Jessica Thompson wants cities to take a closer look at their maps and themselves.
The media artist and professor of hybrid media at the University of Waterloo was in Lethbridge, Alta. to lead a lecture and open discussion at the Galt Museum and Archives on critical mapping, a discipline that examines how maps are influenced by existing power structures and social problems.
your project Border uses data to map and highlight the often invisible borders that divide cities.
“Although you could say that maps are a tool used to colonize and control others, knowing how maps work and how to make good maps is very empowering,” Thompson said.
She and the Urban Borderlines Research Lab team compare census data in distribution areas—the smallest geographic area where census information is available—to calculate the degree of difference between neighboring areas. The bigger the difference, the thicker the edge. This helps to see where invisible boundaries exist in cities and neighborhoods.
Most people think of maps as factual, but Thompson says they can often blur information. For example, United States election maps have states represented as either red or blue after the 2016 election.
“But as you got closer and zoomed in on the electoral districts and then boxed the data so that you were actually looking at each electoral district, you realized that America is diverse.”
Map making as an art form
As part of her visit, Thompson led a workshop at the University of Lethbridge for students in the arts department. There they learned about mapping software and designed their own critical maps based on Lethbridge census data. These maps were part of the discussion at their museum talk.
It was the first time many of these students had been introduced to map making.
“I never thought that making maps would be a form of art,” said Natasha Farkas, a freshman who chose a bright pink color scheme for her map.
In addition to the technical and artistic elements, one of the objectives of the session was to give the students a deeper understanding of Lethbridge.
“I think once you see your city through data, you don’t see it the same way,” Thompson said.
The data used focused on people spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. This is often used as a financial measure for housing instability. Using their maps, students were able to identify areas in Lethbridge where people are struggling to pay their rent or keep up with their mortgages.
Areas like the neighborhoods around the university and college where many students like Farkas live.
“This was very upsetting because this is arguably one of the cheapest places to live and so many people are [having] difficult to make ends meet, myself included,” said Farkas.
local knowledge important
Thompson follows her own advice and doesn’t blindly trust cards.
‘In my research, mapping is only the first step,’ she noted. You have to get down on the floor and check. This is where the value of local knowledge becomes really important.”
Along with Galt Museum curator Tyler Stewart, she drove to one of the identified boundaries on the southern edge of town. When they got there, they saw a new development with “brand new, expensive” houses on one side and empty fields on the other.
“The reason we had this big thick line is because there was literally no one there. There was no income to report because nobody lived in the middle of the fields. If I hadn’t gone there I might have made a guess. “
Lethbridge is also divided by physical borders
“A big benefit of her being here is reflecting on what we take for granted or what some of the status quo elements of our city are,” Stewart said.
“When someone comes from the outside to challenge the things that we don’t necessarily see every day because we’re in the thick of it,” he added.
The project focuses on invisible boundaries, but Stewart was struck by how physical boundaries divide Lethbridge. The Coulees and the Oldman River divide the east and west, while the north and south are bisected by railroad tracks and Highway 3.
“Here in Lethbridge we often talk about it as if North Lethbridge and South Lethbridge share, almost as if they are two different towns… But when you start looking at maps you’re reminded of that [of] how much of a physical breakup this is,” Stewart said.
These physical divisions act as barriers that can restrict people’s movement and limit their access to opportunities in other parts of the city, especially if they don’t drive or have limited mobility.
The map is an important social comment, says the professor
According to Thompson, data can remain invisible if not mapped. For example, cities boast of population growth but may not be prepared to handle it.
“Census data is coming out [and] Cities are very quick to trumpet what’s the great thing about it… look at population growth in a city or whatever, but there’s a lot of census data that might not be communicated.”
Neighborhoods can grow too quickly without proper infrastructure to support them. Cities can build condominiums to appeal to new, more affluent residents, but ignore the needs of existing residents.
She believes maps are a form of social commentary that can convey important information to the public that would otherwise be ignored. But she wants people to be aware that they can also be used to misinform.
“It’s just as easy to lie with a card as it is to tell the truth with a card.”