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A Grassroots “Google Street View” Supports Community-Building Efforts in Detroit

A mobile mapping station being developed by a team in the Master’s Urban Planning department at Lawrence Technical University, wants to help residents of embattled neighborhoods.

Digital mock-up for the mobile mapping station being developed by a team in the Master’s Urban Planning department at Lawrence Technical University (image courtesy LTU)

DETROIT — With rapid change and redevelopment efforts taking hold all over Detroit, there is a preponderance of people who seek little more than to profit off of this city, with little consideration for the residents that have held it tenuously intact against the entropy of the preceding 50 years. Fortunately, there are also people with an eye on how to ensure that these longtime residents are not sold out in the land-grabbing of Detroit neighborhoods. Some of these people are bringing new technologies and techniques to bear on the deeply political practice of mapping the spaces in which we live. Over at Lawrence Technical University (LTU), a collaborative team-up between the Urban Design and Humanities programs has produced a multi-phase project titled Mapping + Humanities, which hopes to use mapping as a way to help residents of embattled neighborhoods with their community-building efforts.

“What we can do is use this mapping technique to help, for example, look at the community as a whole,” said Joongsub Kim in an interview with Hyperallergic. Kim is a Lawrence Tech professor and Director of LTU’s Master of Urban Design program, as well as of Detroit Studio, a community-based design center. “What are the key assets, and what are the most challenging spots? I hope they [community members] can use our technique as a way to engage other people, and then begin to have a conversation about what spots we need to focus on.”

Aside from Dr. Kim’s extensive work developing relationships with community stakeholders, LTU’s major tangible contribution thus far appears to be a mobile mapping-machine, which can be physically taken out into the streets of a neighborhood to gather information, metrics, and testimonials that will inform visualizations of the space. The unit can be pulled by bicycle, and once deployed, will act as a sort of grassroots Google Street View car, producing “a series of drawings, pictures, and infographics that can be incorporated into maps,” according to materials accompanying the initial presentation on September 5, featuring research by Kim, as well as Deirdre Hennebury, LTU Assistant Professor and Humanities consultant on the project.

Another digital view of the mobile mapping station, which will be presented in October (image courtesy LTU)

“The participatory aspect is important,” said Hennebury, during a Hyperallergic interview with her and Kim that preceded the first in a series of three exhibits comprising Mapping + Humanities, titled [Hi]Story Bank, which opened on September 5 at LTU’s Detroit Center for Design + Technology. “You give more ownership to local residents and constituents if they feel that they can engage and have a voice. Mapping is one way that would happen, but it’s also a way of giving them confidence that they are part of a process.”

The team is currently focused on community revitalization efforts in the West End, an area Kim defines as the zone anchored around West Grand Boulevard, hemmed in by three intersecting highways: M-10, I-94, and I-96. It has a residual core of residential properties and several schools, but the major institution in the area is Henry Ford Hospital, which is currently in the process of a massive expansion project that will add several buildings to its campus. In the midst of large-scale redevelopment efforts such as these, LTU sees the possibility of collaborating with community members and providing their new mapping technique as a mechanism for existing residents in the area to self-represent. Thus far, the project team has primarily connected with the West Grand Boulevard Collaborative and worked with high school students, artists, government officials, business owners, community organizers, and residents around Grand Boulevard.

“The hospital is going to build a new campus there, which creates some friction and conflict,” said Kim, “but they are trying to work it out. The focus of our mapping is not teaching our residents about cutting-edge technologies, but bringing the apparatus for mapping directly into the space and bringing people together around it.”

“We have traditional mapping,” said Hennebury, “and now we have GIS [Geographic Informational System mapping technology], which gives us a tremendous amount of material, but these additional mappings that are much more place-based — we are hoping, and I think Dr. Kim’s work would suggest this — they give us a whole other level of richness about what the place means to people, and helps in making decisions about where to focus energies on — say, an intervention of some sort. The residents would be part of defining where those spots are.”

The Mapping + Humanities project is unfolding in three parts over the course of the fall. The first exhibit, [Hi]Story Bank, seeks to put historical context around the power and politics of mapping, and ways mapping has been used in the past to shape places, often without the consent or consultation of existing residents. Exhibition two, titled Mapping Station, is slated for October and will present the actual apparatus being designed and constructed by the team at LTU and discuss some of the strategies for its deployment. This includes the training and eventual release of the mapping cart into the hands of a team of Detroit high school students connected with West End neighborhoods. WikiManual, the final exhibit, scheduled for early November, will present the accumulated teachings and learnings thus far connected to the development and application of the mobile mapping station.

Certainly, city planning projects in Detroit have a decades-long history of seeking resident input on redevelopment via analogue methods such as community meetings. However, much of those plans fail to manifest, either because they are largely ignored or because the plans themselves never get much beyond the ideation phase. But as this new wave of redevelopment has made the critical breakthrough into the physical reality of Detroit neighborhoods, showing no signs of slowing, it is more important than ever to ensure that residents are part of the plan. Whether the new techniques and technologies being developed by LTU are going to be integral or effective in these efforts has yet to be proven, but the team seems prepared, at least, to take their theory to the streets and see if it can map a new course in Detroit’s spotty history of urban renewal.

Mapping + Humanities continues in three phases at LTU’s Detroit Center for Design + Technology through December 14, with receptions for each phase: Exhibit 1 — [Hi]Story Bank (September 5), Exhibit 2 — Mapping Station (October 1), and Exhibit 3 — WikiManual (November 1).

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