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.