Mapping Grassroots Solutions: Lessons learned from the Utah Resilience Map Project

Emily Nicolosi

One of the problems we find in building solutions is the simple fact of where to find them! You might be looking for the closest community garden to join, an open shop to learn how to fix your bike, or a collective housing project are in your area. Rather than searching the internet for hours, new online mapping projects are creating spaces where you can find all of this information, and more, in one place!

A testament to their power and utility, online maps of grassroots alternatives are springing up across the globe. As of August 2016, the Transformap Collective identified over 200 maps of alternative economies (Labaeye, 2017). One of the largest collective projects is #MapJam, a global effort to map “grassroots sharing projects, cooperatives, community resources, and the commons” (shareable.net/community-maps).  #MapJam projects can now be found in 72 cities on 6 continents, from New York to Hong Kong- to our project in Utah. In this article, I hope to relate some of the opportunities and challenges of creating our map so that interested readers might learn from our successes and mistakes.

The Utah Resilience Map was born in the summer of 2016 in a high-elevation mountain valley in the Western US with a booming urban population – Salt Lake City. Typically known as either simply a world-class ski destination or a haven for the Latter-Day Saints, a closer look at this place reveals a landscape teeming with permaculture and community gardens, makerspaces, countercultural artists, radical social and environmental justice activism, alternative housing projects, … the list goes on. When local changemaker and permaculture enthusiast Jim French heard about the global #MapJam project, he knew that this place was ripe to be mapped. So many things were happening here, and he saw the opportunity to help spread the word and connect the dots.

Gathering together his fellow changemakers, French hosted a launch #MapJam event (as suggested by the official #MapJam project) which resulted in a list of about 25 projects. French used an open-source mapping platform suggested by #MapJam (uMap) to plot these project on the map. The participants of the launch event opted to include all of our state; however, most initiatives are concentrated around the state’s population center, Salt Lake City (about one third of Utah’s 3-million strong population lives here).

We feature the word “resilience” in the title of our map in the spirit of the Transition Town Network. Transition Town’s founder Rob Hopkins describes “resilience” as “the ability of a system, from individual people to whole economies, to hold together and maintain their ability to function in the face of change and shocks from the outside” (The Transition Handbook). Building resilience in our city (one that’s driven by capitalist consumption and fossil fuel combustion) requires us to work together in re-thinking and re-making the ways that we live and thrive in our day-to-day lives.

The Utah Resilience Map is a response to the community’s search for creative solidarity and transformation. Photo – Ian Robinson

Utah Resilience Map is divided into seven categories, which are reflective of the focus of activism in our city on prefigurative politics (in Gandhi’s words “being the change you wish to see in the world”). These categories include: online/spatially fluid communities, production, intentional living, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), community food, civic groups, learn and play, and alternative healing. #MapJam also has some suggestions for categories, although the local changemakers can decide what categories make the most sense in their particular towns, villages, and cities, as we did.

One problem confronted in this initial effort was the ability to mobilize participants and create a map of all of the solutions happening in a city of one million inhabitants in just one day. We also recognized that maps are alive: new groups are constantly being created, while others change their location or phase out. Thus, French and I decided to continue with the production of the map beyond the initial #MapJam-inspired event. We created an unlocked Google Sheet (free and shareable) so that local changemakers could add their organization to the map, and made efforts to share the Google Sheet with our networks. Later on, we switched from using a Google Sheet to using a Google Form because it is easier for participants to use, and the administrator can easily download the responses.

Spreading the word about the map is a key part of the process of creating a successful participatory map. We primarily used Facebook as means of outreach because it is widely used by local changemakers, although we recognize that using Facebook as a primary means of communication made it difficult to distribute knowledge of the map to social networks of which we were not a part. While the URM was written up in a local magazine (you can read it here), we also opted to create a website to help spread knowledge of the map (utahresliencemap.org). We used WordPress which does charge a small fee; however, there are several free website services available (like Wix or Weebly). Students in the University of Utah’s Community-Engaged Learning program helped build up the website by writing short blog posts spotlighting different projects on the map.

The Utah Resilience Map is a community-authored project. While French and I maintain the website, conduct outreach, and add new points to the map, the project itself belongs to the community. Anyone is invited to contribute to the map, so long as they generally fit the theme of the map and give us a project description and address. We hope that the Utah Resilience Map’s community authorship boots its credibility and accountability. In an effort to maintain transparency and communication, the map’s website describes the project’s goals, and we also have a Google Form for adding to the map, a feedback form, and contact information listed.

Making use of open-source mapping platforms like uMap is a great way of overcoming the difficulty of implementation and sustainability that many participatory mapping projects face. Internet-based mapping projects are generally much easier to use and manage that conventional Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technologies like ArcGIS which require technical expertise, skill, and funding. Learning how to manage a participatory map is not difficult, and the project only requires updating once every few months as new groups fill out the form. There are a variety of online resource for instruction in how to use OpenStreetMap and uMap (e.g. see the uMap website or wiki guide). As a result, our project had minimal staff requirements and cost.

A challenge with participatory mapping is the capacity to include diverse types of knowledge and peoples representative of a community.  While practicing this principle with the Utah Resilience Map was difficult because of the types of information the map intended to represent, we have taken several measures to cultivate diversity and inclusivity. On our website and communications, we extend the invitation for anyone to add to the map, and also broadly define projects and categories that can be included. For example, most of the points on the URM had a specific location, but the category of “online/spatially fluid communities” was added to address communities and groups that do not own or rent a specific building or space, but that have a notable presence in Salt Lake.

In web-based applications, it is difficult to know who is included and excluded because user identities are not known. We would like to conduct a survey in the future so that we might get a better idea of who is using the map, and how we can expand it to people and places in Utah that are currently not fully represented. In other places, we might suggest tailoring the categories to fit and be inclusive of local circumstances, or perhaps providing paper alternatives to an online form and map if internet accessibility is scarce.

Mapping grassroots solutions is a necessary step towards a just and sustainable future. Photo – Emily Nicolosi

Recognizing these challenges, we believe that mapping grassroots solutions is an important part in transitioning to a more just and sustainable world. These maps enable participants to gain easy access to information and networks in real time and space, making the connections so needed in building alternatives (Borowiak, 2015). In the age of Google Maps, used ubiquitously (at least in our corner of the planet) to navigate the world and make decisions on where to spend time, the creation of these maps responds to the ways that people gain information about their world. In that way, these maps are potentially very powerful.

Further, mapping ‘other worlds’ is a political statement. The creation of grassroots alternatives maps brings visibility to projects that would otherwise be invisible in the online mapping environment. The dominant form of online mapping (e.g. Google maps) generally includes only non-residential places that fall in capitalist economic system (e.g. businesses) and official public institutions (e.g. roads, public buildings). In this way, maps of grassroots alternatives are a form of public acknowledgment. By creating these maps, we are recognizing the possibility of alternatives to the neoliberal capitalist system.

We hope that the lessons we’ve learned might help others interested in creating online maps of grassroots solutions. Together and in brief, we recommend: finding a few enthusiastic individuals who can be committed to updating and administering the map, using an open-source mapping program like uMap, making a plan for spreading the word about your map (e.g. whether that involves creating a website or hosting events), creating an easy way for people to contribute (e.g. Google Forms). Throughout the process, we believe it’s important for the administrators to reflect upon the inclusivity and diversity of the map’s representation, and to allow for community feedback and input in that process. It is crucial for the map to respond to the needs and interests of the communities involved – and this might mean that your map might look a lot different from ours! We hope that through celebrating a plurality of solutions these maps might have a better chance of blooming in multitude of places around our planet.

Key sources

Borowiak, C. (2015). Mapping Social and Solidarity Economy: the Local and Translocal Evolution of a Concept. In N. Pun, B. Hok-bun Ku, H. Yan & A. Koo (Eds.), Social Economy in China and the World (pp. 17-40). New York: Routledge.

Hoffman, C. (2016). Resilient living in Utah: Here’s the map. Catalyst. Retrieved from https://catalystmagazine.net/resilient-living-in-utah-heres-the-map/

Hopkins, R. (2009). The Transition Handbook. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Press.

Labaeye, A. (2017). Collaboratively mapping alternative economies. Co-producing transformative knowledge. Netcom: Réseaux, communication et territoires, 31(1/2), 99-128.

 

Emily Nicolosi is a graduate student at the Department of Geography, University of Utah

 

 

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