Academic journal article Cartography & Geographic Information Systems

How and Why Community Groups Use Maps and Geographic Information

Academic journal article Cartography & Geographic Information Systems

How and Why Community Groups Use Maps and Geographic Information

Article excerpt


Strong neighborhoods make healthy cities. The obvious questions, then, are what makes strong neighborhoods and what can be done to build that strength? People who have access to GIS (geographic information systems) have come to feel they might have a resource that could help neighborhoods by providing maps and geographic information. In fact, because of the complications and expense of using GIS, community groups have often gone to a GIS expert to get the resources they need. This relationship is documented in an earlier paper by the senior author (Sawicki and Craig 1996). When that earlier work was about to go to press, the two authors asked themselves, "What do community groups do with this information?" They provided a few general answers, but had no overall framework to present. To answer the question about community use of information, new research was undertaken; the results of that effort are presented in this paper.(1)

Cities are Social Organisms

Individual neighbors affect one's quality of life and thereby one's sense of the quality of the city (Jacobs 1961). But equally important is the neighborhood as a whole, and especially neighborhood and community organizations. The city is a social cauldron where different groups struggle to define the nature of that particular place as well as of their society. Castells (1983) argues that grass-roots organizations are a critical part of that struggle, documenting their influence across many cultures. Only by organizing can individuals have the impetus to participate in the traditional power structure. In order to be effective, community groups need to inspire others to appreciate their situation and proposed solutions. The power base of a community group comes from the size and commitment of its membership. Its success is measured by how many resources it has and how much positive change it is able to bring to its community. Accordingly, there are two types of audiences who must be inspired: the community itself (internal) and those who control the resources (external).

Maps and geographic information can play an effective role in the success of a community group. Durrance (1983) argues that information is the key to successful community organizations; they gain credibility by providing it to their members, the public, and policy makers. More than that, information can make the community groups internally more efficient and can act as a critical resource in buying a role for the group in any external coalition building.

How and Why Do Community Groups Use Maps and Geographic Information in Their Work?

To answer this question in detail, we reviewed literature from many fields: planning, political science, communications, social movement, social psychology, and community development. And to balance theory with practice, we interviewed community leaders who use maps and geographic information. Our goal was to develop a conceptual framework for the use of information which could be a useful guide to GIS specialists and community groups seeking to enhance the social, political, and economic situation of their neighborhoods. Geographic information thus becomes a tool for empowerment.

Nature of Community Groups

Community groups have become important in American politics for a number of reasons.(2) From a philosophical perspective, Americans generally believe that power comes from individuals and that organizations of individuals add to that strength.(3) From a practical perspective, planners have come to realize that people in the community know more about local problems and, when properly mobilized, are quite effective at bringing about positive change (Jones 1990). From a political perspective, the decline of monolithic sources of power, such as the political party, has led to the rise of pluralism, where many groups have a role in the power base (Judge et al. 1995). In this era of pluralism, coalitions of diverse groups are formed to gain a common goal. …

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