Map Is Worth a Thousand Words
I visited the National Geographic Society’s exhibit on mapmaking
in Washington, D.C., last month, I was sort of chagrined to
come away from staring at a huge, 12-to-15-feet-in-diameter
blow-up globe in the center of the hall saying to myself,
“Wow, Africa is big. And Indonesia—big. A lot bigger than
I thought.” I knew that the flat world maps I’m used to seeing
are distorted, making navigation easier but land masses near
the poles much much bigger than those near the equator. But
the visual image of those maps was still stronger than my
knowledge of their weaknesses. It took a different image to
kick me in the gut and make me feel the difference. Images
are hard to shake from your brain.
The residents of Park South, whose neighborhood was made an
urban-renewal zone by the Albany Common Council Monday night,
have seen a lot of maps go by in the past year and half. Maps,
after all, are the bread and butter of urban planners’ work.
They’re used to organize data about the physical condition
of an area, to visually represent demographics, and to lay
out potential changes. Planners use maps as sketch pads, working
out their ideas in a spatial way.
For the most part, however, regular people don’t use maps
that way. Maps represent what is. They show you how to drive
from here to there, and, if you bother to look, where Iraq
is in relation to Afghanistan or Israel. And they have power
to shape people’s opinions on a sub-verbal level. That massive
expanse of green that was the U.S.S.R. on my childhood globe
(see, I remember it was green—I don’t remember the color of
anywhere else) said “lurking superpower” all by itself. And
it’s no accident that some outlets that sell social-justice
bumper stickers and T-shirts also sell world maps that are
upside down (after all, north and south are arbitrary) or
redone in a projection that more accurately shows relative
As planners and citizens dance, parry, or collaborate their
way through neighborhood planning processes, both might do
well to remember the visual power of maps—and how tenuously
they are actually connected to reality.
For example, take Albany’s public meeting on the Midtown Plan
on March 9. This was a meeting to present the results of a
study by a planning consultant of the areas around the midtown
universities. It was, as is customary, presented as a PowerPoint
presentation involving a series of maps. One astute audience
member pointed to a dot next to the Park South neighborhood
and asked what the small-print label said. The answer? A hotel/convention
center. Several already-suspicious Park South residents cried
foul, and the addition made it into the Times Union
the next day.
OK, let’s count the issues here: There’s already a much ballyhooed
convention center proposal for downtown that people have serious
doubts about. Park South is already the subject of a somewhat
controversial plan that makes no mention of a hotel/convention
center. And the dot in question wasn’t actually explained
in the meeting.
Now, says planning commissioner Lori Harris, there’s really
nothing to be worried about. Just because the areas overlap
doesn’t mean the Midtown Plan and the Park South plan have
anything to do with each other. No hotel has been added to
the Park South conceptual plan. All that dot means is that
the midtown consultants thought that the area around University
Heights “could sustain” a hotel/convention center, and there
was some blank space near Park South on the map, so they put
it there. Remember to a planner, map = sketch pad.
But that’s not what the residents of Park South saw. They
saw a map, with a hotel on it, and maps in the hands of planners
clearly mean: “We plan to build this here.”
Or take earlier in the Park South process, when a sketch of
the kinds of new homes that might be built if they
got both enough parcels together and an interested
developer, which might involve using eminent domain,
if the Common Council approved its use. But even under
such vague circumstances, the drawing of the houses was specifically
placed on a block of Park South: to wit, one that has a park
on the corner that was fought for by neighborhood residents.
And Harris still seemed surprised that people reacted strongly
to a visual of their beloved park subsumed underneath a gleamingly
artist-rendered townhouse (with garage!). How many times do
we have to say that this is just a concept, just a possibility?,
Visual images are just stronger than verbal reassurances.
And here they were paired with a suspicion of eminent domain
and urban renewal that is quite understandable given their
history of use in this country and city. So it’s hard to imagine
anyone being surprised that residents confronted over and
over with maps that show their homes under a parking lot or
in a yellow “infill” zone are going to be worried.
It may be too late for a better use of maps to change the
dynamic of the Park South planning process. (Nor would that
have been enough by itself. See “Let’s Imagine,” Looking Up,
June 3, 2004.) Now the process moves into a stage where maps,
produced by interested developers, really do represent more
literal plans. But for other areas, it could be worth being
very careful how the visuals are chosen.
Maps and drawings can be a great way to give people a different
view of their own neighborhood, marking abandoned properties,
absentee landlords, demographic distribution, homeowners,
or crime hotspots (oddly, few maps like this were included
in the original Park South plan presentation). They can be
used as templates on which people giving input can sketch
out their own suggestions. And at the right time, with the
right context, both maps and drawings can be wonderful vehicles
for gauging what various stakeholders want for their neighborhood.
You just have to make sure they don’t say more than you want
them to say.