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.

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