Why Map? – Reflections on Cultural Mapping from Coimbra to Bristol

france_trains2I write this post this from a moving train. This is a space that is at once confined by steel lines stapled to heavy oak sleepers, whose duration is limited by timetables beyond the control of those it carries and yet it is a space that is hard to pin down, not only in virtue of the high speed of this TGV, but the way in which this carriage, in this moment, is constituted by the people it carries, their relationships, networks of connections, histories, the languages that intersect in hushed tones in the air, the sunlight that pours through the windows and the ever-changing lives that rush past outside. Mapping this space would be so straightforward as not to warrant attention – it’s 11:44 on the line between Hendaye and Paris – and yet so complex as to require some boundaries, limitations, filters on what is included on the map if is to make any sense at all. The art of mapping this space might be in choosing what not map. To make such choices we would need to answer a simple question: what is it we are trying to say? – or ‘why map?’.

Mapping culture logo smallI am returning from the international conference, Mapping Culture – Communities Sites and Stories in Coimbra, Portugal. The conference brought together a diverse group, among them; artists activists, academics, city-planners, architects, designers, facilitators, students and many who sit between or beyond these categories. In its diversity, the conference was a reflection of cultural mapping as emerging field of interdisciplinary (co-) production and (co-)inquiry. Mapping is no longer the sole preserve of professional cartographers, nor is it deployed solely in service of statist and colonial power/knowledge (see, Dodge et. al. 2011). The power of maps not only to represent the world but to create worlds, to reinforce or subvert power-relations, to confirm, contest and complexify narratives and to chart intangibilities like relationships, connections and memories, is now well established and was variable manifest in the diverse cultural, counter, and community mapping practices represented at Coimbra.

Within the diversity of mapping practices presented at the conference, answers to the question ‘why map’ were equally varied. I want to take a few paragraphs to outline some of the questions that came up for me, and what I regard as some of the salient issues and tensions within this emerging field. I also want to highlight some of the projects that I personally found particularly inspiring.

A significant proportion of papers presented were centred on projects that took as their aim the mapping of particular urban leisure activities commonly referred to as ‘culture’ (for example, art galleries, pubic art, theatres, music venues etc.). Mapping ‘culture’ in this sense has become increasingly popular in recent years, especially within local authorities and the tourism and creative industries sectors (for example, associationforpublicart.org, culture.regina.ca, culturenow.org, culturemap.guelph.ca, dancemap.canadacouncil.ca). While explicit definitions of ‘culture’ are ellusive in these mapping interfaces, a common characteristic of the activities grouped in this category seems to be that participation in them is deemed beneficial to citizen-participants. ‘Culture’ not just any leisure activity, it is that which the good citizen should engage in, apart from work, sleep and reproduction. The aim of this kind of cultural mapping is to encourage participation in those activities deemed beneficial (explicitly or implicitly) to the population; to promote the mapped site as a desirable destination for tourists and investors (mostly in the creative industries) and/or to boost the already-existing culture industry by facilitating connections and visibility between firms.

Screenshot of CultureNow’s Museum Without Walls cultural map. http://culturenow.org/

While economic growth and the jobs and tax revenue that comes with it is an understandable aspiration for local authorities, we also know that culture-led growth tends to be accompanied by exclusionary transformation of the housing sector (Zukin 1987, Smith 1996). The jobs provided by culture-led growth have tended to serve a particular section of society (predominantly white, highly educated, with access to parental financial support) who are able to move in and purchase homes or pay higher rents. As the neighbourhood becomes more desirable (to this higher income group), existing renters tend to be priced-out and displaced by higher income home-owners – the neighbourhood is gentrified (ibid, Harvey 2012). Unless accompanied by a rigorous social housing policy, culture-led growth and the displacement of working class communities from urban centres often go hand-in-hand. While it is too simplistic to attribute linear causality between cultural mapping and gentrification, gentrification was a persistent concern in question and answer sessions at Coimbra – the reason for its salience, in my view, was precisely due to the fact that participatory cultural mapping emerges from a critique of statist and colonial mapping practices as performative of socio-spatial injustices (see, Harley 1989, Scott 1998). Indeed, many cultural mappers see their practice as form of social justice activism in and of itself (see, Kreutz 2009). When cultural mapping appears to reinforce exclusionary urban transformation – or any form of social injustice – it’s bound to raise concerns.

Ashok Mathur raised such a concern in response to Kathleen Scherf’s presentation on a ‘deep mapping’ project of Sunpeaks Ski Resort, British Columbia. Scherf presented a fascinating participatory digital mapping initiative involving degree students in the sourcing and geo-locating of data about Sunpeaks. The aim of the project was to give visitors to the digital mapping site a ‘deeper sense of the place’ and in doing so to encourage more visitors to the resort. Yet as Scherf noted, Sunpeaks occupies part of the Neskonlith Indian Reserve 1862 and Secwepemc people have long been fighting against its expansion. This land-rights conflict does not make it on to the map – the reason, Sherf explained is that Sunpeaks, who own the base-maps, would not allow it. ‘We decided to stay out of politics’, Sherf remarked, ‘including it in map would have meant we could not have done the project’. But there is no outside from politics – maps reproduce the worlds they claim to innocently represent and they reproduce by omission as much as by inclusion. Mathur spoke to this point questioning the extent to which the mapping project simply re-inscribed colonization of this territory through its avoidance of the question of indigenous land rights. We return to that crucial question, why map?

This example raises a further tension in the field of cultural mapping, and a one that is especially felt by those engaged mapping projects that, unlike maps of leisure activities, are explicitly oriented to some register of justice. It is not only the content of maps but, their mode of representation, that reproduces existing ways of knowing and, therein, modes of domination (Harley 1989). Maps were crucial to colonization not only to the extent that they facilitated material boundary-making and enclosure but that they performed, valorized and rendered ‘natural’ particular epistemologies, or ‘ways of knowing’. Early maps presented truth as perceptible only from the birds-eye view, a position of ‘man’ above ‘nature’, detached, calculating and objective. This, in turn, devalued indigenous epistemologies and practices as ‘misguided’ or ‘decoupled from truth’, and in so doing, helped to justify colonial domination. A question for mappers then, and one that cropped up on more than one occasion at Coimbra, was how maps that aspire to social justice goals, and especially GIS-based maps, can avoid reinforcing colonial practices through recourse to colonial ways of knowing?

One way, of course, is to avoid scalar, birds-eye-view mapping and there were numerous inspiring examples of this at the conference (like marayaprojects.com). Yet as Marianna Valverde has recently argued, we cannot universally link mapping practices with specific effects. The mapping practices that were fundamental to the formation of modern states, for example, ‘succeeded for contingent reasons and remain to this day extremely malleable (at least potentially) rather than being hard-wired to social exclusion agendas’ (2011: 280).

Cultural asset mapping as presented by Graeme Evans was one example of the malleability of those mapping techniques traditionally preferred by and formative of nation states. Evans described how in a variety of contexts diverse actors have been enrolled to map their community’s ‘cultural assets’ using a combination of artistic practices and GIS inventory-based mapping. Here, arts-rich and participatory methods are combined with more traditional techniques for mapping data in order to define problems/establish needs, calculate responses and make effective interventions. Cultural asset mapping here fits with a broader trajectory in advanced liberal governing by which citizens are enrolled as responsible participants in governing themselves – or what neo-Foucauldian schollars have called ‘governmentality’ (cf. Rose 1999). What scholars have found problematic about this form of governing is that the parameters of participation are rarely up for grabs, and inequalities, which often lie at the root of the ‘problems’ that are identified, are rarely addressed (cf. Cooke & Kothari et. al 2001). Cultural asset mapping presents an interesting case here – yes it is governmental, but it is also more equitable and ecologically sustainable than previous approaches to cultural planning – the aim in bringing diverse voices together to make maps is to assist in planning for more equitable provision of cultural resources and for a just and sustainable adaptation to environmental change.


Rather more removed from the ambiguities of institutionalised planning processes, Border Memorial was a particularly powerful example of the subversion of colonizing mapping techniques. Border Memorial allows users to visualize the scope of loss of life along the Mexico-US Border using a combination of digital mapping and augmented reality. The project is a striking example of the ways in which digital maps, apps and mobile devices can be re-purposed to raise awareness around social justice issues (for more explicitly radical mapping, see the excellent guide Maps For Advocacy).

Less overtly positioned within a ‘radical’ political framework, but nonetheless subversive to established narratives, Folker Metzger and Lisa Förster presented a fascinating project exploring and co-researching local history using mobile media and augmented reality. Troubled by the city of Weimar’s silence on WWII history, Metzger, Förster and the team at Klassik Stiftung Weimar worked with young people to develop an augmented reality app which allows the user to overlay historical film footage and photographs onto their contemporary scene. Using the app to incite interest in, and a visceral connection to, the history of the City, the team continues to work with school students who are conducting research about the augmented sites. Their findings are uploaded to a digital map and will soon be available as part of the app. In doing so, they deploy scaled maps and high-tech tools to challenge, complexify and invite a visceral engagement with the dominant historical narratives of the city.

Just as scaled, high-tech GIS-based maps can subvert established narratives and further anti-colonial and social-justice goals, apparently ‘softer’ mapping techniques can, in particular contexts, be instrumental to the reinscription of oppressive relationships. A striking example of this was given by Leonardo Chesi and Paolo Costa who recounted a participatory mapping project in Palestine. The project was centred around sites of religious significance to Christians in Bethlehem. The ‘problem’ at these sites, as outlined by Chesi and Costa, was that local Palestinians were ‘not aware of the heritage on their doorstep’ and as such were ‘not properly caring for it’. Presenting photographs of the overcrowded and impoverished neighbourhood they cited examples of this disregard the ‘heritage site’ – things like washing hanging-out and architecturally incongruous extensions to dwellings, as well as a general lack of cleanliness in the streets. Participatory techniques, they argued, were a particularly effective solution to this problem enabling a change attitudes and practices because people take ownership over the newly created rules. Following this logic they got children to map the neighbourhood and its ‘heritage sites’ and to present these maps to their parents – adults, Chesi and Costa noted, were more likely to listen to their kids than to researchers/facilitators from outside. The project was a success – attitudes and practices shifted and the site was protected – yet it exposes a deeply problematic use of participatory techniques. Given the treatment of Palestinians by Judeo-Christian ‘civilization’ and the linked overcrowding and poverty in this neighbourhood, it is hardly surprising that a Christian heritage site is not being cared for in the way Chesi and Costa would like it to be. Rather than challenge overcrowding, or campaign for funds to clean up the sites, the project operated to cultivate responsible subjects through recourse to a discourse of universal heritage that was not subject to challenge or reflection. Like cultural asset mapping presented by Evans, this use of mapping is governmental – but not all governmentalities are equal – here, rather than governing for equity, mapping practices work to cultivate proper conduct in equity’s absence.

Reflecting on the tensions around gentrification, colonization and governmentality that animated discussion of the diverse mapping practices presented at Coimbra, it is tempting to argue that the answer to the question ‘Why map?’ should be ‘Social justice!’. In the question and answer session on Thursday’s opening plenary, one participant made this argument forcefully. Drawing on discussions around gentrification and colonization that had emerged the previous day, she divided the projects presented in the plenary into two camps: ‘art for art’s sake’ and ‘art with a political conscience’ positioning the latter as worthwhile and the former as a waste of time. While this contribution came from a concern for justice that I share, we should be wary of such division. It is quite right that we should reflect on specific projects/practices so as to minimize their propensity to perpetuate patterns of oppression. But there is a difference between saying ‘no art/maps should perpetuate oppression’ and ‘all art/maps should serve explicit social justice goals’. Framed in the positive (‘all maps should…’) we limit our expression to what we currently understand as ‘justice’, and we limit ourselves to what is imaginable within the existing framework of what counts as ‘radical politics’. Framed in the negative (‘no maps should…’), we map ethically – avoiding/minimizing oppression – but cultivating multiplicity.  What strikes me as the power of maps (or mapping) as I return from Coimbra, is their capacity to proliferate understandings of our world, to multiply possibilities for knowing and, through doing so, to multiply possibilities for being. When conducted ethically or critically, this seems to be the radical promise of participatory cultural mapping and a decent enough answer to the question ‘why map?’.


Cooke, B., & Kothari, U. (Eds.) (2001). Participation: The New Tyranny? New York: Zed Books.

Dodge, M., Kitchin, R., & Perkins, C. (2011). The Map Reader: Theories of Mapping Practice and Cartographic Representation, Wiley.

Harley, J. B. (1989). ‘Deconstructing the Map’. Cartographica: The international journal for geographic information and geovisualization, 26(2), pp. 1-20.

Rose, N. (1999). Powers of Freedom : Reframing Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scott, J. C. (1998). Seeing Like a State : How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, Conn. ; London: Yale University Press.

Smith, N. (1996). The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City, Taylor & Francis.

Valverde, M. (2011). ‘Seeing Like a City: The Dialectic of Modern and Premodern Ways of Seeing in Urban Governance’. Law & Society Review, 45(2), pp. 277-312.

Zukin, S. (1987). ‘Gentrification: Culture and Capital in the Urban Core’. Annual Review of Sociology, 13, pp. 129-147.