EDITORIAL: City planners can help end Dot’s confusing division

The 2010 census presents a window for city leaders to tinker with the way Boston’s neighborhoods are carved up for planning and political purposes. It is heartening to know that the trend-setters at the city’s influential planning agency— the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA)— seem to be embracing this opportunity.

Last week, the Jamaica Plain Gazette reported that BRA officials are now discussing ways to present census data and maps in a “more consumer-friendly, user-friendly way” by offering up information in more varied ways.

The Gazette also reported that the BRA is “considering following the boundaries of the 23 Boston neighborhoods the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services (ONS) uses as just one of many ways it may sort and disseminate census data to the public.” The community newspaper in JP has long complained that the BRA’s interpretation of its neighborhood’s boundaries is quite different from the one used by the mayor’s office— and that the discrepancy leads to confusion and other problems.

Dorchester, as articulated in this space repeatedly, has long been divided in half by city planners into “north” and “south” regions— an artificial bi-section that came into existence, along with other citywide categorizations, in the late 1960s. The north-south divide came to denote a de facto, Jim Crow-era boundary between black and white residents — one that no longer has any basis in reality. The division also defies any rational interpretation of geography as it bends over backwards to incorporate ostensibly “northern” sections of the neighborhood into a “southern” map to satisfy decades-old residential patterns defined more by skin color than any working compass.

Despite this, the planning boundary has insinuated itself into a variety of bureaucratic departments — most notably the Boston Public Health Commission, which still uses the divide prominently in its reports— and is regularly misused by non-profits, development corporations and even the Boston Globe. Other city departments have recognized and fixed the problem. But, the insidious misnomer with racist roots has been spared a unified banishment over the years because— in some quarters— it has been deemed easier to leave it in place than to take it away. Planners like to have a consistent yardstick to measure changing demographics and other data, even if the name itself codifies an ugly racist past.

Times have changed, however, and the new-era BRA recognizes —quite to their credit— that technology allows for more flexibility and innovation. They are also realizing that more and more it is the outside world — neophyte politicians, developers, students and journalists— who are accessing their files and then accidentally perpetuating an unnecessary division of a neighborhood that should stand as one. More than any other agency, the BRA has the power to set a new standard that all other city agencies and the private interests that follow their lead can in turn employ.

Mark Melnick, the BRA’s deputy director for research, said this week that the first census figures will start arriving from federal collectors later this year and likely won’t be fully into the BRA until later in 2011. He and other BRA officials are already talking about ways that they can improve their presentation of the census. Officials across city government should similarly start planning for sensible reforms that can help the city move forward. One small step in that direction is to unify all city departments in a simple edit: erase the north-south Dorchester terminology from all future projects.