Why is Bioregional Mapping Important?

Every day more than 200 million people use apps like Google Maps, Waze, Apple Maps and Map Quest. More than a billion users globally each month. In their quest for second by second data, these maps surpass even what Borges had envisioned. By using real time tracking, satellite feedback, intricate algorithms combined with ever expanding processing power, these maps are able to create real world simulations and predictions of the real world.

For millions of people digital maps have become an essential part of their daily lives. Travelling from home, by car, to work, to lunch, to shopping, out for evening, and then home again, these digital projections can become a primary way that people interface and and interact with their world. Who defines these maps, what is included, or excluded and for what purpose, has powerful implications for our society.

Digital maps, street view, political borders, info graphics. Powerful images with a truth that is rarely challenged. And yet, these maps are not inherent; maps are not neutral; they do not form organically. Rather they are designed and built, constructed with symbols and icons to convey information that someone has chosen to include, likely to best convey their message, mission and purpose – like any other tool.

With the world in ever increasing peril, many of us are reaching the conclusion that we must find a solution soon. Each of us can have a role to play in this journey, and ultimately, it is up to us to create communities and societies that are healthy, liveable, democratic and that regenerate the soils, forests, oceans and bioregions that they are within.

In the past two decades, the world population has increased by 25%. Since 1970 it has more than doubled. Across the world today, more and more people grow up having never seen an old growth tree, or live in an urban forests of human made structures of steel, wood, glass and concrete. As seen through maps, our connection and relationship to place is becoming ever more global and standardized, but disassociated with the things that can make a place special. Our experiences become one of the same businesses, cafes, and pathways that people have trodden before. And more and our more, our maps that we create reflect that.

Today, maps have predominantly become a tool primarily reserved and used by governments and economic entities as a projection for their own interest. These mapping ecosystems define our interaction and perception of space, reinforce their ease of use and move as quickly as we can from one pathway to another, never pausing to immerse ourselves in the places in between. Though we have more information than ever before at our fingertips, we are losing the ability to prioritize and share information in a meaningful method, other than just abstract forms of data compiled in new and interesting ways.

More than simply a place, mapping is shared visual language for how we communicate our experiences, lived realities, narratives and how we relate to and understand each other and the world. They are models of the world that we as a society have deemed important, and convey specific meanings about what we may see through the filter of our environment, culture and experience.

Often our experiences of place become metadata to be marked, tracked and sold, with sponsored links to connect us to the nearest paid sponsor. These maps serve to ease the transport of goods and services, both human and inert, to keep the arteries of commerce moving. In a consumer society, mapping has become a tool reserved primarily reserved those in power – to project what they would like seen and to delineate the private property of individuals and of the nation state. Globally, these maps serve as a force for homogenizing and condensing the thousands of unique cultures into one defined monoculture – one global market.

Further, the creation of maps is seen to be the exclusive realm of ‘experts’ who use complex technologies to produce them. For many people the term ‘map’ conjures up static and sterile lines on paper, facts disembodied from context, or the latest apps that help us get from point A to point B in the fastest amount of time. Complex tools are required, satellites, years of schooling, thousands of dollars.

By controlling the maps we use and interact with, these maps become projections of space and power as determined by their goals and outcomes. Communities, ecosystems and environments are divided into a new grids of reality. Frequent on these maps are lines of pavement, buildings of concrete, corporate and government sponsored entities, randomly drawn straight lines to demarcate slipping from one imagined entity to another. And in this process, we have handed over the ability and responsibility to create those maps.

The result is though we have access to more maps, we have lost our ability to conceptualize and relate to the spaces around us, to prioritize what information is important, control what goes onto our maps, where our own personal and community information goes, and less connection than ever before to the things that truly matter in a space.

What is missing from these digital views of the world? All the things that define a living experience.

Bioregional Mapping: For the Common Good

“The atlas should be used as a jumping off place for decision making about the future. From the holistic image of place that the maps collectively communicate, what actions could be adopted to achieve sustainable prosperity? What priorities emerge from a survey of damaged lands and unsolved social ills? What underutilized potentials can be put to work to help achieve sustainability? The atlas can become a focus for discussions setting a proactive plan for positive change.”

Sheila Harrington
Giving the Land a Voice: Mapping our Home Places (1995), Salt Spring Island, B.C.

Bioregional mapping provides an alternative way of thinking about map production and use. Whereas mainstream mapping depends on expert cartographers, bioregional mapping is done by ordinary citizens who rediscover local places through their map-making explorations.

As a place based ethic, bioregionalism fundamentally challenges us to rethink our relationship to each other and the places that we live, not just along human made lines, but in ways that consider the interconnected whole; all inhabitants, not just the humans living within a place. Bioregional mapping firmly places the control of the map back in the hands of the citizen, the resident, the inhabitant.

One of the reasons that this idea of bioregional mapping is so important is because a defining factor of any bioregional society is that humans living within a place must have a knowledge and understanding of the core carrying capacities of the bioregions they inhabit. In this way, bioregionalism is defined not by utopian principles of what has not been, but rather an evolution of the best of what we currently have, guided by principles and examples of success from the past.

Mapping our bioregions, watersheds and homes is the first step for developing new forms of bioregional governance. Bioregional Mapping

  1. Breaks down existing frameworks that are arbitrary, negative, human centered and non-representative of the place and people.
  2. Educates every person about their surroundings, indigenous ways of living, culture and history.
  3. Challenges every person to envision what a more democratic, just and regenerative future looks like, employing lessons learned from their own area, and using their own social contexts, organizations and backgrounds.
  4. Empowers every person to be agents of change as powerful tool for decolonization which can give us a new framework and base to reimagine what our society and governance can look like in which we bring our economic and political institutions in line with the regenerative carrying capacity of our bioregions.

Creating a better world is more than just abstract principles and ideas, and if we want to build that world – then we need to know how to connect it in with our society, and the places we lived, as defined and inspired by those living there. Just as we want to democratize our economic and political systems, we must start to democratize and localize our own maps – in how we receive and get our information, and how we connect to and relate to our home places.

Bioregional maps are mapped based on what they find important, not based on what economic or national interest has the highest stake. And rather than highly trained and paid experts – it puts the responsibility and learning back into our own hands – we are all the expert. Through knowing our own backyards, it breaks down arbitrary and national boundaries that are negative or toxic, and leads to pathways for reinhabitation through a subversiveness of place.

There is no such thing as good mapping or bad mapping. Just different styles of maps that convey different sets of information for different purposes. By decolonizing our mapping processes, we using mapping as a tool to empower a whole generation of barefoot cartographers – every person to learn more about where they live and conceptualize pathways for a better world.

Individual and communities can use bioregional mapping to protect the “cherished spaces” and create new community places reflective of our values. For many communities, what is happening on the ground and in the day to day of a community is unmapped. How can we map the future or values we would like to translate and share elsewhere if we don’t have a solid grasp for our own backyards or what is important now?

We challenge each of you to step forward as a Bioregional Cartographer: amateur mapmakers who adopt the tools and symbols of cartography to produce and re inscribe the mapped “logo” of the nation into a bioregional, natural & community context.

Some defining features of bioregional maps:

  • Every person is an expert, and has something valuable to contribute, to document to share. This can include narratives, histories, stories, things people find special, or knowledge relating to place. Bioregional maps are generally created or defined by communities living within or affected by the topic of the map.
  • Temporal. Bioregional maps often include time. How a place changes or is different in each season,  or from one year to the next. How animals, glaciers or fish migrate or move. In addition it can map past, present and future – and create roadmaps to societies or things we want to build.
  • Bioregional maps can use a wide array of methods to convey information, including song, dance, stories, sign languages, music, social mapping, cognitive mapping, and many other means that individuals feel best able to represent information.
  • Many indigenous forms of mapping are inherently bioregional forms of mapping. This includes family and clan relationships, traditional territories and boundaries, relational maps such as to bodies of water, stars and sky.
  • As a rule, if you see straight lines on a map, whether it is dividing a continent (Africa, Australia etc.), a community (US political districts, gerrymandering), roads (Google Maps) it is not a bioregional map.

Bioregional maps use ‘layers’ that together can better represent a place. These can include:

  • Physical: Geology, tectonics, subduction zones, mountains, peaks, ridges, valleys, rainfall, wind patterns, and how they change over time.
  • Biotic: Plants, animals, soils. Growing conditions. How animals and plant nations within an area interrelate, and how they change over time.
  • Human: Lessons of living in place, indigenous ways of living and knowledge. Culture, economy, politics. agriculture, energy. History, the context and understanding of past and present, and visions for the future that can serve as roadmaps for how we can get to the future.

When possible we set the biotic and temporal elements (x axis) within the physical reality of place (y axis) and document how it flows with the passing of time (z axis).

Bioregional maps are not made from one layer of information, but rather atlases in which layer upon layer has been added, from which shapes and deeper lessons emerge.