Mapping OaklandFebruary 10, 2009
Think you know where you live? Go fill out a survey for the new Mapping Oakland project and let Robert Lemon, a Cal grad student in landscape architecture, know! A while back, a friend of mine sent along some information about this project, which is being conducted by a classmate of hers. At the time, the website wasn’t live yet and the project was still in its infancy. But I finally remembered to check again, and lo and behold, everything is up and running!
The Mapping Oakland project sets out to create a mental map of people’s perceptions of neighborhoods and urban space within the City of Oakland.The project is specifically looking at perceptions and uses of public open spaces (parks to streets and everything in between), but is also exploring how people identify and bound their neighborhoods as part of this. Funded by the American Society of Landscape Architecture, the project’s broader goal is to research how culturally and demographically distinct neighborhoods in Oakland perceive and use public space.
Umm, a mental map?
What’s a mental map, you ask? To create a mental map (or cognitive map, as it’s also called) you basically take a physical map and you superimpose ideas or emotions on it. In this case, you’re superimposing concepts of neighborhood—notions that don’t have scientifically definable boundaries (as does something like, say, topography). But you can create a mental map of just about any abstract ideas you can collect data on: hopes, fears, perceptions, stereotypes. The concept came out of the field of human geography, which examines the ways in which people interact with the built environment. Mental maps don’t have to be place-based—in fact, many look more like charts and drawings—but of course the ones I find most interesting usually are!
Most planners who take any theory in school get a taste of mental mapping because one of the forefathers of modern planning, Kevin Lynch, was the first to fully develop this concept as it relates to urban space, and felt that the individual’s mental map of the city was as important as the physical map. Lynch thought of cities in terms of paths (how do people move around the city?), edges (where does the city start and end, and how is this edge demarcated?), identifiable districts (what constitutes a neighborhood?), nodes (where are the key community gathering points?), and landmarks (what are the definable physical features—natural or man-made—that help us find our way and define our places?)
For a long time, this “image of the city” was more theoretical in nature, although periodically planners and geographers would put it down on paper. But in the last decade, GIS has made it possible to create and tweak and change maps in an instant, making and remaking maps in response to new datasets or ideas. Technology has also facilitated creativity in playing with new mental mapping notions and ideas—not that there weren’t people out there exploring these ideas before, but in the world of Illustrator and ArcGIS, it’s become infinitely easier. Mental maps are everywhere: there are user-created conceptual transit maps to clarify how to get around by departing a bit from reality; variations on the mental map notion that popped up after the election to present perceptions of the results across the country, and later to map the new Congress; and maps by young children that present their communities in their own eyes. The Hand Drawn Map Association celebrates the low-tech version—check out what people map when they’re tasked with drawing their own communities, or draw your own neighborhood or favorite route and enter their contest.
Why make a mental map?
For fun! Well, not just for fun. This kind of mapping also reveals a lot about community ideas and understandings of place. The Mapping Oakland project, for instance, asks a lot of questions about where your neighborhood open spaces are. I’m very curious to see the results—first, do people who do live near parks actually know that they exist? Sure, people know about the big ones, but I continue to be astounded by how many people don’t know that Oak Park (on Kempton), Glen Echo Creek Park (off of Piedmont), and Oak Glen Park (on Richmond Boulevard, which is between West MacArthur and Piedmont) exist, for instance. More importantly, though, how do people use public spaces—and especially streets and sidewalks—differently in different parts of the city?
And, of course, I’m curious to see how people self-define their neighborhoods. It’s funny—I’d actually been talking with a friend about whether a survey about neighborhood names for our area could be productive. At a recent community meeting, a city planning consultant suggested hanging banners with the neighborhood name on them as a strategy for building identity. Okay, I admit that I’ve suggested that very same thing on occasion when I’ve been the one in the planner shoes—and there is some strong evidence that neighborhood identity can help bolster cohesion, sense of place, and overall engagement—but as I’ve written before, our ‘hood is a little unusual in that it doesn’t have a well-defined, commonly used name. What would you put on the street banners? (Interestingly, the study area at the meeting where this idea came up includes Orange Street, which is definitively part of Adams Point—residents there thought that “branding” the neighborhood, or at least creating a gateway, was a terrific idea, whereas people in my nameless area were understandably lukewarm on it.)
I’m going to take a look at Robert’s results, I think, and go from there. It would definitely be great to see if there’s a front-runner (or if people have good suggestions of new or historic names to adopt, since it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a neighborhood has tried to start from scratch on the name front), and then to build some cohesion and identity around the name so that we can stop telling people we live near Kaiser, or off of the Harrison/Oakland 580 exit, or by Mosswood Park, or “in that random area between Uptown, Piedmont Avenue, and the lake.”
So, anyway. Mapping Oakland. Check it out when you have a chance, and if you’re an Oaklander, help flesh out the dataset with some info about your own corner of the city.