MapLab: The Power of Counter-Maps

Craig Dalton, a professor of geography at Hofstra University, looks for maps that complicate conventional views of the world. He studies and creates “counter-maps,” a term for cartography that reveals the realities and knowledge of marginalized groups in society.

“Mapping has been the tool of empires and governments for 500 years,” Dalton told MapLab, pointing to the days of Columbus and other Western explorers who used geographic tools to colonize civilizations around the globe. “What happens when maps get into hands of people who’ve been victims of cartographic sleights of hand?”

Examples abound. Indigenous people from , a non-profit doing homelessness outreach via maps in London wound up exposing their clients’ identities to the British Home Office, which then deployed the information to deport non-U.K. citizens among them. “Sometimes no map is the best map of all,” Dalton said.

A counter-map with a magnified inset, produced by the project “Imaging Homelessness in a City of Care,” a participatory mapping project undertaken with 30 single homeless people in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, U.K., in 2014. (This Is Not an Atlas)

Still, he thinks the practice of counter-mapping can play a crucially subversive role, especially now as the use of maps for commercial gain has exploded. “So many of the maps we use today are for the purposes of consumption, whether it’s Google or Facebook serving you ads, Uber finding you rides or food, or Tinder finding you a date,” Dalton said. “But counter-maps are different. They’re not about monetary exchange—it’s about something that needs to change in the neighborhood.”

How a writer remapped his painful early memories

In the latest essay for The Maps That Make Us, CityLab’s ongoing series about the power of maps in our personal lives, the transportation expert and author Steven Higashide writes about how using MobRule—an throwback Web 1.0 site where mappers track the U.S. counties they’ve visited—helped him uncover joyful memories of childhood, after years of stinging reminiscences.

Higashide’s map of Pennsylvania on MobRule. (MobRule)

He writes:

I didn’t expect how, through a zeal for completion, I would surface so many happy buried memories—and how, as a result, I came to understand my life as being much more vivid and full. Over time, the fears and anxieties of my youth have become less important. I have been to 334 counties; my worst childhood experiences are held by just two: Cook County, Illinois, where I spent half of my youth, and Middlesex County, New Jersey, where I spent the rest. And as my world expands, those two tiny points on my map grow even smaller.

) ♦ A new exhibit at the Boston Public Library traces the upheaval and transformations of the 19th century. (Boston Globe) ♦ For the map lover at your holiday celebration: a review of some of the best recent map anthologies. (New York Times) ♦ Humanitarian mappers are taking college campuses by storm. (Washington Post)

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Laura Bliss

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