Urban Dynamics Blog

Chicagoland: Systems Axioms, Boundaries, and 2017 Homicides through June

By Matt Johnson

Last year, Chicago experienced the highest number of homicides since 1996. There were 786 homicides in 2016. In 1996, there were 796 homicides according to the Chicago Tribune. So why did homicides begin to increase after a couple of decades of decreasing?

This blog will not address this question or the reasons behind the sudden increase in violence. Rather, this blog will focus on applying the systems’ axioms to this issue. In addition, this blog will focus on introduce and apply the notion of “boundary” from systems science to Chicago.

This notion will be important because it will allow us to differentiate which parts of Chicago are experiencing these homicides and which parts of Chicago are not experiencing these homicides. Indeed, this idea of partitioning different parts of Chicago seems obvious, but these systems science notions will help us to zoom in on the boundaries of these sub-systems and illustrate the differences between these sub-systems and their characteristics in greater detail. Being able to compare and contrast sub-systems will be a powerful tool for us. But first a little review will be necessary.

In our last blog, we illustrated the three axioms of a system. We used the House of Representatives as our example to satisfy all three axioms. Now let’s see if Chicago satisfies our systems’ axioms. For those readers who are new, here are the axioms:

  1. A system consists of a set of elements.
  2. Elements in a system interact.
  3. A system has a function, or purpose.

First, does Chicago satisfy the first axiom; that is, does a system consists of a set of elements? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Chicago as of July 1, 2016 was 2,704,958. In other words, the set of elements, or residents, of Chicago was a little more than 2.7 million. Thus, the first axiom is satisfied.

Second, does Chicago satisfy the second axiom; that is, do elements in a system interact? This axiom is a bit more difficult to visualize because the human brain cannot imagine 2,704,958 people interacting with each other on a daily, hour, minute, or second basis.

And of course two natural question derive from this lack of perception. First, do all of the elements need to interact with each other? And second, is it possible for all of the elements to interact with each other? Eventually these questions will be answered via recognizing sub-systems from their respective general (prime) systems; and mathematics will be necessary to answer these questions. For now, the second axiom in this case will be accepted as true without mathematical proof.

Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune. Austin Neighborhood. Wards 29 and 37.

Finally, does Chicago satisfy the third axiom; that is, does a system have a function, or purpose? In this case, Chicago could have several functions: ecological, economic, political, and/or social. In this case, the function, or purpose, of Chicago will be accepted as the ability to increase utility and stability while decreasing crime and instability. Thus, the third axiom is satisfied.

Now that the axioms are satisfied, let’s address the second question: what are the boundaries of Chicago? We don’t have to go far to find the answer to our question. We only need to visit the City of Chicago for such information. It is the city government that is responsible for setting such boundaries including the boundaries of neighborhoods and wards.

There are 50 Wards in Chicago, which are parts of the Chicago system that make up the whole system. Moreover, each part of the system, or ward, is represented by an alderman (city council member). And as stated before, each ward also has its own geographical area. For example, the “Chicago aldermen…voted to set new boundaries for the city’s wards” in January of 2012. In systems science, these type of boundaries are called political boundaries.

These political boundaries, as this interactive map from WBEZ 91.5 Chicago demonstrates, are concrete and irregular (an example of a regular shape would be a square, rectangle, triangle, or circle). This interactive map also illustrates the political constraints of the Ward within Chicago, for instance Ward 29 and Ward 37, that have their own political boundaries. This is because these wards are also political sub-systems of Chicago.  Again, these boundaries are set by the city representatives, or aldermen, who pass policy for the City of Chicago.

Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune. North Park Neighborhood. Ward 39.

As stated before, Chicago experienced 786 homicides in 2016 and 329 homicides this year. But these homicides did not occur equally throughout the windy city. For example, there were 88 homicides in the Austin neighborhood in 2016 according to the Chicago Tribune. This is important to know because the Austin neighborhood overlaps both the 29th and 37th Wards of Chicago. And this year, the Austin neighborhood has experienced 43 homicides through June 30th.

In contrast, North Park, which is in the north central part of Chicago and in the 39th Ward, experienced no homicides in 2016, or 2017 so far, according to data pulled from the Chicago Tribune. The same can be said for the Edison Park neighborhood which is in the 41st Ward and the north-west part of Chicago.

Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune. Edison Park Neighborhood. Ward 41.

And so what can the boundaries of the city and wards tell us about the general system of Chicago and the sub-systems of the 29th, 37th, 39th, and 41st Wards?

First, Chicago experienced 786 homicides in 2016 which was the most in two decades. Furthermore, we know that these homicides were not distributed equally. We know that more than 11 percent (88 of 786) of homicides in Chicago occurred in the Austin neighborhood in 2016; whereas, no homicides occurred in the Edison Park and North Park neighborhoods in 2016.

Second, these sub-systems will probably have a different set of ecological, economic, political, and social characteristics. For example, the aldermen of the 29th and 37th Wards are dealing with an extraordinary level of violence and ought to contribute to the lack of economic and social utility in the sub-system in the form of higher than average unemployment, lower than average median and family household incomes, and lower than average housing values.

In contrast, the aldermen of the 39th and 41st Wards are probably dealing with competitive levels of median and family household incomes, lower than average levels of unemployment, and higher than average housing values.

When we look at Chicago as a whole, this information will be lost to us. However, if we partition the Chicago system into sub-systems with concrete boundaries like wards and neighborhoods, then we will be able to see the different parts of the city in greater detail. We will be able to see that homicides really do happen in certain segments of Chicago and not just Chicago in general.

Article Questions:

Until the next blog, think about where a boundary would start and where a boundary might end. One example that might be useful is to think about where Earth’s atmosphere ends and outer space begins. Perhaps there is another example that is more localized and easier to visualize? Where does one neighborhood, or ward, begin and where does another neighbor, or ward, end? Or where does one culture start and where does one culture end? Find an example and test it.


Matt Johnson is a blogger/writer for The Systems Scientist and the Urban Dynamics blog. He has also contributed to the Iowa State Daily and Our Black News. And he has a Bachelor of Science in Systems Science, with focuses in applied mathematics and economic systems, from Iowa State University. 

You can connect with him directly in the comments section, and follow him on Facebook

You can also follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook.


Photo Credit: Pixabay






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