Humanities, Research

Symposium on the art, science and storytelling of city maps

We've all heard that there's an app for everything, and there seems to be a map for everything, too. The Nov. 1 inaugural symposium of the new Global Urban Humanities Initiative will examine the modern world of mapping and how to decipher the many stories about a city that a map can tell.

mapping art
This colorful map of the San Francisco area reveals a wealth of information about the many forms of public art in the area.

They say there’s an app for everything. Now, it seems, there’s a map for everything, too; maps of populations, maps that track environmental trends, maps of poverty and wealth, and even a map that plots cupcake shops within known gang turf . A UC Berkeley symposium this Friday (Nov. 1) will explore some of the mysteries and tricks of modern mapmaking.

The “Mapping and its Discontents” symposium is being co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley Global Urban Humanities Initiative and the UCLA Urban Humanities Initiative. It is part of a larger interdisciplinary project funded by the Mellon Foundation to develop new ways of studying cities by bringing together researchers from the arts and humanities division and the College of Environmental Design.

This colorful map of the San Francisco area reveals a wealth of information about the many forms of public art in the area.

This colorful map of the San Francisco area reveals a wealth of information about the many forms of public art in the area.

The mapping event at the David Brower Center in downtown Berkeley will feature an exhibit of the top entries in a competition for “see-through” maps and an announcement of the winner. As part of this “see-through” map competition, mapmakers were required to make their agendas as clear as their visual representations, revealing how they use tools — such as scale and distortion, time and space, and narrative — to guide or persuade map viewers.

Submissions include:

  • A map that links backyard pools to crime in the Los Angeles area
  • Surveys of San Francisco’s public art installations and bicycle system
  • A depiction of how a gay couple driving the streets of Beirut responds to the passing environment
  • Exploration of possible connections between a favorite bakery and the prevalence of pigeons
  • A map tracing the relationship between China’s Yangtze River and urbanization
  • A web-based illustration of a Jorge Luis Borges short story

“No map is neutral,” said Susan Moffat, UC Berkeley project director for the Global Urban Humanities Initiative and the map exhibit’s curator.  “But they have a potentially dangerous authority—they appear to represent reality.  We asked the entrants to make their maps transparent, to show their hand. The results are truly intriguing.”

Some maps will be displayed at the sold-out symposium, but a selection is already online. Organizers are encouraging online visitors to comment on the maps created by students, artists, geographers, architects, professors and others.

The Center for New Media at UC Berkeley is co-sponsoring the first place prize, which it will announce at the Friday event.

Featured symposium speakers will include geographer and author Denis Wood (“Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas”); Zephyr Frank of Stanford University’s Spatial History Project; the San Francisco Estuary Institute’s historical ecology program manager, Robin Grossinger; Harvard University architectural historian Eve Blau; author Rebecca Solnit (“A New Orleans Atlas”); “The Map as Art” author Katharine Harmon, Laura Kurgan of the Columbia University Spatial Information Design Lab, and Annette Kim of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

Darin Jensen, the UC Berkeley Geography Department’s cartographer and the instructor for a campus cartography course for which enrollment has more than doubled in recent years, was a competition juror.  He edited  “Mission Possible: A Neighborhood Atlas,” an interpretive look at San Francisco’s Mission District and the downloadable “Food: An Atlas.” Jensen speculated that the increased interest in maps reflects the growing popularity of graphic tools and technical advances that allow cartographers and many others to display correlation and causality in new formats, as well as the increasing availability of data, and even the popular appeal of Google Earth.

“Humans have been describing their environment for longer than we’ve had the written word or number systems,” said Jensen. “And we’re finding that, today, people want more from a map – they want it to carry a clear narrative.”

At UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, Dean Jennifer Wolch, who is a professor of city and regional planning and one of two co-principal investigators for the Global Urban Humanities project, reflected on the role of maps. She noted that space and time compete as a fundamental approach for academics and professionals trying to understand the social and physical worlds.

“In this context, maps – whether conventional cartographic designs or alternative, provocative representations –  are increasingly central as tools for exploration, analysis and understanding,” said Wolch, who also helped judge the map competition.

“This is a natural area for us to look at,” said Anthony Cascardi, UC Berkeley’s dean of the arts and humanities, a professor of comparative literature, co-principal investigator for the initiative and a map competition juror.

The initiative, funded by the Mellon Foundation and scheduled to continue for 3.5 years, will have new projects that venture into China, Mexico and Los Angeles.  It also is creating new, collaborative courses with such potential co-teachers as an anthropologist working with a theater scholar, a video artist with an architectural historian, or a city planner with a film expert.