NPA & Geography

A Brief History of Alternative Mapping
by Euan HagueThe maps in Notes for a People’s Atlas have been created within the vibrant tradition of grassroots mapping and popular atlases, yet valuing the insights offered by this type of democratic map production is a relatively recent phenomenon in the long history of cartography. Historically, map-making was an art, a skill, and often produced classified military intelligence. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that atlases became more than cartographic collections as artists produced alternative maps and popular mapping encouraged everyday people to express their thoughts, feelings and emotions about places through sketch maps. In these kinds of maps, unlike traditional catrography, accuracy and measurement were less important than the meanings that the maps held for their producers and viewers.Alternative mapping arguably began in the artistic avant-garde. Modern artists, surrealists and situationists looked to re-imagine the world by mapping it differently. Uruguayan artist Alberto Torres-Garcia, for example, famously sketched South America with the South Pole and Terra del Fuego at the top of his Upside-down Map (1943). A little later, between the late-1950s and the radical heights of 1968, artist-activists like Guy Debord in France pursued what they termed ‘psychogeographical’ explorations of cities, in which re-mapping was a central aspect. Situationists would use maps of other cities to guide them around Paris, cut up and randomly reassemble street maps and then follow them, map a walk based on a theme (such as always turning left, then right), all to create new ways to experience and understand the world (1).

Within Anglo-American academic circles, it was arguably The Image of the City, written by Kevin Lynch in 1960, that initiated the modern field of popular grassroots mapping. Lynch interviewed residents of Boston, Jersey City and Los Angeles asking them to describe what came into mind when these cities were named and then to draw sketches of these cities. He also noted the narration that people gave while they sketched and the order in which their cartographic representations were composed. Which sites were drawn first and how did people describe them? Did some areas gain more attention than others? Where and what was omitted? From the sketch maps and interviews he gathered, Lynch determined that  people ‘read’ their cities, identifying areas of importance to their biographies and creating coherent city images that combined physical reality and personal experience. “Every citizen,” stated Lynch, “has had long associations with some part of his city, and his image is soaked in memories and meanings.” (2)

Lynch’s ground-breaking work stimulated a research agenda that attracted sociologists, anthropologists, geographers and psychologists for the next twenty years, until interest somewhat petered out in the 1980s. The early-1970s was the most prolific period of production of what were now being called “mental” or “cognitive” maps. A scholarly journal, Environment and Behavior, became a regular venue for academics to display and analyze maps drawn by people of all different ages, ethnicities, physical abilities and socio-economic classes. For example, Florence Ladd asked 60 low income African-American males aged 12-17 to draw Boston (3), Charles Tilly asked his own 7, 9, and 11 year old children to map Toronto (4), Robert Maurer and James C. Baxter asked 93 children aged 7-14 in Harrisburg, TX, to draw maps of their routes to school and their home neighborhoods (5), Donald Appleyard had 75 people from Ciudad Guayana in Venezuela map their city (6), Izhak Schnell asked Israelis and Palestinians in Galilee to map the areas to which they felt they belonged (7), and numerous other researchers collected and collated maps drawn by people from all over the world. Much of the field addressed maps drawn by children to try and understand the development of spatial awareness, and explore how and when children understood the geographies of home, school, neighborhoods, cities and even nations. These efforts to comprehend how people made sense of their worlds in their everyday lives, however, came with a caveat that was expressed by Roger Downs and David Stea: “Your answer today to the request, describe your home town, can be very different from your answer yesterday,” and thus the map that you draw would have different emphases, points of interest and foci (8). In short, the potential topics for popular maps was all but infinite.

Given the political context of the late-1960s, as studies of popular mapping increased, some scholars began to argue that it was all well and good to ask people to draw maps to describe their cities, but what was necessary was to recognize these as interpretations of the moment. What was the use in merely asking someone to map Boston when there was a war in Vietnam, protestors on the streets of U.S. cities, ‘ghetto’ uprisings in African-American neighborhoods, civil rights activism and the theatrical protests of the Yippies? Map making could, or perhaps should, become a urgent political tool. At the academic forefront of this impulse was Bill Bunge (9).

Born in Wisconsin, Bunge gained his PhD in Geography from the University of Washington and became an expert on statistical models. Radicalized by the political climate of the 1960s, and ultimately fired by Wayne State University in 1969 for his outspoken views, Bunge wanted to bring the power of mapping to the people. He initiated ‘urban expeditions,’ living and working with low income residents in cities such as Detroit to map politically sensitive subjects such as infant mortality rates, school district restructuring, uneven distributions of doctors and medical services,  locations where cars have hit children and sites of Ku Klux Klan rallies. Bunge believed that maps can advocate for social justice and help residents better understand their own communities. His most famous study was of the Detroit neighborhood of Fitzgerald (10).

At the start of the 21st Cenruty, artists, academics, activists and community organizations are rediscovering the empowerment, enjoyment and impact of producing their own maps (for my own work in Chicago, see 11). Computer programs like Google Earth and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) have facilitated a new wave of popular mapping, and groups like the Counter Cartographies Collective at UNC-Chapel Hill, the People’s Geography Project and Community Geography (both in Syracuse NY), New York’s Conflux Psychogeography Festival, authors like Will Self, artists like Enrique Chagoya, Christian Nold, Denis Wood and Stephen Walter, publications/exhibitions like An Atlas of Radical Cartography and Experimental Cartography (12), and Internet blogs like The Map Room ( are bringing wider attention to grassroots mapping endeavors. To these we add Notes for a People’s Atlas.


1) Marcus, Greil (1993 [1989]) Lipstick Traces: A secret history of the Twentieth Century, Penguin Books, London.

2) Lynch, Kevin (1982 [1960]) The Image of the City, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, p.1.

3) Ladd, Florence C. (1970) “Black youths view their environment: neighborhood maps,” Environment and Behavior, vol.2, 74-99.

4) Tilly, Charles (1967) “Anthropology on the town,” Habitat, vol. 10, no.1, 20-25.

5) Maurer, Robert and Baxter, James C. (1972) “Images of the Neighborhood and City among Black-, Anglo-, and Mexican-American children,” Environment and Behavior, vol.4, 351-388.

6) Appleyard, Donald (1970) “Styles and methods of structuring a city,” Environment and Behavior, vol.2, 110-117.

7) Schnell, Izhak (1993) “Israeli and Palestinian territorial perceptions,” Environment and Behavior, vol. 25, no.4, 419-456.

8) Downs, Roger M. and David Stea (1977) Maps in Minds: Reflections on Cognitive Mapping, Harper and Row, New York, p.88.

9) For overviews of Bunge’s career, see Johnson, Zachary Forest (2010) “Wild Bill Bunge,” [accessed 4 July 2010]; Merrifield, Andy (1995) “Situated knowledge through exploration: Reflections on Bunge’s ‘Geographical Expeditions’,” Antipode vol.27, no. 1, 49-70.

10) Bunge, William (1971) Fitzgerald: Geography of a Revolution, Schenkman Publishing, Cambridge, MA.

11) Putre, Laura (2005) “Zone sweet home,” Chicago Journal, 9 February; Bush, Hayden (2005) “Mapping Pilsen: One student at a time,” Chicago Journal, 14 September; Hague, Euan; Curran, Winifred and Pilsen Alliance (2008) Contested Chicago – Pilsen and Gentrification / Pilsen y el aburguesamiento: Una lucha para conservar nuestra comunidad,

12) Bhagat, Alexis and Mogel, Lizzie (eds) (2008) An Atlas of Radical Cartography, Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press; Nato Thompson and Independent Curators International (2009) Experimental Geography: Radical Approaches to Landscape, Cartography, and Urbanism, Melville House, New York.

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