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30 Nov 2010

Ingredients of Transition: Meaningful Maps

The ‘Mappa Sustainability’, created by Transition Hereford for their ‘Small Changes, Big Difference’ event, October 2010.

The Context

Maps are very useful with regards to a range of activities your Transition initiative might find itself involved in, such as ENERGY DESCENT ACTION PLANS (5.1), the designing of STRATEGIC LOCAL INFRASTRUCTURE (5.5), AWARENESS RAISING (2.9) and also offer very useful tools to use alongside other COMMUNITY BRAINSTORMING TOOLS (4.6).  They can help with VISIONING work, giving it a relevant and accessible context, and can help people in UNDERSTANDING SCALE (1.3).  In short, maps are a key tool for STRATEGIC THINKING (5.10).

(We are collecting and discussing these Transition ingredients on Transition Network’s website to keep all comments in one place. Please leave feedback and comments, suggestions for alternative pictures, anecdotes, stories and projects for this ingredient here).

The Challenge

The changes necessitated by Transition can be hard for people to visualise, especially in relation to their immediate surroundings.  Presenting suggestions in a way that people don’t find easy to access is, ultimately, self-defeating.

Core Text

In the Autumn of 2010, Transition Hereford created the ‘Mappa Sustainability’ (see above), modelled on the 13th century Mappa Mundi, one of the oldest remaining medieval maps, which shows Jerusalem as the centre of the Universe.  This modern version, naturally, shows Hereford in pride of place, and has been a centrepiece of many of their activities.  The idea is to create an imaginative way of documenting what is already happening and, as Rob Garner of the group told me, it “helps people to see they are not working on their own”.

When Transition Hereford and New Leaf (an organisation set up to better bridge between sustainability groups and the local council) were planning H.Energy week (the H stands for Hereford, as you might imagine), they decided they wanted to create a physical map on which they would invite individuals and organisations to register existing initiatives as well as their future commitments.

The final map, modelled on the Mappa Mundi, which is exhibited in the city’s cathedral, was first exhibited in a city centre church, before being paraded through the streets to a big launch event called ‘Small Steps, Big Difference’.  It then went on to other venues, including the library and the cathedral, before being a centrepiece for 2011’s H.Energy week.  People are invited to put stickers on it showing what they are doing, what else is happening where they live, and their visions for the future.  According to Rob it has been a great success.  As he put it, “in my view it increases a sense of togetherness, community involvement and success”.

Many Transition initiatives use electronic maps, in particular Google Maps, in different aspects of their work.  For example, Transition Los Angeles has created a Google Map of ‘Transition in LA’,  which maps individual participants, initiatives, and projects across the city as a public map open to all, offering a very accessible way in for newcomers to the initiative.  Others use Google Maps in connection to local food.  For example, Transition Hackney’s ‘Hackney Harvest’ project and Sustainable Harringey’s ‘Urban Harvest’ projects both use Google Maps to map street fruit trees in the area.

Sustainable Frome, a Transition initiative, created the ‘Frome Apple Tree Map’, mapping all the apple trees in the town.  They also use Google Maps to map potential sites for future wind farms and other Transition infrastructure.  Transition Cambridge have done much the same, theirs includes the intriguing entry, to a walnut-lover like myself, that there are “2 walnut trees near the boat house at Fen Ditton”.  I’m on my way. 

Transition Taunton went a step beyond fruit trees with their Google Map project, the “Wild Food Free Food Map”, which mapped the wide range of forage-able wild food in the area.  They also combined this electronic mapping with more old-fashioned mapping exercises.  At their ‘Abundant Taunton’ event, they invited people to plot fruit and nut trees, and other wild food, on physical maps, which were subsequently uploaded to the Google Maps.

Ooooby (“Out of our own back yard”), a local food project in Auckland, evolved this idea further, with an online map underpinning a self-organising gathering of fallen fruit.  The instructions are simple, look at the map, “form a posse” of fruitpickers, go out and harvest, and then one-third of what you pick goes to the owners, one-third to the pickers, and one third goes to Ooooby for distribution in their ‘Ooooby boxes’.   One of the most cutting edge uses of maps is that being developed by Geofutures in Bath in association with Somerset Community Food‘Foodmapper’ is a website which invites the community to become community researchers, mapping all the land in the area currently being used by the community to grow food.  It has huge potential as part of more detailed analyses of potential local food security.

Sometimes a more 20th century, non-virtual approach to mapping can be more appropriate.  At a Transition Los Angeles event, a large printed map of the city was displayed, and people asked to put themselves on the map which, according to Joanne Porouyow of Transition LA, “gave people a sense of how much of the area was represented at the session”.  There is no reason though to be restricted to other peoples’ maps, you can make your own. 

Transition Finsbury Park in London, at the end of their ‘Places that Matter’ project which invited people to make short films about what they loved about the area, held an event where people made their own “imaginative maps” which “made explicit the different ways people view the same place”.  People worked in groups and created their own maps of the places that matter most to them, weaving in their visions for the future of the place.

Maps can, of course, be used to do more than map what is already there.  They can also be a powerful tool for visioning the future.  Sustaining Dunbar’s ‘2025 Map and Action Plan project (M.A.P) uses maps as a way of engaging people in setting out how they would like the community to become more resilient over time.  As their website says, “maps can show you where you are.  But a good map can show you where you want to go and how to get there”.

You can also create your own maps without paper, but using the people around you.  At large Transition events, mapping is often used as a way of getting a quick insight into the make-up and experiences of those attending.  By asking people to stand in different places you can get instant and useful insights.  For example:

  • Geographical: “north is this wall, south is that wall, arrange yourselves in relation to each other in terms of how far you have travelled to be here
  • Attitudinal: “if this end of the room is ‘passionately agree’ and that end is ‘massively disagree’, arrange yourselves in relation to the following question….
  • Age: “youngest this end, oldest that end”
  • Stage in the Transition process: “if you think your Transition initiative is has just started go to this side, if you think it is very advanced go to this side”

… and so on.  When each question has been asked and the group has mapped itself, have two people with radio microphones move among the group asking people at different places for their stories.  This event has become a key feature of Transition Network conferences, and for events that are exploring attitudes towards particular questions, such as a discussion day held by Transition Network to explore the implications of ‘the Big Society’ in Bristol in October 2010.

The Solution

Use maps, creatively and engagingly, to present ideas and information.  They can be printed maps, GoogleMaps, 3D scale maps, models of the community in question, they could be quilted, embroidered, made from clay, drawn in chalk on the ground, projected onto the sides of buildings, or formed by the people at an event arranging themselves physically in the room.  Maps can bring ideas to life, and enable people to see their part of the world in relation to others.

Connections to Other Ingredients

Maps can offer a powerful way of documenting and communicating your initiative’s PRACTICAL MANIFESTATIONS (3.9), as well as for documenting the level and spread of engagement in your STREET-BY-STREET BEHAVIOUR CHANGE (4.1) work.  They can also link powerfully to ORAL HISTORIES (4.7), enabling the mapping of the aspects of the settlement which were more resilient than today, and a comparison between the two.  When WORKING WITH LOCAL BUSINESSES (3.12) maps can be very helpful, for example when creating directories of local ‘green’ businesses.  Maps can also be useful in terms of INCLUSION AND DIVERSITY (2.2), offering a useful way of engaging those who think more visually.  Finally, maps can be very helpful when FORMING NETWORKS OF TRANSITION INITIATIVES (4.2), allowing individual initiatives to see the wide networks of activity that they are part of.

Please leave any comments here.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


john thackara
30 Nov 8:23am

The Green Map System, which is widely used in sustainable community development around the world, helps people create perspective-changing community portraits. Mapmaking teams use the system’s adaptable tools, and universal iconography, to plot local knowledge and other ecological, social and cultural resources.

Web-based maps of local resources can be updated continuously using mobile phones. In the United States, for example, an iPhone application called Creek Watch enables people to monitor the health of their local watershed. A simple interface enables people to record such data as the amount of water, or the presence of trash, and submit pictures to a website. The map can be used to coordinate the work of people looking after local watersheds.

Tom Chance
30 Nov 11:14am

You might like to add, or have a look at, this work I have been doing with friends and comrades in the London Boroughs of Southwark and Sutton:

We are working on ways of making OpenStreetMap useful for sustainability mapping. OpenStreetMap is a global community project dedicated to making a free map of the world, sharing the underlying data under a “free culture” license. Unlike Google Maps, you can get at this data to make cycle maps, journey planners, and all sorts of other exciting things.

This project is all about pulling out useful sustainability info in a format that people can easily use, and customising an OpenStreetMap editor to make it easier for people to add their info in.

By using OpenStreetMap, we are also making it possible for local groups like Transition Towns to collaborate with other local groups, with their council, with regional bodies like the Greater London Authority, and anyone else interested in mapping the same info. So you don’t get everyone’s interesting maps stuck in their own little Google pages, or their own closed system web sites.

It’s early stages, so check it out and get in touch if you’d like to know more.

[…] the left corner we have people like Rob Hopkins, who has just written a great summary of Transition Town groups mapping wild food, local groups and visions of the future. This wonderful […]

G Collins
1 Dec 6:38pm

OpenStreetMap should be adopted by the Transition Towns movement as a flexible and “open” way of showing information for areas. It offers a rich range of information that may be added to a global map that is often far more detailed than Google (albeit without the imagery). I have helped Transistion Exeter and Sustainable Credition to use this mapping. The latter organised a very successful energy open weekend with OpenStreetMap as the mapping to guide visitors earlier in 2010.

Tom has developed a really nice interface for London and we should certainly build on his excellent work for the transition movement.