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The Speaker Series: Talk on the history of radical mapping and participatory mapping

May 23, 2013 by

The Speaker Series at Transparent Chennai was revived after a brief hiatus, and how! Research scholars Joanna Guldi and Zachary Gates held us in thrall with a brief, riveting history of radical mapping and participatory mapping last week. I would be speaking for most people at office if I were to say that despite already being mapping enthusiasts and advocates, the talk taught us a lot more about the true potential and significance of maps in capitalist society.

Maps have played an important role in building common consensus, pointing to the existence of enclaves of abundance for the rich, and highlighting the need for a “new commons”. But did you know that while the global movement of participatory mapping gained steam in the 20th century, the foundations were perhaps laid many years ago. The rise of popularity of the “walking tour” in the early 1920s was particularly crucial: it made history accessible to all, and became a tool using which neighbourhoods could be understood and re-imagined. Post the 1976 UN Habitat Conference, participatory mapping methods were recognised, and in the 1990s, became very prominent.

The instances of indigenous and marginalized peoples in Canada, Scotland and the Philippines using radical participatory mapping methods to complement their oral traditions and to better represent their conceptions of ownership and use of lands were fascinating. Maps, which were typically used by the elite to marginalize vulnerable sections of the population, have been used to represent a different history of resources, boundaries, land use and planning. This was exemplified by the instance of the Inuits successfully reclaiming their lost land and the slum dwellers of Hyderabad mapping their slums to prevent evictions in the 1980s.

The discussion after the talk also got us very excited on new participatory methods we could incorporate into our work, like the transect walk and juxtaposing community information layers on surveyors’ layers to enrich maps prepared for government programmes. Watch this space for updates!

Written by Priti Narayan, researcher, Transparent Chennai