Bad map affects parks, foundation

August 13, 2010
By

John Ruch

Web Exclusive

A deliberately incorrect map of Jamaica Plain and other neighborhoods produced and distributed by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) has skewed major reports from the Boston Parks and Recreation Department and The Boston Foundation (TBF), the Gazette has discovered.

The Parks Department and TBF both told the Gazette that they were unaware that the BRA gave them an incorrect map. TBF is “shocked and appalled” by the situation, said spokesperson David Trueblood.

The incorrect map means that the Parks Department’s inventory of parks—and the way that inventory sets the department’s parks policy agendas for the neighborhoods—is significantly inaccurate. In one example, the inventory describes McLaughlin Playground at the peak of Mission Hill’s Parker Hill as being in JP.

Even more significant is the use of the incorrect map by TBF, a non-profit organization that is perhaps the city’s most influential think tank and source of funding. The incorrect map skews TBF’s data analysis in such major projects as its Boston Indicators Report.

Following Gazette coverage and editorializing on the issue, the BRA announced in June that it will fix its map. But there is no hard deadline, and the BRA has not informed other agencies and organizations that it has been providing them with incorrect maps and related data analysis for decades.

“We’re still working on this internally,” BRA spokesperson Jessica Shumaker said in an e-mail to the Gazette last month. “It’s going to take more time to determine our methods… I’m sure we’ll be informing other [city] departments, but to what extent and how I don’t know at this time.”

Shumaker said that the BRA’s “goal” is to have a new map ready for analysis of 2010 US Census data, and noted that the city will not receive any of that data until sometime next year.

The BRA created the incorrect map decades ago to make it easier to analyze US Census data by artificially reducing the number of Boston neighborhoods. The map erases several neighborhoods and draws wildly incorrect boundaries for others.

“Jamaica Plain” on the BRA map includes almost all of Mission Hill, but not the Forest Hills, Woodbourne, Parkside, Brookside and Egleston Square areas. According to the map, the local E-13 Police Station and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation are not in JP, but Mission Hill’s Mission Church is.

The incorrect map has significant negative impacts on neighborhoods. In JP, those impacts include the underreporting of minority populations and incorrect analysis of public health and abandoned property data.

While residents sometimes debate a neighborhood’s exact boundaries, there is no historical basis or local argument for such moves as placing Mission Hill inside JP. The BRA map came not from local confusion, but from an intent to be deliberately incorrect for convenience.

In addition, there are today solid, official definitions of neighborhood boundaries. The BRA itself uses separate, accurate neighborhood maps for zoning and planning—which came out of neighborhood-based processes. The City of Boston, including the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services (ONS), also uses correct neighborhood maps with the same boundaries. Boston City Council districts were recently drawn to closely match the official boundaries.

The Gazette first revealed the incorrect map in 2003, leading elected officials and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council to demand that it be fixed. The BRA refused for years, saying that fixing the map would make it impossible to compare new data with previous census analyses—essentially arguing that consistency trumps accuracy.

The BRA is now working on fixing the map in an internal process that also involves ONS and the city’s Geographic Information System, or mapping, department. Meanwhile, the incorrect map continues to infect policies and programs of many city agencies, and the Gazette continues to discover new examples of its use.
Parks and TBF

If a resident is looking to relax in a city park in Mission Hill, they’re out of luck because that neighborhood does not exist—at least, according the park search feature on the Parks Department web site (Cityofboston.gov/parks/openspaces). Lurking behind the scenes of the web site is the incorrect map, which places such parks as Mission Hill Playground in JP.

The incorrect map is also used in the Parks Department’s official “Open Space Inventory.” The 2002-2006 inventory puts Mission Hill parks in JP; puts JP’s Flaherty Playground in Roxbury; and puts JP’s Leland Street Community Garden in Roslindale.

The Parks Department and its commissioner, Antonia Pollak, were not aware that the BRA map is incorrect, according to spokesperson Mary Hines.

“[Pollak] was surprised to hear it,” Hines said in a Gazette phone interview. “She was not aware of that…but she certainly is going to look into it and make sure [the correct map is] included in anything we do.”

The TBF’s work is affected by the incorrect map in dozens of ways. The Gazette discovered the incorrect map used repeatedly in TBF’s biannual Boston Indicators Report, a wide-ranging analysis of Boston’s civic and economic life. TBF’s Boston Indicators Project, which produces the report, is one of the city’s most influential public policy analysis programs, scheduled to run through 2030.

The latest Boston Indicators Report, issued in December 2009, includes many neighborhood-based analyses that are skewed by the incorrect map. The analyses include: voter turnout; mortgage foreclosures; the amount of the city covered by trees; child care program accreditation; and the number of cultural organizations compared to the population density of children.

A technology map in the report places Mission Hill’s Parker Hill Branch Library in JP. It also appears that the incorrect map lies behind a pie chart of data from the Mayor’s Office of Arts, Tourism and Special Events that does not list Chinatown as a source of cultural events and parades. Chinatown is well-known for its Chinese New Year events. According to the BRA’s incorrect map, Chinatown does not exist.

The City of Boston is a partner in the Boston Indicators Project, and the BRA is “one of our credible sources of data and information,” said Trueblood, the TBF spokesperson, expressing surprise about the incorrect map.

Trueblood said he will inform the director of the Boston Indicators Project about the incorrect map. He also said that TBF will seek to “raise awareness” of the incorrect map’s impacts.

While TBF is one of the best-informed private organizations about all things Bostonian, it was unaware that the City of Boston has set official neighborhood boundaries through zoning and ONS, Trueblood said.

One example is a new TBF office at 31 Heath St. in a kind of “no man’s land” between JP and Mission Hill, Trueblood said. TBF staff members had internal discussions about which neighborhood the new office was in, and were confused about the location of the Back of the Hill area on Parker Hill. “We ended up saying [the office is] in Jamaica Plain,” said Trueblood—a decision that is officially correct.

“So Mission Hill is a separate neighborhood?” Trueblood asked.

Trueblood also expressed surprise about how long the BRA has distributed the incorrect map and how widespread its influence has been.

“That’s the power of a false fact,” he said.