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Critical Mapping

February 20, 2011

A weekend update.

I teach sustainability and design at Parsons The New School for Design and architectural design studios at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

In recent semesters I’ve increasingly focused on what I call critical mapping in my classes. Also termed experimental geography or radical cartography, critical mapping acknowledges that maps are not neutral conveyors of fact; more importantly, it embraces the idea that maps have agency.

My interest in an activist critical mapping stems largely from the realization that maps have always been instruments of power, creating and reinforcing borders and control points. Since the earliest efforts to chart the known world maps have been instruments to know, in order to control and possess. From the Korean peninsula, to the Middle East, to Germany, acts of politically strategic but socially and environmentally arbitrary mapping have perpetuated decades-long conflicts and oppressions.

Critical maps, at their most effective, can not only illustrate previously hidden patterns of social injustice, but unearth vivid opportunities for activism and advocacy.

But first, to implicate some damning acts of mapping:

Land Ordinance of 1785
Critical to the establishment of the United States, the Land Ordinance of 1785 institutionalized a methodology of mapping, creating a systematic way of measuring and sectioning land as pure square grid, almost fervently ignoring particularities of topography and environment. The maps, by the newly formed General Land Office, enabled not only a measure of land, but more importantly the selling of it.

General Land Office plat showing diagram of grid system

Gridding the landscape, from James Corner, Alex Maclean, Taking Measures Across the American Landscape

The spatial implications of the GLO plats are still clearly evident to anyone flying over parts of the Midwest. Particularly interesting is how nature resists pure grid mapping – the photo above shows how roads following grid maps jog to account for the curvature of the earth.

Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) Maps
The holy-grail-of-sorts of politically dubious maps in this country. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a New Deal agency ostensibly tasked with targeted lending to avoid foreclosures, created maps of urban areas, defining neighborhoods according to a gradient of desirability, from “best” to “hazardous.” The HOLC maps have frequently been held up as a primary example of institutional racism, and cited as the cause of redlining, discriminatory lending policies resulting in disinvestment in largely black inner city neighborhoods. Not everyone agrees with this assessment. There is current research underway to explore further the role of the HOLC maps in actual lending practice, potentially complicating the prevailing understanding of them.

HOLC Map of Philadelphia, 1936

Highway Maps
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized the construction of 41,000 miles of highway. Originally intended to bypass cities, planners including Robert Moses, argued for them to intersect city centers as ways to help clear blight and facilitate movement from suburb to center. Two of Moses’ proposals are particularly clear examples of the instrumentality of maps: one, of the then proposed Cross Bronx Expressway, represents the first stage in a series of actions that continue to have widespread social and economic consequences in the Bronx today; and an aerial representation of the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, never constructed after strident community opposition.

Cross-Bronx Expressway Route Study

Cross-Bronx Expressway, photo by NYTimes

Lower Manhattan Expressway Plan

And now, a few favorite examples of critical mapping:

Architecture and Justice
The Architecture and Justice project by the Spatial Information Design Lab, a research unit at Columbia University led by Laura Kurgan, explores the complex geography, economics, and social repercussions of incarceration in Brooklyn, New York. Ms. Kurgan’s team uses data mapping to uncover the particular concentration of offenders sent to upstate prisons from specific Brooklyn neighborhoods, and the amount of money used to do this. They vividly illustrate how, in some cases, more than a million of dollars are spent per year per city block. This not only constitutes a massive export of both people and money, but essentially makes the criminal justice system the primary government institution in these communities. The project asks, directly: “Have prisons and jails become the mass housing of our time?” and “…How might we save state money spent on prisons, and redirect that money where it is most needed, in the poorest urban areas of our cities?”

Architecture and Justice - place of origin of prisoners in justice system, by SIDL

Architecture and Justice - movement of prisoners, by SIDL

Architecture and Justice - "Million Dollar Blocks" by SIDL

Solid Sea 03: The Road Map
Multiplicity, a multidisciplinary collective based in Milan, conducted an experiment in the West Bank near Jerusalem in 2003. The group documented two journeys, one conducted by a person with Palestinian documents, the other with Israeli passport. They showed that the Palestinian journey took five times a long – five hours compared to one – a passage dogged by borders, standstills, check points, and diversions. The project makes clear that, no matter what one’s politics, in this highly contested and controlled region there are undeniable impacts to everyday freedoms on the ground.

Solid Sea 03: The Road Map by Multiplicity

Solid Sea 03: The Road Map, by Multiplicity

Vendor Power
An incisive project in the Making Policy Public series – to explore and explain public policy through graphic design – by the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP). There are 10,000 street vendors in New York City, providing us with all kinds of necessities from hot dogs to I LOVE NY t-shirts. The vendors are subject to a myriad convoluted rules and regulations in the best manner of city bureaucracy (where minor violations can lead to $1000 fines) and are frequently harassed by law enforcement. Conducted in partnership with the Street Vendor Project and designer/urban planner/artist Candy Chang, the Vendor Power project serves as an accessible delineation of vendors’ rights and recourse in five languages and particularly scrumptious design, as well as a community advocacy tool.

Vendor Power, by the CUP

Vendor Power, by the CUP

Next week: Queer Urbanism, and how social networks redefine our experience of urban space (or not).

 

A Weekend Update: Critical Mapping

I teach sustainability and design at Parsons The New School for Design and architectural design studios at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

In recent semesters I’ve increasingly focused on what I call “critical mapping” in my classes. Also termed “experimental geography” or “radical cartography,” critical mapping acknowledges that maps are not neutral conveyors of fact; more importantly, it embraces the idea that maps have agency.

My interest in an activist critical mapping stems largely from the realization that maps have always been instruments of power, creating and reinforcing borders and control points. Since the earliest efforts to chart the known world maps have been instruments to know, in order to control and possess. From the Korean peninsula, to the Middle East, to Germany, acts of politically strategic but socially and environmentally arbitrary mapping have perpetuated decades-long conflicts and oppressions.

Critical maps, at their most effective, can not only illustrate previously hidden patterns of social injustice, but unearth vivid opportunities for activism and advocacy.

But first, to implicate some damning acts of mapping:

Land Ordinance of 1785

Critical to the establishment of the United States, the Land Ordinance of 1785 institutionalized a methodology of mapping, creating a systematic way of measuring and sectioning land as pure square grid, almost fervently ignoring particularities of topography and environment. The maps, by the newly formed General Land Office, enabled not only a measure of land, but more importantly the selling of it.

[glo land map]

[James Corner]

The spatial implications of the GLO plats are still clearly evident to anyone flying over parts of the Midwest. Particularly interesting is how nature resists pure grid mapping – the photo above shows how roads following grid maps jog to account for the curvature of the earth.

Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) Maps

The holy grail-of-sorts of politically dubious maps in this country. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a New Deal agency ostensibly tasked with targeted lending to avoid foreclosures, created maps of urban areas, defining neighborhoods according to a gradient of desirability, from “best” to “hazardous.” The HOLC maps have largely been held up as a primary example of institutional racism, and cited as the cause of redlining, discriminatory lending policies resulting in disinvestment in largely black inner city neighborhoods. Not everyone agrees with this assessment. There is current research underway to explore further the role of the HOLC maps in actual lending practice, including work at Penn, potentially complicating the prevailing understanding of them.

Highway maps

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized the construction of 41,000 miles of highway. Originally intended to bypass cities, planners including Robert Moses, argued for them to intersect city centers as ways to help clear blight and facilitate movement from suburb to center. Two of Moses’ proposals are particularly clear examples of the instrumentality of maps: one, of the then proposed Cross Bronx Expressway, represents the first stage in a series of actions that continue to have widespread social and economic consequences in the Bronx today; and an aerial representation of the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, never constructed after strident community opposition.

And a few favorite examples of critical mapping:

Architecture and Justice

This project by the Spatial Information Design Lab, a research unit at Columbia University led by Laura Kurgan, explores the complex geography, economics, and social repercussions of incarceration in Brooklyn, New York. Ms. Kurgan’s team uses data mapping to uncover the particular concentration of offenders sent to upstate prisons from specific Brooklyn neighborhoods, and the amount of money used to do this. They vividly illustrate how, in some cases, more than a million of dollars are spent per year per city block. This not only constitutes a massive export of both people and money, but essentially makes the criminal justice system the primary government institution in these communities. The project asks, directly: “Have prisons and jails become the mass housing of our time?” and “…How might we save state money spent on prisons, and redirect that money where it is most needed, in the poorest urban areas of our cities?”

Solid Sea 03: The Road Map

Multiplicity, a multidisciplinary collective based in Milan, conducted an experiment in the West Bank near Jerusalem in 2003. The group documented two journeys, one conducted by a person with Palestinian documents, the other with Israeli passport. They showed that the Palestinian journey took five times a long – five hours compared to one – a passage dogged by borders, standstills, check points, and diversions. The project makes clear that, no matter what one’s politics, in this highly contested and controlled region there are undeniable impacts to everyday freedoms on the ground.

Vendor Power

An incisive project in the Making Policy Public series – to explore and explain public policy through graphic design – by the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP). There are 10,000 street vendors in New York City, providing us with all kinds of necessities from hot dogs to I LOVE NY t-shirts. The vendors are subject to a myriad convoluted rules and regulations in the best manner of city bureaucracy (where minor violations can lead to $1000 fines) and are frequently harassed by law enforcement. Conducted in partnership with the Street Vendor Project and designer/artist Candy Chang, the Vendor Power project serves as an accessible delineation of vendors’ rights and recourse in five languages and particularly scrumptious design, as well as a community advocacy tool.

Next week: Queer Urbanism, and how social networks redefine our experience of urban space (or not).

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 12, 2013 1:06 pm

    This was helpful in a paper I wrote on undocumented students. Understanding the critical map concept and applying it to the lives of undocumented students (children of illegal immigrants) was an excellent addition to my paper. Thank you for expanding the definition to include social topics.

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