Cultural Mapping

“In the landscape of the 21st century, nothing looms larger than culture. It is the new infrastructure, the civic bedrock on which the most successful modern metropolises are built. Culture is to the contemporary city what roads, sewers and bridges were in the 19th and early 20th centuries.”
– Christopher Hume, Urban Affairs Columnist, Toronto Star

Cultural Mapping – what is it anyway?

Cultural mapping is a community-based and community-driven process of identifying, recording, and valuing local cultural assets, including both tangible assets (assets that have a physical presence) and intangible assets (the stories, traditions, and histories that make up our unique identity) [1].

“The problem in municipalities is not the lack of information on culture. Rather, it is that information is collected by different people, for different reasons and exists in different locations. In any plan, therefore, the focus of the initial mapping work is not on collecting new information, but consolidating existing information” [2].

Cultural Mapping involves looking at culture as a multifaceted force in the community. Ways in which culture exists in regions can be broken down into categories. Below is an image of the cultural resource framework used by municipalities across Canada.

Once a comprehensive cultural asset database has been created, all entries are Geographic Information Systems (GIS) coded and plotted on an accessible web-based map. The integration of data with GIS allows the information to be spatially mapped, showing how cultural resources are distributed, and enabling the community to identify clusters, gaps, opportunities, and challenges.

Each cultural asset that appears on the map is linked with “tombstone” information –  basic information about the individual, organization or location (name, address, contact information, website URL, accessibility information, hours of operation). As well, intangible assets such as stories, histories, and traditions are embedded on the map using multimedia techniques.

For further reading:
Cultural Mapping Toolkit by  Legacies Now and Creative City Network of Canada
Cultural Resource Mapping: A guide for municipalities by Municipal Cultural Planning Inc.
Rediscovering the Wealth of Place: A municipal cultural planning handbook for Canadian communities by Greg Baeker

How does one map “Intangibles?”

“If cultural mapping focused only on tangible resources, it would mean missing the very essence and meaning of local culture” [3]. Intangible cultural assets can be mapped in any number of ways by embedding text (stories, poems, etc), audio clips, photographs, archival images, video and more.

The Kings County Cultural Map will map intangibles through stories that give voice to the often over-looked benefits inherent in cultural activities. Digital Storytelling uses multimedia technologies and software to allow participants to create their own digital versions of short, compelling narratives. The project is seeking stories that speak to ways in which cultural assets have had a personal impact on the lives of Kings County residents.

Digital Storytelling is based on the following principles:

  • everyone has a story to tell and will share their story if provided the opportunity;
  • we construct meanings through the narrative process;
  • the process allows participants to confront hegemonic notions of what it is to be ‘creative’; and
  • using a digital medium is a powerful way to reach audiences and promote digital literacy.

For further reading:
Centre for Digital Storytelling

What methodologies are used?

Cultural mapping is a participatory community-based process. The Kings County Cultural Mapping project is informed by pedagogical methods of popular education, which draws upon personal experiences and a collective sense of place in order to bring about social change. Popular education requires us to always engage in a process of both reflection and action so that we can learn from our experiences and in turn put that learning into practice in a constant spiral of reflection and action, or praxis.

Collecting data for the Kings County Cultural Mapping project relies on pre-existing materials such as directories and organizational/municipal databases, as well as input from local residents at public gatherings, in Advisory Committee meetings and through one-on-one interviews. Community input will be monitored closely to assess whose voices are being heard, and whose voices are missing. If it is found that some populations (geographic, demographic, racial, class) are under-represented, a concerted effort will be made to integrate their knowledge into the process.

How do cultural maps affect cultural planning?

Municipal planners in Canada view “Cultural Vitality” as being one of the four pillars of sustainability – Economic Prosperity, Social Equity, and Environmental Sustainability being the other three considerations of the four-part planning model. It is commonly believed that culture is central to the future of cities and communities in Canada, as culture is “the “glue” that binds communities together in the sense of the common purpose needed to address the challenges that confront them” [4].

Integrating comprehensive and interdisciplinary cultural plans in municipal planning strategies is integral to developing, enhancing, and sustaining “Cultural Vitality” in communities. Cultural plans in municipalities across Canada including Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Kitchener share the following characteristics:

  • increased citizen participation and involvement in policy/plan formulation;
  • greater attention to issues of cultural diversity and pluralism;
  • broadened definitions of culture; and
  • the use of “community cultural development” as the integrating framework for linking arts, heritage, and cultural industry activity to broader civic concerns [5].

Cultural maps are often created as precursors to a Municipal Cultural Plan. Without maps, regional and municipal planning would be chaotic. Detailed maps describe the relative size, shape, and spacing of a plan’s components and suggest how well they interrelate. Surveying the environment before implementing strategy and policy is a core principle to planning processes. Greg Baeker, a Municipal Planner and Cultural Mapping Expert asserts “you cannot plan cultural resources until you have identified them and determined their potential” [6].

For further reading:
Municipal Cultural Planning Inc. 

Who benefits from cultural maps?

Locals – First and foremost, the cultural map assists local community members that have an interest in culture or the creative economy. This may include, but is not limited to, individuals working for organizations, businesses, or industries that have an art & craft, cultural, heritage, or tourism focus, and individuals that are engaged in cultural activities in their every day lives.

Visitors –  The cultural map can be of use to audiences from outside of the County that are interested in culture such as cultural tourists, art and craft buyers, and business owners looking to expand/locate in an area that supports the creative economy.

Planners –  Cultural maps can be a great asset for planners, policy developers, and decision-makers on a regional and municipal level who can use the map to inform policy and planning.

How does the cultural mapping process support social justice?

The project’s understanding of community development is underpinned by John Kretzmann and John McKnight’s body of work on asset-based approaches in Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets.

Kretzmann and McKnight argue that communities are all-too-often thought of only in terms of their needs, problems and deficiencies and that this one dimensional representation of communities masks their many existing assets. An asset-based approach to community development aims to bring to the fore the skills, capacities, dreams, aspirations and desires within communities and to use these informal assets as the foundation for community development projects.

Cultural mapping is more than just placing dots on a map. It is the first step of a process that allows members of the community to understand their region’s cultural capacities, and to develop policies, strategies, and meaningful connections that support what already exists.

Community mapping processes reflect asset-based approaches to development in the following ways:

  • the community defines its own issues and goals;
  • the community directs the process;
  • the mapping process, as well as the final product, are designed to benefit the community;
  • the majority of information on the maps comes from local knowledge; and
  • the community controls the use of the map [7].

In the 1930’s Moses Coady, an adult educator in Antigonish, famously said, “Use what you have to secure what you have not”.  If community members are able to identify, recognize and mobilize their own strengths and assets they implicitly demonstrate their “capacity to act”, and in doing so, they perceive themselves as having the power to exercise some control over their lives. Belief in one’s own capacity to act inspires the confidence to bring about change and to seek out opportunity [8].

For further reading:
Collaborating with Communities: An asset-based approach to community and economic development by Jenny Cameron
Does ABCD deliver on social justice? by Alison Mathie
Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets by Kretzmann and McKnight.


[1] Baeker, Greg. (2010). Rediscovering the Wealth of Place: A municipal cultural planning handbook for Canadian communities. Ontario: Municipal World Inc.

[2] ibid. Page 46.

[3] ibid. Page 58.

[4] ibid. Page 33.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid. Page 21.

[7] Flavells, Alix. (2002). Mapping our Land: A guide to making maps of our own communities and traditional lands. Edmonton, AB: Lone Pine Publishing.

[8] Mathie, Alison. (2006). Does ABCD deliver on social justice? Coady International Institute Panel Discussion for the International Association of Community Development CIVICUS conference, Glasgow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s