Mark Monmonier’s book “How to Lie with Maps,” is a perennial favorite within the mapping community, not because it’s a tutorial for deception, but because it brings to light the inherent bias in most mapping efforts. As with most communication mediums, those in power control the message in the map, and can manipulate outcomes.
In city planning and urban development applications, there’s a growing movement for more open and inclusive community planning that often has a large mapping component for communicating plans and sharing input. The politically-fraught process of land development has a lot of actors though, and many developer interests require a degree of marketing and sales hype that works to gloss over problems. While lying may be a strong word in that context, certainly the planning and development process contains a good deal of compromise, and in many cases self interest has trumped community interest.
Much of a developer’s mapping and zoning manipulation has to do with obtaining land cheaply in order to maximize profit, and sometimes purposefully obscuring facts about underlying conditions that may devalue the property. Certain elements about a property’s history or impact on existing development are often obscured, with positive benefits hyped. A developer’s interest in a property is also often hidden in order to obtain and amass land holdings without a dramatic increase in property prices.
A degree of confidentiality has been deemed necessary in the land-use planning space as there are various inputs that take place from various experts at different stages of a project, before much of a plan is ready for community input. The process is also full of legal risk and competing interests, with often heated debates about what is allowed based on statutes and codes, and what is in the best interest of the community. These issues of confidentiality and risk management are most at play with high impact land use change such as the construction of transportation or utility corridors, waste facilities, jails, low-income areas, and the conversion of agricultural lands to housing. Where high competition and contention are at play, it’s hard to imagine that maps of intended development won’t be obscured and highly managed.
Technology Aids Reset
While the deceptive developer-centric planning process may have been the norm for much of the twentieth century, there’s a pushback now to these practices, and a greater interest in longer-term planning with an eye toward efficiency and sustainability. In many communities a rapid expansion of new development has been replaced by redevelopment, and the focus is now on improved livability with reduced energy consumption, more green spaces, and better community connections.
A slow economic recovery in conjunction with falling home values and rising gas and food prices is accelerating this urbanization trend of higher density and lower cost-of-living urban areas. In many cases, cities are looking to their communities for input on this transformation, with cities taking a much more active role in guiding the development. The ubiquity of connected devices, online mapping tools, and social networks are all aiding in a reset of traditional top-down planning. Technology has opened up the process like never before, with greater transparency, better information sharing, and easier means to harness community input.
The urge to be more inclusive in planning comes at a time of great government transition, where previously compartmentalized, cataloged, and archived government information is being opened up through online tools. The age of open data fits with the move toward inclusive planning processes, allowing for new means to synthesize and visualize the details behind community decisions.
The availability of property details with a visualization-rich online interface that shows past, current and planned land uses provides property owners and citizens a whole new means of forging the community’s future. There are many drivers for change in our patterns of land use from increased walkability, more urban gardening, greater access to public transportation, and denser patterns of development.
The groundwork of online data sharing and visualization, as well as community interaction, means that maps have new relevance as catalysts for cooperation. Urban planning will provide a laboratory for new levels of social interaction and tinkering with new tools to address community challenges. The challenges of change transcend individual localities though, so we’ll surely see broader landscape-level, regional, country-level, and even global planning benefit from this new level of cooperative and inclusive decision making. The era of developer deception may still thrive in areas of information control, but the new openness and interactivity of the Internet has ushered in a new way of doing things.
- How the Crash Will Reshape America, Richard Florida, Atlantic Magazine, March 2009
- Center for Community Mapping, focuses on public participatory project planning and implementation
- From Crisis to Community: Mapping as a Peacebuilding Tool, United States Institute of Peace
- Community Mapping and Planning, from Sites.Google.com, with details on facilitating data gathering and discussion
- Community Mapping Webinars, National Center for Media Engagement
- Community Analyst, a Software as a Service offering from Esri for online interactive mapping
- “From Community Mapping to Critical Spatial Thinking: The Changing Face of GIS (geographic information systems),” an address by Michael Goodchild at the National Science Foundation, Nov. 15, 2010
- Planning 2.0 About Open Government, Cumberland Times-News, May 29, 2011
- How to share Land, by Kelly McCartney, Shareable.net, June 27, 2011