Academic journal article Cityscape

Spatial Experiences: Using Google Earth to Locate Meanings Pertinent to Sense of Place

Academic journal article Cityscape

Spatial Experiences: Using Google Earth to Locate Meanings Pertinent to Sense of Place

Article excerpt


Using aerial images that enable research participants, during an interview, to discuss and locate points of spatial significance in their community represents an innovative approach to place-based research. This method allows for participants to discuss spaces relative to their associated meanings and enables researchers and community planners to understand the makings of place in a particular community. This article discusses how researchers and planners can use Google Earth to organize and spatially reference qualitative data to allocate community members' subjective meanings of particular spaces and landscapes. The article includes examples from the Dominican Republic to outline the suggested approach.

Introduction experience a geographical place, it seems, is the want to communicate about it" (Ryden, 1993: 19). Maps provide users and researchers copious information by detailing places relative to one another; however, perceptions of human experiences often remain unnoticed in maps. Researchers use mental maps to better visualize people's experiences and to understand how people view their world to seek meanings not necessarily visible (Relph, 1997; Ryden, 1993; Wise, 2014). Google Earth represents a contemporary and innovative approach to seeking meanings and insight into everyday spaces and places and to locating and reinforcing understandings of sense of place and sense of community. The approach outlined in this article can be useful for community planners to get a sense ofhow people engage with and interact in particular spaces and places to better inform future decisionmaking. Using aerial images during the interview process provides research participants the ability to spatially identify and discuss points of spatial significance in a particular community. Cognitive mapping exercises, in which researchers use Google Earth to reference data gathered from identified points on the map and subsequent interviews, therefore enable interviewees to characterize pertinent discourse regarding experiences, perceptions, and imaginations, which can all be referenced spatially. Using Google Earth as a tool to organize and spatially reference qualitative data will enable researchers to allocate subjective meanings of particular landscapes with which members of a community interact frequently. Moreover, enabling researchers to understand the makings of place in a particular community further integrates sociological and geographical understandings.

The conceptual and practical method of data collection presented in the following section was piloted in the Dominican Republic as part of a wider ethnographic study. Interviews were held with members of the community using Google Earth images to encourage interviewees to discuss significant spaces and places in the community while the researcher referenced these points. Subsequent data collected during field conversations and participant observations can also be stored along with interview data in placemarks to efficiently organize and spatially reference a wider collection and range of data.

Theoretical Framework

Geographers and planners attempt to understand people's perceptions and experiences in and of the spaces, places, and landscapes with which they socially interact. Lynch's (1960) work on social psychology concerning structure, identity, and meaning has provided foundational conceptual insight on place and social perceptions. Furthermore, this insight concerns how individuals evaluate spaces, places, and landscapes. Mental maps and imaging practices intentionally rely on individuals' psychological perceptions of social spaces. Lynch (1960: 6) noted "...there may be little in the real object that is ordered or remarkable, and yet its mental picture has gained identity and organization through long familiarity." Lynch's (1960) typologies for interpretation involve paths, edges (for example, perimeters or boundaries), nodes (points), landmarks, and element interrelations. …

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