Cognitive Mapping and Social Change - 2


Race and the environmental image

In a classic cognitive mapping study, Ladd (1967) asked a number of black children living in the Mission Hill area of Boston, Massachusetts, to draw sketch maps of their area, and interviewed them about their maps. The map drawn by Dave (Figure 1a) is particularly interesting to us. The detailed area at the top of the map shows his neighborhood, while the Mission Project area at the bottom of the map is where the white children live, and is, for Dave, a 'no-go' area; it is a place he is afraid of and where he has never been. However, the significance of the area for him is highlighted by rendering it as relatively larger, more prominant and more central than his own neighborhood. Could this be his way of (unconsciously) showing the power and dominance of whites over blacks?

Similarly, Esnest's map (Figure 1b) includes a bloated Parker Street, the street which divides the black neighborhood from the white one. Thinking back to Lynch's analysis, could Ernest be emphasising this to show that it is a major 'edge' in his mental image of the area; an uncrossable barrier, like a broad river. On the other hand, Ralph who goes to a more prestigious school, clearly feels more 'integrated' and accordingly represents the Mission Projects at closer to the appropriate relative size. He also includes more detail of the wider area (Figure 1c).

Similarly, Orleans (1967) found that the environmental knowledge of residents of Los Angeles differed widely between different racial groups. White residents has a reich and detailed knowledge of the city and of the surrounding areas. African-american residents had a more restricted knowledge base, with only the main streets leading from their neighbourhood to the city centre being well known. Finally, hispanic residents had an extremely restricted knowledge of the city, consisting pretty much of their local area plus two public transport termini.

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Figure 1: Sketch maps by three of the black Bostonian children interviewed by Ladd: a) Dave, b) Ernest & c) Ralph.


Ley (1972) interviewed local people in a predominantly black part of northern Philadelphia about the areas they considered to be dangerous, in order to produce a map of 'environmental stress'; a representation of dangerous or 'no-go' areas (Figure 2). It appears that these areas also corresponded to the headquarters of local gangs, the 'turf' of local drug dealers and areas of abandoned buildings. According to Gould and White (1974) this culturally shared mental image of the area provided people with information necessary for survival.



Figure 2: 'stress surface' superimposed on a map of northern Philadelphia.


This interpretation, and the representation in the form of the map in Figure 2 seems quite compelling, however it raises an important theoretical issue concerning the interpretation of cognitive map data (e.g. data from sketch maps) not to mention our interpretation of maps in general. Harley (1989; 1990) argues that maps often contain layers of information to which we are generally oblivious; in particular he suggests tham maps may contain a political bias.

Harley discusses ways in which we can 'deconstruct' maps so as to 'read between the lines'. We need to be aware of how maps were produced, by whom and for what purpose. In many situations, we are prompted to interpret a map in a particular way, for instance by the selective use of symbols or by the legend of the map or some explanatory text. In the case of Ley's map, we are being led to accept that the areas of 'environmental stress' map onto real areas of dnager. The solution of a naive urban planner might be to bulldoze the core areas of stress and replace them with new developments. However, the evidence for this comes from the accounts of the interviewees themselves. It could be that the districts of high perceived stress simply map onto areas of a different (sub)culture with a way of life perceived as more threatening to the majority of residents in the area.


Disability and the environmental image - Vujakovic

A study which has drawn on Harley's (1989;1990) theoretical perspective is that of Vujakovic & Matthews (1994). This research focused on the process of producing access or mobility maps for disabled people, based on the premise that "any attempt to provide maps as an aid to mobility and access for people with physical disabilities can only be effective if their own personal geographies are taken into account" (p.359).

We have already discussed the distortions which seem to be characteristic of people's cognitive maps. In the earlier discussion, the emphasis was on distortions as 'mistakes'; the ways in which cognitive maps differ from the objective reality of the environment. Another way of looking at distortions is as arising from different ways that people experience their environment; in this sense, distortions in cognitive maps can be seen to express the 'expriential reality' of different people in an environment. Whereas the former kinds of distortions are thought to arise from general mental processes common to all humans, the experiential distortion will reflect individual or group differences in the way people interact with their environment. In this sense, disabled people who generally experience the environment differently from able-bodied people and who are likely to confront more constraints and barriers to their mobility, are likely to form cognitive maps which are qualitatively different from those of able-bodied peolple.

We have also seen that cartographers and psychologists have been interested in how people transfer information from cartographic maps to cognitive maps, but less attention has been paid to the way in which the production cartographic maps is influenced by the mental images of the cartographer herself. Harley has pointed out how the biases of cartographers (or of the people who commission them to produce particular maps) become 'invisibly' incorporated in the final product; we normally look at maps as objective representations of an environment without looking for the more subjective choices about what should be included in a map and how information is presented. These design choices are not seen as distortions as such, but as neccessary pragmatic decisions involved in the process of producing maps. Potential users of maps are rarely if ever consulted in this process.

Vujakovic & Matthews give the example of the "Guide to facilities in Stirling town centre for people with disabilities" (Stirling District Council) which they claim:
...is a 'good news' map, proclaiming the facilities available in Stirling, but remaining silent concerning barriers or constraints to mobility. There is no indication of the often steep topography of Stirling, no information concerning the surface conditions or widths of pavement; silences abound. What information is given may be misleading, for example, 'pedestrian areas' are included as a 'facility', yet these may not be unconditionally advantageous to people with disabilities. [...] The road network is presented as uniform, giving an impression of ease of mobility (no distance scale is provided). Footpaths (separate from the road network) are indicated, but no information is given concerning the nature of sub-ways, crossing points or surfaces. The map provides a sanitised conception of space and acts to maintain the status quo by intimating that the town is an accessible environment (p.363).
Vujakovic & Matthews set up a project to produce an access map of the town centre of Coventry which was based on the personal geographies (cognitive maps) of the intended user group: wheel-chair users. A series of workshops was organised involving local wheelchair users and geography undergraduates from Coventry University. In one excersise, participants were asked to produce a sketch map of the route from the university to the city library. Examples of maps by one wheelchair user and one undergraduate are shown in Figure 3.

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Figure 3: Sketch maps of Coventry town centre drawn by: a) one of the undergraduates, and b) one of the wheelchair users.


In the second part of the project, wheelchair users and undergraduates worked in pairs to produce a 'base map' of the city centre, with routes rated according to their accessibility, and with any areas marked from which they felt excluded. Finally, the pairs of participants performed a field survey of the city centre to plot precisely the routes, areas or points of accessibility/inaccessibility.

The data generated in the workshops were compiled on a large scale base map of the city centre. At this point, the individual cognitive maps of the wheel chair users were brought together. According to the authors:
...the making of the map was a political event in itself. It provided an opportunity for the individual cognitive maps, torn and folded as they might be, to be brought together and to take shape as a social-group expression of the meanings and values drawn from interaction with the urban environment (p.367).
The study yeilded a number of different maps showing various factors affecting mobility in the town centre. Possibly the most important of these was a map showing the 'mobility surface' of Coventry, with routes and areas graded from high to low mobility (Figure 4).



Figure 4: map of Coventry city centre showing areas graded from high to low mobility.


This study has a number of potential practical benefits. Firstly, any access maps derived from an analysis of the 'personal geographies' or cognitive maps of disabled people are likely to be more 'correct', in the sense that they reflect the experiences of disabled people in the mapped environment. Secondly, such research potentially helps to give disabled people a stronger political voice through the representation of their experiences in publically available cartographic products, but also insofar as their maps might form the basis for future planning decisions, identifying particular 'black spots' of inaccessibility in the mapped environment.


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