A Response to "Mental Maps and the Neuroscience behind Neighborhood Blight," by Rick Paulas
By Emma Leonard, Program Associate
Whether or not we realize it, city blocks, districts and neighborhoods are not concretely articulated land areas in an urban fabric — people interact with and define the boundaries of places differently, and use varying metrics to identify them. Rick Paulus, in his June Pacific Standard article, writes:
“These edges could be anything, from racial or ethnic divisions (“Little Italy”) to the aspirations of those living there (“the hip neighborhood”) to worries based on fear (“the dangerous part of town”). The concepts, however, are ever-shifting. When determining where to live, there are generalized questions, like weather and job prospects, to consider, but also murkier concepts, like “artsy” or “hip” or “safe.” These end up turning neighborhoods into amorphous blobs that shift and stretch depending on how the public—and, perhaps more importantly, the media and real estate developers—brand a certain area.” 1
All these facets we associate with places and spaces — how we draw our “mental maps” — have proven to be extremely revealing in understanding why some neighborhoods prosper, and others continue to be magnets for socio-economic decline and blight.
In growing up on the Island of Hawaii, I wasn’t interested in living in a “hip neighborhood” and didn’t worry about “the dangerous part of town.” The primary residential demographic of my neighborhood was a family of wild turkeys, and the grand opening of Target was the biggest news in “town” for five years. Fast forward: I’m fresh out of a teeny tiny northeast liberal arts college, ready to save the world from environmental contaminants one brownfield at a time, and I have my heart set on the one place that (at the time) had municipal composting programs: the San Francisco Bay Area.
Never having spent much time in the Bay, my conception of the East Bay was formulated on several admittedly superficial contrasting spatio-cultural points of reference on my mental map: (1) The gourmet-granola-munching, Prius-driving, redwood-hugging residents of the Berkeley Hills as depicted in countless Vietnam War documentaries; and (2) The Oakland Raiders and biker gang brawls as recounted by Jack Kerouac in Hells Angels. Keeping these images in mind as I moved to the Bay Area, I expected there be some kind of delineation between the two cities, a kind of demilitarized zone, if you will.
I ended up traveling all over the Bay, chasing my naïve dream of an affordable, clean-ish studio with roof access. After several days with no luck whatsoever and beginning to seriously consider building a tree house to live in Muir Woods, it occurred to me — I had been traveling between Oakland and Berkeley for hours without noticing any such border crossing, not even a cordial “Welcome to Berkeley” sign on the freeway. Where exactly did one city become another? Where does “here,” become “there?”
After living in the Bay for almost a year, I now know that there is in fact no concrete landmark, neighborhood or border between the two. Berkeley’s street signs are simply brown, while Oakland’s are green. Not exactly the demilitarized zone I was expecting.
So why do I and thousands of other Americans have such distinct understandings of cities in the East Bay, and neighborhoods, communities, and entire regions of the U.S.? As Rick Paulas points out, research in cognitive neuroscience has revealed that the way in which humans create “mental maps” is by a three-dimensional grid of neurons within the hippocampus, activated by memories of places: “If you're trying to get somewhere one mile away, two points on the grid will trigger; if you're trying to get somewhere two miles away, two different points will trigger, and they'll be further apart.” As our brain creates paths between two landmarks, or points we remember, we begin to form boundaries, regions, districts and neighborhoods.
Effectively, in using memories to define the bounds of space, our mental maps are entirely subjective, and thus capable of being influenced by the media. Example: I read Kerouac’s book reporting on the Hells Angels in Oakland when I was thirteen and I drew a big red X where I envisioned “Oakland” to be located on my mental map. Paulas brings up an especially salient example in the media’s portrayal of the Black Lives Matter protests: I was in several of those protests in the Bay, including one night with more than 500 peaceful protestors when a single window was broken by one rowdy teen. All that the news stations seemed to broadcast the next day was that one broken window, indicating that protesters — implied to be solely minorities — were rioting in the streets, razing storefronts left, right and center. Suddenly I was getting calls from worried relatives, asking, “Is the Bay safe to live in!?” With one news cycle, the mental maps of my friends and family had shifted, and a flaming red X had been drawn over the East Bay.
It has become apparent that, among the numerous other socio-economic development tactics we use to revitalize and redevelop the neighborhoods, main streets and downtowns of our declining cities, we also need to “hack the mental map” and reverse the “psychological branding” of these communities. The U.S. EPA Office of Sustainable Communities, Smart Growth Office, recently released a report that provides communities with some pointers do just that.2 Guidelines include having the community’s local government support public art, and districts to have distinctive design, public spaces, landscaping and buildings. These kinds of public campaigns offer both visitors and residents visual landmarks of a community’s integrity and unity, and the opportunity to actively engage in the growth of that community’s identity.
Just to be clear, this is not an entirely novel or untested method of community redevelopment. The MEMFix3 initiative already works with neighborhoods to “activate specific city blocks” for a weekend event to highlight their potential for economic reinvestment and public participation. The goal of these weekend block parties is to attract new people to places that were previously “off-limits” in their mental maps, whether because of race, economy, history, or all of the above. They’ve even developed their own “Practical Guide to Reimagining Neighborhoods!”
Similarly, The Fan District of downtown Richmond, Virginia, like many towns after WWII, was practically vacated for the surrounding suburbs. The massive emigration left vacant buildings, a rising crime rate and a disinvested community. Using tax incentives to restore historic properties, public space improvements, monthly art walks through the city center and a unified colonial aesthetic in the storefronts of local businesses and city street signage,4 “The Fan” was named one of ten Great Neighborhoods by the American Planning Association just last year.5
The racial and socio-economic underpinnings of how we draw our mental maps highlights the novel societal constructs of the post-civil rights era we live in. While we may not live in as conspicuously discriminatory of a world as our parents, social prejudices still surreptitiously exist and still have powerful sway in the way we organize our lives, communities, and society. Paulas writes:
“West Oakland, South Side, Compton, and West Baltimore are not simply neighborhoods that have “gone bad,” or areas that should be blocked out from mental maps with “here be dragons” carved in. They're long-running and self-persisting tales of corruption, racism, and ignorance. Only when these origin tales are understood can these restricted zones in our mental maps start to be filled in. And only then can change really begin.”
The neighborhoods in which these prejudices exist — neighborhoods with “long running and self-persisting tales of corruption, racism and ignorance” — are products of surreptitiously prejudiced systems like redlining, environmental injustices, and lack of access to basic resources like education and economic empowerment. In addition to the critical work of overcoming tangible inequalities, we also need to change the paradigm that creates them. It’s time to hack our own mental maps and start redrawing the boundaries, physical and mental, of the places we live in.
1Paulas, Rick. “Mental Maps and the Science of Neighborhood Blight". Pacific Standard. 1 June 2015. http://www.psmag.com/business-economics/mental-maps-and-the-neuroscience-behind-neighborhood-blight
2U.S. EPA, Office of Sustainable Communities, Smart Growth Office. “Attracting Infill Development in Distressed Communities: 30 Strategies”. EPA 230-R-15-001. May 2015. http://www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-05/documents/fresno_final_report_042215_508_final.pdf
3"About." MEMFix. Web. 21 July 2015. http://memfix.org/about/
4Venture Richmond, Inc., City of Richmond. ‘Richmond, Virginia: A downtown Profile’. 2013. http://www.vcu.edu/cppweb/urban/Richmond_VA%20Downtown%20Profile.pdf
5‘The Fan’. American Planning Association: Great Places in America – Neighborhoods. 2014. Web. 21 July 2015. https://www.planning.org/greatplaces/neighborhoods/2014/thefan.htm