Thoughts on Constructing Community Through Maps? Power and Praxis in Community Mapping

As an alternative or even reaction to traditional cartography, Community Mapping offers a method of utilizing the mapping process in a democratic and transparent fashion with the goal of empowering community groups.  However CM as a practice may be problematic in the sense of how one defines terms such as “community” and how a group engaged in a CM process holds themselves accountable to being inclusive and transparent. Parker illustrates CM’s potential goals and shortcomings by relating her own research with a CM group in Portland, Oregon that created a “Green Map” of the city. Through her review of previous literature on CM and her primary research three themes of CM are identified: inclusion, transparency and empowerment. Parker stresses that at the time of the writing not enough case studies of CM exist and so the method lacks a coherent evaluative analysis. Nether the less her research offers some valuable insights.

To acknowledge the importance of CM one must first understand its relationship to traditional and normative cartography. Parker quotes the geographer / cartographer / artist Dennis Wood as stating traditional maps seemingly come from nowhere’ & ‘operate from behind a mask of seemingly neutral science.’ This eludes to cartography’s historical legacy as being outwardly objective when in fact maps were and still are used for socio-economic and political purposes (see gerrymandering, redlining, mapping drilling rights in the soon to be ice-free Arctic Ocean, or making claims to the Spratly Islands). Maps did this by obfuscating traits such as the criteria of what gets mapped, who the author(s) are, what is left off of a map and who the map is intended to serve. Taken as truthful and objective artifacts, maps were typically not questioned for any implicit subjective and political nature. Community Maps on the other hand attempt to appropriate maps for a radical agenda explicitly. The process originated from indigenous communities mapping land rights in developing countries and was later used for social justice purposes in developed countries.

Parker outlines three themes of Community Maps; inclusion, transparency and empowerment. CM strive to be inclusive by engaging a wide range of community members. However as Parker points out, they may still fall short as she shows with the Portland Green Map’s exclusion of low income residents through its members privileged status and environmentalist discourse. Transparency is made by stating what the purpose of the map is, what the criteria is for deciding what gets mapped, its motive and authorship. In other words, such maps are “self-consciously social and political.” Empowerment can be achieved through either “social or procedural change” or “building capacities or human capital for collective action.” In other words a CM can empower community members by enabling them to organize around issues such as environmental clean up or urban development.

It is interesting that Parker’s article was written just around the time of the emergence of the proliferation and adoption of web-mapping. Google Maps launched in 2005, a year before Parker’s article was published. In cartography circles the role of technology and the democratization of mapping is constantly debated, yet many of Parker’s points continue to be relevant. A proliferation of open-source software for mapping is readily available as well as the OpenStreetMap project, a world wide participatory mapping project. However, one could still argue that there is a high barrier to entry for learning and using these technologies which may discount the argument that they are making mapping and cartography more of a democratic process and medium.

In Collaboration with NWMC, Daniel, Gabriel, Chris and Namreta

In order to create a more efficient communication method for organizations and housing interest groups working within and outside of Bushwick  we will work to improve the current NWBC website’s interface and user design.

As we suggested in our presentation much of the website lacks context and by understanding the information and the needs of the community we hope to develop a narrative and build a better experience. We each have specific interests in developing a stronger narrative, but as our feedback suggested it is important for us to narrow out focus to the audience of this community and lend our perspectives to those solutions.

We had developed the following loosely structured timeline:

Week One: Visual Language – “Landing Page of Maps,” i.e. contextualize map when you first open it; Merging visuals from the newsletter and the website

Week Two: UI – Developing User Interaction of Maps; Wireframe website

Week Three: UX – Use case scenarios

However after the feedback we received, our next steps are to meet with the NWBC group again to further discuss and develop the website’s functionality strategically on their narrative interests and their development goals.

Research Statement & midterm reqs

Please craft the statement below in reference to your project and post by this Saturday. It makes for a ridiculous sentence, so you can break it up and organize it in the way that makes most sense for your work.

I am interested to investigate ______________ (what: your domain);
because I want to find out ______________ (how / why: your questions);
in order to create / accomplish ______________ (what: goal);
for ______________ (audience).
To do so, I will use ______________ (method, tech, way of working).

For next weeks mid term pinup, please create physical, visual materials (print out to hang up is good), that describe your concept, production plan, and the research you have done (historical, political, technical, partner related) that demonstrates that this concept is possible to realize in the 8 weeks before finals. Please also print out a version of the sentence(s) above to include in your presentation, as well as posting it to the blog, so people know how to contextualize your proposal.

Note well: you will need to create a prototype of your project for review by our project partners on Nov 12, 4 weeks after midterms, so please include that in your production plan.

Week 6 Readings: Banking On Vacancy

Part of the narrative presented in Picture The Homeless’ report defines and then partially quantifies the relationship between homelessness, vacant lots and housing creation; and offers recommendations on how to transform vacant lots in an equitable and inclusive way. The report also calls for government to record the number of vacant lots and advocates for accessible aggregate level data on vacancies in order to foster information sharing and advocacy. A visual representation in the form of mapping would serve this end well.

As the report points out, government policy incentivizes and protects real estate speculation and attempts to justify warehousing by stating “development in our city requires that some property be temporarily held off the market to assemble development opportunities”. While this may be true, there is clearly a lack of regulation and oversight with regard to this practice as “temporarily”, the report says, can be thirty years or more, allowing for few to benefit at the expense of many more.

The report states that regardless of market conditions, two constants remain: a steady increase in homelessness and the privatization of vacant property, be­cause housing is a commodity. Homelessness is increasing; 40,000 have entered homeless shelters last year. These figures do not account for street homeless, overcrowded housing, domestic violence shelter system.

Identifying vacant lots and visualizing their abundance in New York City is an important early step in the process of drawing attention to the problem, it’s correlation to homelessness, and highlighting the opportunity costs, both in financial and human terms, associated with these vacant lots and buildings. Mapping public –owned vacant lots and buildings, and then advocating that they be turned into public housing can serve to narrow the focus of community groups. If the information is attainable, mapping that visualizes the amount of time lots and buildings have been vacant or abandoned can also help to prioritize advocacy efforts to utilize these spaces to serve the community where they are.

Some things to think about: 

Since money is what, to a great extent, guides policy in regard to vacant lots and buildings, what sort of designs can produce an economically sustainable, socially inclusive, yet profitable model that utilizes mixed use, multifunctional design strategies?

Considering the barriers to creating change in and through policy, how can design compliment, change, and/or inspire policy reform and accountability? To begin with, how can research and design help communicate the need to address the housing crisis?

Policy created the housing crisis through dis-investment in low-income housing development, withdrawal of funds for rental subsidies and stagnant and declining wages. Can policy alone fix it?