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A Map Is Worth a Thousand Words

When I visited the National Geographic Society’s exhibit on mapmaking in Washington, D.C., last month, I was sort of chagrined to come away from staring at a huge, 12-to-15-feet-in-diameter blow-up globe in the center of the hall saying to myself, “Wow, Africa is big. And Indonesia—big. A lot bigger than I thought.” I knew that the flat world maps I’m used to seeing are distorted, making navigation easier but land masses near the poles much much bigger than those near the equator. But the visual image of those maps was still stronger than my knowledge of their weaknesses. It took a different image to kick me in the gut and make me feel the difference. Images are hard to shake from your brain.

The residents of Park South, whose neighborhood was made an urban-renewal zone by the Albany Common Council Monday night, have seen a lot of maps go by in the past year and half. Maps, after all, are the bread and butter of urban planners’ work. They’re used to organize data about the physical condition of an area, to visually represent demographics, and to lay out potential changes. Planners use maps as sketch pads, working out their ideas in a spatial way.

For the most part, however, regular people don’t use maps that way. Maps represent what is. They show you how to drive from here to there, and, if you bother to look, where Iraq is in relation to Afghanistan or Israel. And they have power to shape people’s opinions on a sub-verbal level. That massive expanse of green that was the U.S.S.R. on my childhood globe (see, I remember it was green—I don’t remember the color of anywhere else) said “lurking superpower” all by itself. And it’s no accident that some outlets that sell social-justice bumper stickers and T-shirts also sell world maps that are upside down (after all, north and south are arbitrary) or redone in a projection that more accurately shows relative land-mass sizes.

As planners and citizens dance, parry, or collaborate their way through neighborhood planning processes, both might do well to remember the visual power of maps—and how tenuously they are actually connected to reality.

For example, take Albany’s public meeting on the Midtown Plan on March 9. This was a meeting to present the results of a study by a planning consultant of the areas around the midtown universities. It was, as is customary, presented as a PowerPoint presentation involving a series of maps. One astute audience member pointed to a dot next to the Park South neighborhood and asked what the small-print label said. The answer? A hotel/convention center. Several already-suspicious Park South residents cried foul, and the addition made it into the Times Union the next day.

OK, let’s count the issues here: There’s already a much ballyhooed convention center proposal for downtown that people have serious doubts about. Park South is already the subject of a somewhat controversial plan that makes no mention of a hotel/convention center. And the dot in question wasn’t actually explained in the meeting.

Now, says planning commissioner Lori Harris, there’s really nothing to be worried about. Just because the areas overlap doesn’t mean the Midtown Plan and the Park South plan have anything to do with each other. No hotel has been added to the Park South conceptual plan. All that dot means is that the midtown consultants thought that the area around University Heights “could sustain” a hotel/convention center, and there was some blank space near Park South on the map, so they put it there. Remember to a planner, map = sketch pad.

But that’s not what the residents of Park South saw. They saw a map, with a hotel on it, and maps in the hands of planners clearly mean: “We plan to build this here.”

Or take earlier in the Park South process, when a sketch of the kinds of new homes that might be built if they got both enough parcels together and an interested developer, which might involve using eminent domain, if the Common Council approved its use. But even under such vague circumstances, the drawing of the houses was specifically placed on a block of Park South: to wit, one that has a park on the corner that was fought for by neighborhood residents.

And Harris still seemed surprised that people reacted strongly to a visual of their beloved park subsumed underneath a gleamingly artist-rendered townhouse (with garage!). How many times do we have to say that this is just a concept, just a possibility?, she asked.

Visual images are just stronger than verbal reassurances. And here they were paired with a suspicion of eminent domain and urban renewal that is quite understandable given their history of use in this country and city. So it’s hard to imagine anyone being surprised that residents confronted over and over with maps that show their homes under a parking lot or in a yellow “infill” zone are going to be worried.

It may be too late for a better use of maps to change the dynamic of the Park South planning process. (Nor would that have been enough by itself. See “Let’s Imagine,” Looking Up, June 3, 2004.) Now the process moves into a stage where maps, produced by interested developers, really do represent more literal plans. But for other areas, it could be worth being very careful how the visuals are chosen.

Maps and drawings can be a great way to give people a different view of their own neighborhood, marking abandoned properties, absentee landlords, demographic distribution, homeowners, or crime hotspots (oddly, few maps like this were included in the original Park South plan presentation). They can be used as templates on which people giving input can sketch out their own suggestions. And at the right time, with the right context, both maps and drawings can be wonderful vehicles for gauging what various stakeholders want for their neighborhood. You just have to make sure they don’t say more than you want them to say.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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