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Feature - Taking back a sense of place

Green mapping helps orient a community and its values



You’ve just arrived in town and you’re staring at the map you’ve been handed, eyes scanning across the grid-lines, the street-names, the blots of green space, the stark relief of blue, for the magic words, "YOU ARE HERE."

Once you have this point of reference, ground zero, the map will unfold the terrain for you, explain where you are in relation to a hundred, a thousand reference points. Chart the thoroughfares, all respectfully graded as freeway, main artery, subsidiary artery. But it’s unlikely, this map, with its broad strokes, its most basic information, will include the side alleys and shortcuts, the fish habitat, the bear corridors, the berry patches, the paddling streams.

What it will mark is what the mapmaker thought was important. Important for you to know. Important to them.

Maps are notoriously subjective. In that, they are one of the most powerful tools.

The hot political agendas of the 13th to 19th centuries have been over who had the maps. Whomever mapped the Northwest passage, the mythical Great Southern Land, the route to the west of the American continent, had control. Control of the region and the resources it yielded to the conqueror.

The early maps were instruments of power in the hands of the controlling colonial or commercial interests – the Portuguese, the British Empire, the Hudson’s Bay Company. Explorers and cartographers often used indigenous knowledge, but never credited the providers of that knowledge. Alexander Mackenzie made his way to the west coast with information that came from First Nations people, who had no written culture, but an oral knowledge of territory, an uncannily accurate "mental map".

This oral knowledge, the mental mapping of place, of home, is what a new trend of cartography is trying to honour. It’s called green mapping.

Maeve Lydon of Victoria’s Common Ground Green Mapping project states: "Maps provide unique modes of manipulation and control. They can decide whose worldview and reality count. If maps do express our relation to place then community and ecological recovery depends on re-mapping and re-presenting the worlds around us."

Which is why, around the globe, in urban and rural centres, at every grid reference, at every longitude and latitude, people are embarking on community mapping projects – to define what is important to them, and what is important to share. What their planet, their eco-system, their place, looks like.

Until something is on the map, it is hard to prove its existence. Trails built but without legal status don’t make it to provincial agency maps – their existence is jeopardized by future development. A major hurdle for indigenous land claims has been the challenge of proving a continuous connection with the land – if the indigenous oral knowledge had been committed to parchment, Native claims would be unassailable. Land use planners make decisions based on the maps they have at hand, often made years ago – providing broad zoning, lot parcel designations, and very little else.