Map Critique : Participatory Mapping

Katherine Fisher

Keywords : Participatory Mapping, Counter Narratives, Social Mapping, Mapping as a Process

Mapping is powerful in that it can hold many different perspectives together in one way. When such tools are applied to the larger system of the public sphere, multiple perspectives, ideologies, worlds can live and shift the public sphere’s path away from one final solution. Mapping can be used as a participatory tool to uncover hidden narratives within spaces and archives into form, but also that form can be used as a political-tool to counter the status quo of traditional top-down planning.

Participatory processes have a benefit outside of the end result. When groups of people come together around the shared goal, collective voice through dialogue is created through the process. Participatory mapping processes put a greater emphasis on the dialogues and social connections that are created throughout the process in parallel with the map-making. The process itself can raise voice, build collective value, and give local residents agency in the planning process. Participatory maps often capture a socially or culturally local understanding rather than the prescribed planning perspective that determines what’s important, and missing large narratives living within a place.

The value of participatory mapping is not going unnoticed. Many public and open-source tools are becoming available for planners, communities, activists, and academics. Open Street Map, City Resilience Action Planning Toolkit, Anti-Eviction Maps, and various counter-maps are all addressing social questions through the mapping process. A lot of these participatory tools require resources, technology, and planning which is a limitation in places that need access to these tools most. One organization that helps overcome those barriers is Slum Dwellers International (SDI). I’ll be describing the process they follow, how their maps live in public, and opportunities for improvement. I’ll end with a prototype that builds on their process, methods, approach.




Slum Dwellers International, a network of community-based organizations in 33 countries and hundreds of cities and towns across the global south. In each country where SDI has a presence, affiliate organizations come together at the community, city, and national level to form federations of the urban poor.

The first methodology used by the newly formed federations within SDI  is profiling and enumeration, which is a participatory process that consolidates city-wide data on settlements by residents for residents. The process lays the foundation for inclusive development between urban poor and local governments up to federal governments and takes the form of both maps, and data collection.

Community organizations in the SDI network have been using these participatory methods to prevent evictions, have ownership over the planning process, and to create more solidified connections between the informal settlements up to the federal government. The process helps mitigate against disaster and conflict, but an overlooked outcome of the process makes the communities more local and visible. The process helps change connotations and assumptions people have of the area by changing statistics into narratives. Not only does the processes have potential value for policy and development, but for value in creating a new type of archive, one that the local residents have full control over. The archive has the potential to tell the story of why the community came to be, the narratives that exist within a community, and how individuals and the collective voice contributes to the city’s identity.

While I agree that the data that is collected for the community is owned by the community and no one else, there is an opportunity for the current living representation of the SDI participatory mapping process to tell the narratives and stories of the community in order for people to see a reinforcement of the infrastructural statistics, but much more than that. Currently, the living map uses CartoDB along with a data management tool called Ona, plus a custom platform built to bridge the data together. The map is viewable to the public but missing some human aspects, connection, and doesn’t describes the local process for the public to see the social benefits that occurred throughout the process.

From the SDI website, the approach of the community-based informal settlement mapping focuses on the following specific objectives:

  • To collect information of the informal settlements in terms of their locality, size, tenure status, basic amenities, educational, health and social facilities as well as transport and other public services.
  • To create a lobby tool to address the inequitable distribution of resources and services in cities.
  • To mobilize and build community capacity and organizational unity through the establishment of federations of the Urban Poor

But I would add one more. I would argue that another approach that focuses on changing mindsets and connotations of the public towards informal settlements in their cities and to see a place that is not a statistic, but a rich place of social resilience, stories, and histories. This approach will allow for a new type of documentation that counters the traditional archive we see within our city’s institutions and creates an ongoing process rather than a temporary event in a community.

Below is my sketch prototype of a new living document that represents the SDI profiling and mapping data for a community, but shows it to the audience in a new way, a way that focuses on the under-represented social histories and stories that come out of the process but don’t have a place to live. Because of the strong base-data and process already established within the SDI network, there is an opportunity to add a new layer that is ongoing and more human, reducing the barrier to enter within the SDI network, but also to continue changing mindsets about our urban informal settlements.



Sources :

Future Cape Town on Participatory Mapping

SDI Know Your City Platform

Anti-Eviction Participatory Mapping