Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Participatory Mapping: Place-Making as Process in Montréal’s Mile End

Maps are more than pieces of paper. They are stories, conversations, lives and songs lived out in a place and are inseparable from the political and cultural contexts in which they are used.   (A. Warren, cited in Giacomo Rambaldi, "Who Owns the Map Legend?")
Places resonate. They are keepers of stories and avenues for remembrance. As the Mile End mapping project demonstrates, community place-based projects offer opportunities to give shape to the past, outline the present and envision the future.

Home to 24,000 residents, the Mile-End boasts eclectic architecture, locally-owned businesses, vibrant streetscapes and a diverse population mix of ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews, Greeks, Portuguese, Eastern and Southern Europeans, university students, creative types and émigrés from France. Increasingly, African, Asian and Latin American immigrants to Montréal are settling there as well. While fears of gentrification and the sanitizing properties that accompany it have been raised cyclically since the 1970s, today the Mile End remains the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in Canada.

Since 2007, the artist and volunteer storefront collaborative articule in Montréal’s Mile End neighborhood has drawn attention to the area’s arts organizations and creative spaces by producing a biannual community art map. Last year, spurred on by activist artist and articule outreach coordinator Coco Riot, the group added a twist to their initiative. They began by asking questions like, “Who decides what is and what is not art?” “What makes the Mile End a creative place, particularly friendly for artists?” “How do we add residents’ daily improvisations in space to our definition of artistic vitality in the neighborhood?”

These questions were explored in a series of community map-making workshops. They were coordinated by local, grassroots groups and individuals--Pied Carré (a nonprofit neighborhood collective dedicated to preserving affordable artists’ spaces in the Mile End), Bricolage urbaine (a newly-formed group dedicated to urban education and community action around urban planning issues), subjective cartographer Emmanuelle Jacques, civic initiative Ouvert/Open and Les Amis du Champs des Possibles, a volunteer-run environmental group focused on preserving green space and biodiversity in the neighborhood. A local sixth grade teacher devoted a month of classroom time to the initiative.

Large, colorful and productively chaotic, the twenty or so maps produced by more than two hundred Mile End residents throughout the series of workshops were exhibited at articule in October. These participatory maps engage history in different ways. A group of former residents of the neighborhood returned to their old stomping grounds to participate in the activity, to reminisce and to affix their memories to a map. Their finished product offered useful and interesting historical data, showing the regularity with which each mapper had moved within the area in childhoods marked by residential displacement in a city of renters, the community’s hubs and boundaries, the fault lines to be negotiated with “outsiders” and “others” and the spaces and institutions that have endured, lending character and stability to a dynamic, diverse community.

One group of urban explorers spent a few hours walking the brownfield site along the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks. They gathered and displayed over 30 different kinds of plants, historic evidence of decades of plant migration due to the transcontinental train route. Another map explored railway rights of way by asking people to use thumb tacks and cue cards to map out their routes and crossing spots along the CPR train tracks, which until recently were accessible to pedestrians but have since been fenced off.

For strangers who made maps together, conversation led to sharing of intimate, personal histories as well as discussion about the area’s most treasured historic buildings and significant places. The map became a process for meeting neighbors, finding points of convergence and drawing shared meanings of place. While some items appeared random – like the running ground of abandoned cats and the best people-watching site in the neighborhood, they reflected a spirited and detailed conversation.

Sixth graders made a series of transparent, overlapping maps that documented historic sites, memorials and monuments as well as traffic flows, bike paths, locally owned business – even the architecture of surveillance through security cameras and locked gates. They claimed their neighborhood, pinpointing graffiti, which they designated either pretty or ugly, “secret passages” and other information known and recognized only by residents of an area.

Riot reflected that the project both documented and created community, adding that the completed maps will be archived in a library for research and community access. Citing it as a strong start to what is hoped to be the first of many mapping initiatives, Riot was heartened by the response.

The process helped organizers identify strategies for wider community involvement and begin to ask, if not answer, tough questions about a problem that confronts most local, participatory initiatives in economically and culturally diverse neighborhoods -- the finished product represented a narrower historical and lived experience of class, culture and ethnicity than the neighborhood itself reflects.

In the first year, participation was dominated by, though not limited to, residents who identified as “belonging” in the Mile End, those who felt comfortable coming to a new place for an event and who had the free time and energy to attend. While diverse linguistically and in age and nation of origin, they were generally middle class and not new immigrants.

Riot is eager to apply lessons in place-making to widen participation. Addressing the practical realities of diversity in their neighborhood, organizers are locating spaces of regular interaction and engagement amongst all residents as sites to hold future mapping activities. They are also working with interested representatives from Hasidic and new immigrant communities to figure out the nuts and bolts of their future involvement in community mapping.

Perhaps the transparent, layered maps made by middle school student participants can be a model for the future of the project. As in any diverse urban neighborhood in the 21st century, there simply is no one map of what it has been or what it will be. But by getting a wide array of residents to create many maps, and by finding ways to look at them together as parts of a complicated and ever-changing whole, articule is poised to develop a model for participatory place-making that acknowledges difference while locating and fostering spaces of convergence.

~ Margo Shea


  1. What a fantastic local public history project. Thanks for profiling!

  2. Thanks, Adina! I thought so, too (hence the very long piece!!!)

  3. At The Noguchi Museum in NYC, we currently have an exhibition entitled "Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City." In conjunction with this exhibition we have a blog for educators that shares projects that they could adapt for classrooms. We would love to share this one if you would allow us to. Even better would be to see if the 6th grade teacher who participated would want to write something about her work with her students for us!

    Rebecca Shulman Herz
    Head of Education, The Noguchi Museum

  4. Rebecca,
    Thanks for your interest in the project! I have sent your message on to the project coordinator to try to connect you to the teacher who ran this as part of her curriculum.
    Margo Shea