Manhattan Community Boards as administrative boundaries

New York City’s local government structure includes 59 Community Boards that represent denizens of New York in an advisory capacity for their respective areas. According to their website, they pass resolutions–letters of support or opposition, and appear to serve as an advisory buffer between the people and elected officials.

Thirteen of these boards (all 12 in Manhattan +1 in Brooklyn) are on OSM an admin_level=10 administrative boundary.

  1. Are these administrative boundaries in the OpenStreetMap sense?
  2. What is an admin_level=10 in the context of the United States (and beyond)?

The boards were mapped in 2017 via a no comment changeset that initially added them as admin_level=8 by FreedSky (who appears to be inactive.) Then, in 2021 mdejean bumped them down to admin_level=10.


Each board

And Brooklyn: Brooklyn Community District 17 (11842291)

If I’m not mistaken, the community boards have jurisdiction over community districts. It’s the community districts that have territories and boundaries, just as the surrounding municipality is the City of New York, not the City Council of New York. The city publishes maps and other materials that clearly make this distinction. But so far, all but one of the boundary relations have the names and wiki tags of community boards. I raised this issue in 2021 but didn’t get a clear enough response in favor of renaming them.

As @daniel_solow showed me once, at least one public elementary school has a political map of Queens on one of its playground walls. If schoolchildren are being taught the community district boundaries as part of their geography education, I think it’s reasonable to tag them as political boundaries (boundary=administrative). Granted, they seem pretty obscure, but that’s to be expected of something with such a high admin_level=* value.

New York City’s community boards and districts have analogues in a number of cities across the country. In some cities, the boards are nonprofit organizations, part of an intricate web of quasi-governmental entities that sometimes also includes park boards. I see no problem with keeping their territories as administrative boundaries. Unlike homeowners’ associations, the boards serve a public function as formal liaisons to the municipal government. Even though they have limited powers, if any, they aren’t limited to interacting with just one municipal department, so there isn’t a risk of different departments having conflicting ideas about how to subdivide the city.

@mdejean made this change in response to this Slack thread. With New York City already having a unique, inverted relationship to counties, it would be especially confusing if the community boards or districts took its place at the same level in the administrative hierarchy normally used for the state’s cities and villages.[1]

By the way, each borough also has Joint Interest Areas that have names and numbers of their own, independent of any community board and separate from any community district. As far as I know, these JIAs have not been mapped.

  1. In theory, SoHo would sit inside Community District 2 at admin_level=10, in Manhattan at 8, in New York City at 7, in New York County at 6, in New York State at 4. New York City would be contained by multiple counties rather than containing them. But in practice, this would probably really mess with people’s understanding of what’s subordinate to what. ↩︎

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So, “quasi” can be a useful prefix! (Just ribbin’ ya, Minh).

With excellent (continuing) research into the structure of New York City (which is, after all, an OSM-consensus-uttered admin_level=5, a true rarity in the USA), I can see community districts in NYC being higher-numbered admin_level=* tagged where the boundaries are the correct, appropriate closed polygons. We may find we use even more than one admin_level value (>5) inside of NYC’s many possible or actual sub-structures of internal governance. It is fascinating to see these concepts emerging and making their way into good OSM discussion (like this, and the Slack thread Minh notes, and many others…) as well as having the potential to enter OSM itself as actual (>5) admin_level data, should we reach consensus upon a sensible method to do that. Blue skies ahead, friends; keep talking.

To answer Elliott’s question about admin_level=10, you can see by our (deeply incomplete, almost comically complex thanks to the wisdom of the 10th Amendment, yet a bedrock of good, basic structure) United States admin level - OpenStreetMap Wiki that value 10 usually corresponds to “Neighborhood,” (without the British “u” spelling, as this is an American concept) where this is an “organized” (real, rather than imagined or “amorphous”) entity that passes ordinances, rules or otherwise “governs” highly local aspects distinct from other such entities in the same (city, town, often at admin_level=8). The USA does have “neighborhoods” (call them “small n”?) which truly ARE “amorphous” but don’t rise to the bar of what we call a 10, because they aren’t really an administrative boundary. They are something similar geographically, but we don’t tag them with admin_level (of any value) if they are not really administrative, but rather more geographic, and even amorphous at that.

@Minh_Nguyen Sorry if my 2021 response on renaming wasn’t clear enough :wink: ! These days I’d lean towards name=BoroName Community District X + alt_name=BoroName Community Board X, but I’d still be fine with name=BoroName Community Board X + official_name=BoroName Community District X.

These boundaries aren’t signed or visible on the ground, but are often shown on maps (printed and digital) that encourage residents to attend the meetings. (And best I recall those maps always say “Community Board X” not “Community District X”.)

Official boundary data is available from the NYC open data portal. (But the BetaNYC Boundaries app is the best way to browse the data imo.)

That wiki admin_level table really is a feat… it’s a whole different way of looking at the vastness and diversity of the world. Based on a quick browse, I think if I were mapping these from scratch I’d probably have gone with admin_level=9. I might use admin_level=10 for the Neighborhood Tabulation Areas, if those were ever mapped (which I personally don’t think they should be.)

I think the question we’re all scratching to ask is whether these community districts (or the neighborhood tabulation areas) are boundary=administrative + admin_level or if rather, they are some other type of boundary entirely. The term “tabulation area” implies a statistical division rather than a political or administrative one. And I think there’s a lot of question, at least from people outside the city, about whether these community districts are really a political/administrative subdivision of each of the boroughs, or if they’re some other construct entirely that we’ve jammed into the admin_level hierarchy.

The community boards/districts & NTAs are entirely different animals.

Community boards are local government, and admin_level of some sort seems appropriate.

NTAs don’t have any governing body, and as far as I know they’re just a way to categorize and visualize data. I don’t think they should be in OSM at all. I mentioned them because they’re the closest thing that NYC has to official neighborhood boundaries, which seems to be what admin_level=10 often indicates.

It can! My point being that, in the cities I’m thinking of, the boards didn’t come up with the districts on their own; in fact, very often, the city participated in creating the boards, even if they’re incorporated as separate entities. This contrasts with an HOA created by private interests for managing private property, or a bicycle coalition that formed to promote touring routes independently of the highway authorities.

Thanks, I definitely agree that the boards should be tagged somehow. In principle, the boards would be more like operators, but if people sometimes refer to the territory by the name of the board – even if only because of similar confusion on Wikipedia – then alt_name would be a good idea.

This city dataset describes NTAs as a statistical/demographic construct rather than an administrative/political one. Other cities have defined similar divisions, but we generally haven’t mapped them because they’re too ephemeral. If we were to map them, boundary=statistical would be more appropriate than boundary=administrative. For what it’s worth, someone has already mapped some of the city’s neighborhoods, such as SoHo, as boundary=place relations.

As an outsider, I think what raised my suspicions originally was a combination of each boundary being named after a body (“Board”) rather than a place (“District”) and the boards being numbered sequentially. Granted, the UK and Australia are chock full of local administrative boundaries named after councils, but in general those countries have a different notion of how to subdivide a territory in modern times. If these boundaries had been named “Community District” from the start, I wouldn’t have raised a fuss.

Almost anywhere else, the numbers would’ve been a red flag too, suggesting a degree of impermanence or obscurity. But here, it’s just part of the New York big city experience, along with numbered public schools and numbered subway lines.

Yeah there are a lot of place=neighborhoods mapped in NYC. Most of these are entirely unverifiable and local knowledge, often contradictory, prevails. (For Soho, at least, we know the northern boundary has to be Houston Street!)

I’ve resisted the temptation to initiate a city-wide, or even borough-wide, neighborhood cleanup. Too small a chance of reaching consensus, and too many other fish to fry.

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If you read minutes of such meeting, like
it sounds like they have some administrative duties such as voting whether to approve biz licenses to various shops, like grocery stores, liquor stores, smoke/tobacco stores.
I don’t know what exactly happenes after such votes, maybe the results get forwarded to the department of consumer and worker protections or some other agencies who have the final say.
But it does sound like administrative organization.

I think there’s no argument that the community boards have administrative functions. But there are also other sub-municipal territories with bodies that also have administrative functions in NYC, such as:

  • City Council Districts
  • School Districts
  • Police Precincts
  • Health Districts
  • Business Improvement Districts (BIDs)
  • Sanitation Districts
  • Housing Districts
  • Fire Battalion Districts
  • Judicial Districts (including Civil, Criminal, and Family Court districts)
  • Community Policing Areas (NYPD Neighborhood Coordination Officer (NCO) areas)
  • Parks Districts (managed by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation)
  • Taxi Zones
  • Historic Districts

(I don’t know how real any of those are, that’s just from Googling)

The question is, are these community boards the primary political/administrative subdivision of each borough? Or are they “something else” entirely?

I found this report informative as to the nature of the city’s community boards:

If any U.S. city can be subdivided by administrative boundaries, New York’s community districts have as good a claim as any. Something that stands out to me is that their mandate can extend to many aspects of city government, at least in theory, even though in practice they’re most closely associated with the Planning Commission.

That alone isn’t a dealbreaker: just look at Connecticut’s plainly named Planning Regions:

Thanks for that link.

I don’t see the parallel you’re drawing to the Connecticut COGs. We tagged them as counties because the US census bureau designated them as county equivalents, so there is something authoritative to point to as a middle tier in Connecticut’s government structure. Bringing up the COGs just muddies the water.

After reading through the attached link, what I understand is that the community boards are simply an advisory group formed for the purpose of liaison and civic engagement and have no actual powers or duties of their own.

The purpose of each board is to encourage and facilitate civic engagement within their
communities, and to work with City agencies that deliver municipal services

I was fishing in the report for anything in the form of powers and duties that these boards have. I see a lot of language like…

Community boards have also increased collaboration with City agencies to ensure food delivery, communication of vital information, and access to healthcare services for our constituents.

This still reads as “advisory functions and civic engagement”.

Even the planning and service delivery facets that have been mentioned, all appear to be advisory on the part of the boards.

The report concludes:

Community boards are the most local, grassroots form of City government

I’m not sure that I agree based on everything I’ve read in the report.

If we feel strongly that these are in the admin_level hierarchy, I’ll hold my nose and go along with it, but I do agree with at least renaming them to such and such District and certainly keeping them at a high number (9-10) as they are definitely not on par with a municipality.

You asked if these community districts are the primary political subdivision of each borough. I think the report makes that clear; none of the other kinds of districts you listed can make such claims about their stature within city government. These aren’t merely divisions on a city department’s org chart, and at least in theory they have a wide remit.

Is your expectation that any boundary=administrative within a city needs to have a dedicated authority with executive or legislative powers? That seems like an unnecessarily high bar to clear for something so local. In my opinion, the existence of these boards goes beyond what’s needed for an administrative boundary, regardless of its advisory nature. A city is within its right to divide itself into political boundaries. In fact, there may not even be any precedent for a U.S. city to legally devolve its home rule even further, so you’re basically saying there should be no admin_level=9/10 anywhere in the country.

A better sniff test would be whether the authorities intend the public to be aware of these political boundaries even when they aren’t interacting with a specific government agency – that is, not just when reporting a crime at the police precinct, voting in a council election, or applying for a taxi medallion. A colorful schoolyard mural of Queens community districts may not have the gravitas of the signposted boundaries of Maine’s (government-less) townships, but it still suggests that these boundaries are usable as administrative boundaries, as do all the community district maps that the city puts out for residents’ information.

By this standard, I would favor retaining all the barrios in Puerto Rico as boundary=administrative, even though barrio government is nonexistent, but I would also favor retagging Baltimore County’s legal subdivisions as boundary=place or named landuse=residential areas, because they’re only “governed” by private HOAs.

This has been the case for quite some time. If you generally want hyperlocal political boundaries in your application but find New York’s community districts too small, insignificant, or weird for the gameplay you want, we could add border_type=community_district to help you filter them out specifically.

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I agree that none of the other districts can make the claim to be the primary political division. I don’t really buy the argument that the community districts are, either. I see the community districts as just another functional division. Instead of delivering mail or education, their purpose is collecting input from citizens, at least as I read it.

They don’t seem to have any remit at all – just a way for the borough to collect public input.

Possibly. I do think there needs to be a pretty high bar for a set of entities to collectively reside at the bottom end of the admin_level hierarchy. I think it’s a bad precedent to tag admin_level status to sub-municipal entities with less power than a homeowner’s association.

Cruising around overpass shows all sorts of things tagged at admin_level 9 or 10, many of them probably inappropriately.

One quirky example I found – the wards of Chicago are represented by an Alderman with executive powers. They don’t seem to be mapped, yet the Chicago community areas are – wrongly in my opinion.

I think that opens the door to all sorts of quasi-administrative subdivisions to get mapped into the primary hierarchy. It’s safer from a data consumer perspective for anything that’s on the fringe (my opinion of course) to be tagged in a separate way. Adding insult to injury, these community districts have far less notability than any of the informal neighborhoods they contain.

I agree, and I don’t think the NYC districts meet that qualification from the evidence in front of me.

In fact, these community districts with hundreds of thousands of residents have no signposted existence on the ground whatsoever, compared to nearly empty Maine government-less townships which still manage to post signs on the boundary.

I don’t use sub-municipal boundaries in my application(s), at least presently, so it’s not a specific data consumer issue for me. I just think they pollute the database for anyone trying to do anything useful with admin_level values 9 and 10 as a class. A few have crept in because of being previously tagged with lower numbers, but that’s easy data cleanup on my part.

I see this NYC case as the same as City and County of Honolulu neighborhood boards. They seem to do the same thing as their NYC counterparts – facilitate public interaction with the city government. At one point I started mapping them and a handful of them are in the map today at admin_level=10. (example). In retrospect, that’s probably wrong and these ought to be tagged as something else or removed entirely.

I’m confident that if we scratch at this, we’ll find these types of bodies exist all over the country in a similar construct, across a fuzzy spectrum real-ness from place to place. Does every city that has a geographically-segmented system for facilitating citizen outreach get those districts mapped in the admin_level scheme, regardless of how known, notable, or power[ful/less] those entities are?

Regarding Connecticut and its COGs in OSM: 64 years ago, the state effectively “abolished” county government. I believe there are historical aspects about this which could be characterized as part “tax revolt,” as the (R)COGs which replaced them into this vacuum of middle-level (sub-state) government were distinctly created to have limited government that specifically was NOT with taxing authority and was limited to specific aspects of governance like planning, elderly care and similar “low temperature” issues which were distinctly not about having taxing authority. A (quick, rough) structure of this is outlined in our (US_admin_level) wiki, especially the footnotes.

In early 2024, OSM consensus emerged to re-assign these COGs with admin_level=6 (in this state only), due to two factors: 1), the USA loves for there to be sub-state divisions which are uniformly assigned admin_level=6 (counties, “county-equivalents” as parishes in Louisiana, divisions in Alaska, municipalities (with many names / types) in territories and now, RCOGs in Connecticut) and 2), the Census Bureau, with mutual agreement with the state, agreed to do this. Sometimes OSM “goes along” with the Census Bureau in matters like this, sometimes (because county “equivalent” stretches too far), OSM does not. (Sometimes OSM denotes “by going along to get along” while sometimes OSM denotes “here is more exactly what this thing is, damn how other people categorize it into a convenient bucket like “county” when it is distinctly NOT a county”). This is (roughly) outlined in our (US_admin_level) wiki, especially the footnotes. Connecticut’s counties remain in OSM as differently-tagged geographic objects.

Here/now, >6 NYC entities emerge as an OSM topic for admin_level=* consideration.

Such things could be 7 (mmm, I wouldn’t, and I would argue against 8 as “too confusing” and maybe “doesn’t feel right as too high a level / too low a number”), 9 or 10. We’re off to a good discussion, we have the admin_level=* framework, we have some historical context, we have locals who can answer specific questions, we have examples, we have a “sniff test” or two posited, we have the Brooklyn elementary school lessons. Keep talking, please. I’ll say it’s a good, lively discussion so far. Blue skies ahead, we can do this any way we like, as long as it is sensible, agreeable, transparent to some degree, and reaches consensus locally and nationally. We can do this.

The things Brian mentions as 10 in Hawaii are arguably non-governmental, as Hawaii seems adamant that no government really exists below the level of 6 (island / county) for the whole state.

I argue that when we pick apart what these entities are, that they’re analogous to the NYC districts we’re discussing. And further, if we decide they’re different, then you’re going to have a really hard time coming up with a litmus test for the distinction between them.

It’s a hard lesson and not-too-often repeated: a 9 or 10 in one state might not even exist in any particular state (4) or even county (6) but if a 9 or 10 does exist in one state, it is certainly not the same as a 9 or 10 in another state. Each state does things differently and when you compare what might be “sub-6” (>6) entities in NYC with Hawaii (or any other state) you really are making false comparisons. They might appear to have similarities, but when you get right down to it, because of the differences in state constitutions, state statutes and things like articles of incorporation (of sub-6 entities) you realize you are comparing apples to oranges, not apples to apples.

Each state’s admin_level hierarchy is unique. There may be patterns of similarity, but it ends there.

I am specifically illuminating the question of whether or not an entity should be included in the admin_level scheme. That’s a totally separate question from which value of admin_level to apply, which I agree may be different from place to place.

This question – whether or not to include an entity in the admin_level hierarchy – is why I am bringing up the Hawaii and New York comparison. If a citizen advisory board in one place meets the criteria for inclusion in the hierarchy, there is no rationale for preventing it from being included everywhere (regardless of which admin_level value is chosen). And I think a citizen outreach/advisory board is such a slippery slope for inclusion that it will cast a very wide net that will be less useful than tagging them with more specificity.

Fair enough. I continue to listen.