Community-Based Mapping: A Story-Telling Perspective

Community MapThe adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” explains some of the power of community-based mapping, but it’s only a beginning. This crystallization of the complex into more easily-digested content takes communication a step further to provide otherwise-invisible insight into neighbourhoods and communities. Community-based mapping can be particularly useful if you are deciding which location to move to, or whether you should stay where you are.

Ironically, as technology in the form of GPS (that’s Global Positioning System) is replacing maps for many, community-based mapping is on the rise—also thanks to technology. Mapping offers detailed views of slices of life in communities. It reveals how otherwise complex factors are related by analysing and correlating existing data. It may take the form of needs assessment, resource location, or pattern analysis of use or abuse within a neighbourhood or area. Usually existing data is used, but additional research may be undertaken. Data may be combined from many sources, including municipal and other government levels, or it may represent one or two different sources of data, which are re-examined from a fresh perspective.

In June 2011, Toronto and social- media based Centre for City Ecology hosted “Community-Based Mapping Tools: An Introduction” expecting that a few people would like to explore this aspect of city dynamics. Instead the 130 seats were quickly filled and a waiting list of almost 80 created. CCE has committed to further programs on community-based mapping in view of this response.  The 6 speakers at the CCE event revealed that one popular interpretation of mapping is that it is a form of story telling. Mapping presents “story lines of place” by “3D projections onto a flat surface” to create a story of the area in question. GPS is location finding; mapping puts story telling back in the hands of residents: 

  1. “When you ask for a map what you are really saying is tell me a story,” said presenter Nina-Marie Lister, Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University and Visiting Associate Professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Lister discussed mapping projects that relate landscape and ecology with urbanism. She stressed that the importance of mapping lies in residents deciding what is mapped, for whom, and for what purpose in their community.
  2. Representatives from Toronto Public Health (TPH) described food-access mapping that investigated proximity to grocery stores and public transit across the city by highlighting aspects of the May 2010 report “Cultivating Food Connections,” which concentrates on a health-centred food system for Toronto.  
  3. The Wellesley Institute‘s Dr. Nasim Haque described a community-based mapping project that went “from evidence to action” by linking photographs of damage and destruction, taken by residents of high-rise St James Town, with photos of renewal and repair to the same areas. Haque also presented at the Centre For City Ecology’s May 2011 Power of Mapping conference: The Wellesley Institute advances population health through research, pragmatic policy solutions, social innovation, and community action.
  4. Jen Chan, Constituency Assistant for Toronto’s Trinity-Spadina, downtown Ward 20, revealed the benefits of the continually-evolving combined land-use and people-use maps of the area. Overlaid maps allow residents and those considering the area as a new home for their family or business to gain a bird’s-eye view of the complex downtown ward that some residents may not fully appreciate. The depth and diversity of these maps has been enriched by detailed community contributions and correlation of data collected from many sources. The Ward 20 site provides how-to information for those interested in creating similar maps for their location.

Mapping, described as a “collective enabling enterprise,” looks beneath the surface of what has traditionally been measured to gain a clearer picture of existing positives and negatives that are not immediately obvious. How people inter-relate and how communities impact on individuals is of growing interest now that social media has opened conversations on local and global scales. Municipalities are among the organizations adopting open-data policies so that residents can use collected data to explore solutions, traditional and innovative, to local challenges. The City of Toronto’s open data portal has been running since November 2009.

The range of uses for mapping is only limited by our imagination. If you’re curious about your community or one you’d like to move to, dig around and find out what maps exist, are under construction, and need to be created. This will add 3D elements to life in your neighbourhood that may surprise you. Community-based mapping is not restricted to major cities. The Province of Alberta has undergone a “mapping process”—the Alberta Legal Services Mapping Project —that creates “a picture of what legal programs and services exist, and how they are experienced…in order to improve the administration of justice in Alberta.” The eleventh and final project report, Peace River Judicial District Report, conducted by The Canadian Forum on Civil Justice (the Forum) is now available. The Report, like the others in the series, addresses the current state of legal and related local service delivery, and highlights key barriers and gaps in legal service delivery. Recommendations are intended to enhance service delivery in the District. Conclusions include: “Legal and related service providers in this District were very busy and often over-extended. However, despite their workloads and the fact that many have no colleague to cover for them, their receptiveness and participation rate were astonishing.”

When searching for a new location or reevaluating where you live, the hardest thing is finding out what is going on behind closed doors. Mapping may focus on places, but the people involved, on all levels, tell the real stories of the communities. If you want to know about the people who are your neighbours or will be, explore the maps that tell their stories and yours.

Written by: PJ Wade