlike, say, New York, where the city government has an official list of neighbourhood names and a boundary map
** Marlena has published many more maps since then