While working on a neighborhood regeneration program or a city master plan, you need to understand the community and its relation to the spaces in question. It’s essential to know at the early stages of planning how the existing or proposed service infrastructure, transport, and well-being facilities support or prevent residents from achieving their daily goals.
Community mapping is one of the best instruments to gather local knowledge — and to design better solutions that serve the community.
What Is Community Mapping?
Community mapping is a process of empowering locals in identifying various assets (income-generating facilities, local services, recreational zones, and so on), barriers, and intangible resources. This process, quite close to a community needs assessment, leads to a more holistic understanding of the community and its needs and is used in planning, policymaking, and community development.
It’s not only an ultimate method to learn about the community but also to visualize their input. Our interactions in a city or rural area are spatial by definition, and it’s easier to pinpoint and analyze these experiences using spatial tools.
Digital tools for community mapping like Maptionnaire generate spatial data that is fed directly into planning systems, making the process more efficient for planners and improving the influentiality of the obtained data.
Goals of Community Mapping
As with other participatory planning methods, the key goal is to collect grassroots data about a community’s assets and needs in order to address them in planning and development projects.
Let’s say you’re starting on a campus redevelopment plan. The best way to make this process inclusive and efficient for the community is to ask students, faculty, and staff to identify places that, for example, support their restorative, intellectual, and social goals. And what places matter to them symbolically? What places feel unsafe? This unique information can only be obtained by engaging with the community.
The process of community mapping can take place face-to-face, fully digitally, or in a blended format. You’ll select the method & tool based on your goals and resources — we’ll cover them below, bear with us.
Community Mapping and City Planning and Development
Although community mapping is used in a variety of contexts, its main arena is city planning and development, especially on a local scale. What’s more, the method is the most influential when done at the early stages of planning — before the plan is even drafted. Once the first plan is there, you can run a similar process to understand if the proposal answers the community’s needs and hopes.
One common scenario is identifying and understanding the distribution of resources within a community. For example, residents can generate together a community map showing the locations of schools, parks, grocery stores, and other important services. This information can then be used to identify areas where resources are lacking and to prioritize investments in those areas.
Alongside assets and benefits, community mapping can focus on issues and barriers that community members face. Thus, respondents can map areas with high levels of perceived crime. This information can then be used to develop targeted interventions to address these issues.
When doing community mapping digitally, you get a unique chance to gather, firstly, additional information about a mapped asset (why this is important, how this is used) and, secondly, background information of a respondent (age, gender, income) — all linked to a map marking via GIS coordinates.
During the analysis phase, you can visualize how different genders perceive the community map (or specific aspects of it), how different age groups use transportation services, and what the main reasons for visiting certain areas are across various income groups. In a way, what your resulting data is going to look like and how you will use it fully depends on the design of the community mapping activity and on the tool you select.
Methods of Community Mapping
In-person workshops with tabletop mapping
These events involve a small selection from the community making it hard to keep the results representative. Respondents can draw the map themselves or pin locations of assets, barriers, or emotions on an existing neighborhood map. You need to guide the participants on what exactly they should put on a map, ensuring that the information you get is usable for the future planning process.
Although fun for participants, this method generates non-digitized information that you’d need to convert into a format useful for analysis. Otherwise, you risk cherry-picking certain inputs and favoring one group over the rest.
In-person workshops with digital mapping tools
While some organizational and representative difficulties of in-person workshops remain, digital tools make it easier to produce accurate and usable geographic information. Participants answer questions via a map-based survey, and planners have immediate access to their answers. Maptionnaire is often used in this setting, helping planners to structure the process and generate usable GIS-backed data.
This is a fun method for small-scale projects. You walk through the neighborhood together with residents and stakeholders to identify existing and missing assets. And you map them along the way, of course!
Digital community mapping
You can bring the whole community mapping exercise online! There are citizen engagement platforms out there that enable just that — like Maptionnaire. You can create a survey and bring a map of your choice as a survey background. Participants can answer survey questions by placing a pin directly on a digital map.
Digital engagement tools will make the process more inclusive and accessible as it won’t be bound to the time and place of a specific workshop. Plus, you can translate the survey into any number of languages used in the community. On top of that, you can combine a community mapping exercise with other types of engagement activities such as voting or participatory budgeting. And as mentioned above, Maptionnaire will make sure that all your resulting data will be in GIS format and ready to be analyzed within the app or exported into any other planning tool. You’ll also be able to create project pages to post updates and results for increasing the visibility of your activities.
Regardless of the method used, community mapping is most effective when it is a collaborative process that involves community members, local organizations, and government officials. This allows for a diverse range of perspectives to be included in the mapping process and ensures that the resulting map reflects the needs and priorities of the community.
Community Mapping Process Blueprint
Let’s unwrap a community mapping process — regardless of the method you choose. Here is Maptionnaire’s blueprint for arranging it effectively and cost-efficiently (meaning getting actionable resulting data and not wasting resources).
- Define your project goals: the area you’re interested in and the level of interventions and improvements you can offer.
- Understand whom you want to engage: the whole community (including commuters and tourists), specific demographics (the youth), or only stakeholders.
- Do your homework to get an idea of the community and its history beyond the demographic data. Maybe there is already engagement data from previous consultations and mapping activities in the same area — dive into that.
- Specify what data is useful for the project: assets, barriers, resources, services, green spaces, and place-based values — this is largely defined by the scope and needs of your project.
- Clarify your timeline and budget for the community mapping activities.
- Choose suitable methods and associated tools.
Engagement design & data collection phase
- Check for accessibility and inclusivity in your chosen method. Is there an extra mile you can go to engage underrepresented groups or assist people with special needs?
- Work on the storytelling: explain why the project is important and how the mapping exercise will benefit the community. Planning documents are notorious for being overly complicated, so avoid jargon and boil down the project to what really matters.
- Design an outreach strategy. How are you going to spread the word about your mapping activities: via social media, paid campaigns, postal services, volunteers, governmental websites, or local NGOs? The strategy will differ whether you choose online, offline, or blended methods.
- Now you’re all set to start with data collection and facilitation. The mapping exercise itself can last anything from an hour to a few weeks — in any case, it’s important to monitor success throughout the active data collection phase.
Analysis & feedback phase
- Explore and explain your data. Using digital GIS-based tools will make the analysis easier since you can use the data for spatial analysis and modelling. On the contrary, it takes a lot of resources to analyze unstructured feedback lacking coordinates. Also, update your community engagement KPIs to estimate the success and quality of community mapping activities you’ve offered.
- Create clear and engaging visualizations. They’ll be useful for reporting the mapping results to the community and grounding future planning decisions.
- Close the feedback loop. Use the same outreach mechanisms (or those that worked) for reporting the results of the mapping and further stages of the planning and development process.
Examples of Community Mapping Projects
Have a look at a few planning cases that used community mapping as one of the engagement tools. These projects used Maptionnaire but you can adapt their practices to any other tool you want.
1. Find out how a research group from Canada studied perceived safety in Moncton with the help of a digital community mapping activity.
2. The City of Gothenburg, Sweden, conducted stakeholder consultation with Maptionnaire’s map-based digital survey. As a result, the city learned where culture and arts need to be prioritized in future urban development projects.
3. By using participatory biodiversity mapping techniques, we enable a human perspective of the local ecology to complement the traditional biodiversity assessment.
4. The Fishery Center of Kainuu Region used map-based surveys for crowdsourcing data about the the spawning places of zander in Oulujärvi lake. It’s an example of how community mapping can contribute to nature resource management activities.