Residents’ perspectives on defining neighbourhood: mental mapping as a tool for participatory neighbourhood research

Gemma Catney, Diane Frost & Leona Vaughn

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Catney, G. , Frost, D. & Vaughn, L. (1). Residents’ perspectives on defining neighbourhood: mental mapping as a tool for participatory neighbourhood research. Qualitative Research, 19(6), 735–752.

[neighborhood] , Community , identity , interviews , mental/cognitive mapping , neighbourhood , participatory methods

Definitions of neighbourhood in the Social Sciences are complex, varying in their characteristics (for example, perceived boundaries and content) and between residents of that neighbourhood (for example, by class and ethnicity). This study employs an under-utilised methodology offering strong potential for overcoming some of the difficulties associated with neighbourhood definitions. A mental mapping exercise involving local residents is showcased for an ethnically diverse working-class neighbourhood in south Liverpool. The results demonstrate distinctions between residents in the geographical demarcation of the area and the features included, with important implications for how neighbourhood is best measured and understood. We suggest that one size does not fit all in definitions of neighbourhood, and that mental mapping should form a more common part of a neighbourhood researcher’s toolkit.

Main finding
Mental mapping exercises can be used to involve the community in better defining a neighborhood under study, avoiding formalized demarcations, and legitimizing more flexible local definitions. In the case study of the English Liverpool 8 neighborhood, a mental mapping exercise allowed the authors to capture how residents perceive, understand, represent, and use their community. Specifically, the exercise revealed the importance of people (family, friends, and neighbors) and community hubs such as parks, churches, and schools to the creation of place identity both over time and across generations. The semi-structured interviews performed alongside the mental mapping more strongly showcased the residents' great sense of pride and allegiance to Liverpool 8, specific place-based challenges, and tensions between the 'old' and 'new' community. Thus, while the mapping exercise gave the authors a detailed understanding of what drove neighborhood belonging, the interviews gave them the meaning behind what was included and excluded from the maps.

Description of method used in the article
Semi-structured interviews and mental mapping exercises were conducted over 18 months with 16 members of the Liverpool 8 neighborhood community in England. Seven participants were women and nine were men, their ages ranged from 18 to 61. Some of the participants lived their whole lives in Liverpool 8 while others never did but identified as part of the community. Participants were asked about their biographical story, their relationship to Liverpool 8, their perception of the spatial boundaries of the neighborhood, and their experiences in the area that fostered feelings of belonging. Although initially conducted separately from the interview, the mapping exercise was integrated alongside the interviews. Participants were asked to sketch a rough map of Liverpool 8 on a blank sheet of paper, adding any spaces deemed important and were encouraged to note any views of certain areas. In contrast to citizen/community mapping and GIS methodologies which focus on cartographic accuracy, participants were given total freedom in scale, style, content, and time taken.

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