Community Maps: Creating a Bioregional Map Atlas

This piece was originally published in Giving the Land a Voice: Mapping Our Home Places, edited by Sheila Harrington, LTA Land Trust Alliance of British Columbia, copyright 1999.

“Thus, the political side of bioregionalism, for starters, is recognising that there are real boundaries in the real world which are far more appropriate than arbitrary political boundaries. And that this is just one step in learning where we really are and how a place works. Learning “how it all works” is an enormous exercise, because we are not taught to think in terms of systems, of society or of nature.” —Gary Snyder from “Welcome Home,” New Catalyst, 1986

To connect your habitat/home place map to the broader bioregion, maps at the community level need to be created. When you expand the scope of map­ping beyond the parcel level, it is necessary to apply a slightly different mapping technique. The goal of bioregional mapping is to assemble a folio of maps which cover a territorial area, with each image describing an aspect of cultural or biophysical identity. Viewed in series, these images will describe a wholistic vision of place, the perceptual basis from which active social and ecological stewardship can begin.

The foundation of the bioregional mapping technique was developed in the early 1900s by Patrick Geddes, the Scottish originator of regional planning. Gedde’s regional survey method was resurrected and updated by a fellow Scot, Ian McHarg, in the late 1960’s. McHarg’s Design With Nature (1969) proposed that maps could be layered to provide a visual image of where development that was sustainable could best be located. A student of McHarg’s, Frederick Steiner, further adapted McHarg’s technique in his landmark book The Living Landscape: An Ecological Approach to Landscape Planning (1991). In 1993 a specifically bioregional approach to mapping was presented in Boundaries of Home: Mapping For Local Empowerment.

Bioregional mapping requires two related processes—researching what information is available to be included on the maps, and then actually creating a series of map images. A suggested step-by-step bioregional mapping process follows. It has been tested in a variety of locales but it remains entirely open to revision or adaptation. The goal of explaining a generic bioregional mapping process is to provide an idea of the many small, but manageable, steps that can be taken in the preparation of a body of work that can have a profoundly positive effect on the future of your home and bioregion.

The Bioregional Mapping Process: twelve steps

1. Decide what area you want to map.

Bioregional mapping can be completed for virtu­ally any size of territory. While the bioregional mapping technique generally remains standard, the information that is mapped can vary greatly, depend­ing on the size and characteristics of the study area. A small land area can be mapped for very specific phenomena, while a larger territory will reveal its biophysical and cultural identity through a more conceptual level of description. In ascending size, the general range of territories that can be bioregionally mapped include: creekshed, neighbourhood, river tributary, village/town/city, metropolis, islands/island groups, river basin, ethnic region, bioregion.

About Cost

A black and white bioregional map atlas with 40 sheets, 24” x 36″, can be created for up to $1550. This figure assumes that labour and research will be absorbed by individual mapping group members, and that the group has access to a micro computer. The greatest costs are associated with the purchase of drafting supplies, reproduction of base maps and finished atlas sheet images and lamination. The budget can be reduced dramatically if maps are drawn on smaller 18″ x 24″ sheets, if drafting tools are already on hand, or if subsidized access to large-format xerography equipment can be negotiated. Financial support for the mapping process may be available from any number of sources, including local governments, credit unions, recreational equipment suppliers, local merchants or from money raised by community events.

The process of identifying bioregion boundaries is explained in detail in Chapter 5 of Boundaries of Home: Mapping for Local Empowerment. (1993).

2. Conceptualize what you want to map.

Bioregional mapping is usually done to assist community groups to visualize the capacity of land, air, and water environments to sustain life. To achieve this purpose it is necessary to:

  • inventory biophysical features;
  • assess the capability of a territory to support resident ecosystems, including humans;
  • understand how human occupation and exploitation of a territory has evolved over time;
  • appraise the cumulative positive and negative impacts of past and present human land uses;
  • achieve a wholistic perception of interrelationship, limit and opportunity;
  • project how the bioregion can be actively restored and stewarded on a sustainable basis.

A bioregional atlas thus contains information on both biophysical and cultural characteristics which reveal identity, history and capability.

Generic Bioregional Atlas Budget (assuming 40 24″ x 36″ sheets)

  • Drafting tools 200
  • Rub-on lettering and tapes 100
  • Vellum 50
  • Photocopying base map 250
  • Misc. xerography 100
  • 2 Copies of finished atlas 500
  • Lamination of 1 atlas for display (optional) 250
  • Acetate overlays (optional) 100
  • TOTAL $1550

Specific Supplies Needed

  • 2 36″ x 24″ sheets of vellum tracing paper
  • Mechanical pencil with 5mm leads
  • Indelible black ink felt-tip pens with 3mm, 5mm, and 8mm tips
  • Rub-on symbols (such as Chartpak 4064)
  • Roll of 1/4″ masking tape
  • 4″ diameter tube for transport of maps
  • Straight edge ruler 12″ to 36″ in length
  • Triangle
  • Scissors
  • Exacto knife
  • Soft eraser
  • Magic tape
  • White Out/Liquid Paper
  • Tackle or art supply box for convenient storage and transportation of supplies

In the following chapter, we offer a detailed menu of features that can be mapped. The types of information that can be shown on each map are virtually endless, so treat the list as only the briefest introduction to what can be illustrated. A good group exercise is to call out the major headings and then to brainstorm all the types of information you want to know within this category. It is critical that you think about the audience the maps will be for—public meetings, school classes, government officials or for your own education. These considerations will affect the size and complexity of the maps you make. Always keep in mind that bioregional maps are meant to be used, repeatedly, as instigators of positive change. Bioregional maps are maps with teeth—they should relate information that inspires action.

3. Choose the mapping technique you want to use.

There are many map-making techniques that can be employed. Government and industry increasingly use a GIS (geographic information system) technique to plot cartographic information by computer. GIS involves digitizing a base map of the area to be mapped. This area is then divided into a number of interlocking cells. Information of different types can be assigned to each of these cells, then printed out in a great variety of combinations.

It is widely promoted that only map images generated by GIS are able to “‘scientifically” interpret the complex inter-relationships basic to achievement of sustainability. GIS systems can be useful in some situations. However, hardware, software, software updates, and maintenance agreements are extremely expensive. GIS software is constantly changing, and takes a great deal of time to master. The inability of most grass-roots organizations to support these inputs of money and time inevitably lead to inaction or over-reliance on academic or government sources for expertise.

At the other end of the technological spectrum are maps which interpret the identity of place through drawing, painting, sculpture, dance, song, photo montage, tapestry or a great variety of other artistic formats. These diverse approaches to mapping can be extremely powerful methods of getting people to think in creative terms about the bioregion in which they live. Home is more than contour lines and statistics; it is a highly personalized perception of the identity of place.

Somewhere between these two techniques is the kitchen-table method of bioregional mapping which employs simple drafting tools, vellum tracing paper, a micro-computer outfitted with ordinary word-processing software, and lots of volunteer time. A simple “planimetric” base map is made by tracing coastlines, waterways and locations of high mountain peaks. After multiple copies of the base map have been made, each copy becomes the foundation for a map which describes a particular aspect of cultural or biophysical identity. Once each map sheet is pasted-up, much in the way newspapers were once put together, the collage can be copied to create a seamless visual image. The product of kitchen-table mapping can look extremely professional, and they are easily and inexpensively updated. This technique is described in the following steps.

4. Identify the best base map for your purpose.

Bioregional mapping is most conveniently done on a sheet of vellum tracing paper between 24″ x 36″ and 36″ x 48″ in size. These sheet sizes are the largest that can be conveniently placed on a kitchen table and that can be easily rolled for transport. Vellum can be purchased in individual sheets (24″ x 36″ = “A One” sheet size, 36″ x 48″ = “A Zero” sheet size), or in rolls of varying lengths. For a start, purchase two 24″ x 36″ sheets of vellum.

If you are near a university, visit the map library which is likely to have the greatest range of maps which cover the area you wish to study. With the help of a map librarian, search for a map which allows the area you want to map to fit on the 24″ x 36″ sheet of vellum tracing paper. Topographic maps which show elevation contours, settlement location, transportation networks, and a variety of other land use information are useful for this purpose.

Topographic maps of virtually every region of Canada are printed at:

1:50,000 (1 mile per inch),
1:250,000 (4 ground miles per inch of map image),
1:500,000 (8 miles per inch), and
1:1,000,000 (16 miles per inch).

For most places in British Columbia there also will be coverage at other scales including:

1:20,000 (B.C. Min. of Forests),
1:5,000 and 1:100,000 (B.C. Min. of Environment).

Because it is relatively rare that the area you want to map is contained on a single topographic map sheet, you may have to put together several sheets to cover your study area. The borders of library maps should in no circumstances be folded, so you will have to overlap the images to approximate a composite image.

When choosing topographic map(s) to be used for tracing a base map, remember that there should be enough room on the vellum sheet for a border. Leave room for space between the map border and the planimetric image for placement of title blocks, legends, notations and other explanatory graphics. A good rule of thumb is that there should be approximately 6″ of clear space between the outside of the planimetric map image and the map border.

If you can’t squeeze the area you want to map on a 24” x 36″ vellum sheet, there are three options to consider. First, you could purchase a 36″ x 48″ sheet of vellum and try again. The second option is to make photocopy reductions of the original topographic sheets so that the area you are mapping fits on a 24″ by 36″ size sheet. The third option is to reduce the size of the base map sheet before individual sheets of the bioregional atlas are made. If you do resort to using the larger paper size, this will result in higher costs throughout the mapping process.

Finally, consider how you want to orient the study area on your vellum sheet. Are you comfortable with the traditional north-is-up orientation, or would you prefer to adopt an orientation that places east at the top, and west at the bottom? In coastal British Columbia this latter orientation is useful because it helps to communicate how water, salmon, most tides and the sun travel in patterns from the top of the map to the bottom.

In order to compile a draft copy of a base map, tape your vellum sheet over the topographic map(s) and use a mechanical pencil to trace coastlines, islands and major waterways. You should also place a small £x’ at the locations of several tallest mountain peaks, and a small square on the sites of several largest human settlements. This process is much easier if you have access to a light table which shines a bright light through the layers of paper. As you trace your base map, make sure that lines which depict coastlines and waterways touch. This means that in some cases complicated coastlines or narrow channels between islands will have to be made a bit wider than they are in reality. Cartographers call this process simplification. You also have to use a bit of judgment about how many tributary streams to trace. If you are working at a small scale (i.e. a map that covers a large area), only include major rivers and the largest tributary streams. If you are working at a large scale (i.e. covering a relatively small area), you should include all tributary streams. The smaller the scale you are working at, the more “conceptual” the information shown must become.

Once you have traced physical features, the next step is to draw a border 1.5″ in from the outside edge of the vellum sheet. If possible it is also a good idea to draw a border around the study area. This will usually be either the legal boundary of a governmental unit, or the border of the cultural and/or biophysical territory which you perceive to be your bioregion. These borders will generally define areas of the map in which two different types of information will be depicted. Symbols, lines, and location names—spatial information—will primarily be located within the study area border. Descriptive information will generally be located between the study area boundary and the outside border.

Take the finished base map image home and pin it up on a convenient wall. Take a couple of days to look at what you have created, making sure to check that the image works as a description of the territory you will be mapping. Is there too much detail? Are there any empty spaces which could be filled with the path of a missed stream tributary? Did you get all the most important rivers? Feel free to change the size or orientation of the base map as often as it takes to get it right.

5. Make a base map.

Once you are certain that you have found the best scale and orientation for the base map, purchase new copies of the topographic sheet(s) that you used in the map library to underlay your first tracing. These maps should be purchased flat, not folded, and can be used throughout the atlas building process as a ready reference for a tremendous variety of information. If you used photocopy reductions of these maps in the map library, make the same reductions from the new maps. If there are multiple sheets involved you have to trim their borders and tape them together to create a single, larger composite map. If there are multiple sheets involved, you may have to trim some borders. Regardless of whether or not you use a reduction of the topographic maps for a base map image, the full size sheets will be an excellent source of reference information throughout the mapping process.

Place the vellum sheet over the topographic sheet(s), and secure it in place with masking tape. Redraw the planimetric map lightly in pencil. Refer to your draft copy for reference. Add in the map and study area borders, also lightly in pencil. Check carefully for accuracy.

Remove the vellum from the topographic sheet, place it on a clean, dry surface, and use felt-tip pens to make the final base map image by drawing over your pencilled lines. The outside border can be a simple 8mm black bold line, or can be made with more elaborate “border” tapes sold by Letraset. Study area borders should be equally bold, about 8mm in width. Coastal, large island, and watershed outlines should be drawn at 5mm in width. Major waterway outlines should be 5mm in width, and smaller tributaries 3mm wide. The 3mm pen will also be useful in touching up any spaces where lines join. If you make a mistake, use white out to cover the error.

The final task in preparing this base map is to prepare and locate a title block, north arrow, scale and production credit. To be sufficiently visible, the title block should be approximately 4″ x 10” in size, have a heavy surrounding border, with 40-50pt type size (created with your computer, using Letraset or very neat calligraphy). The much smaller production credit can be made by the same process, but at 24pt type size. The north arrow can be made as creatively as you wish. Remember to use a bar scale, so that it continues to accurately measure distances even if the map is reduced or enlarged.

It is also a good idea to add several unbordered place names at 18pt type size to the base map so that the readers can orient themselves. Names useful for this purpose include the largest rivers, the largest water body, and the names of well known mountain peaks. The exact location of a mountain peak is marked by a small rub-on triangle. Settlements are typically marked by rub-on squares. It is important to keep this notation simple so that the base map remains relatively uncluttered.

When you make the final base map, also prepare a second sheet of the same size which has only a title block and an outside border. This sheet will be used for the atlas opening and closing sheets which include terms of reference and conclusions. This blank sheet can also be used to intersperse written or descriptive information onto different sections of the atlas.

6. Duplicate base map.

Reprographics companies which serve architects, engineers and graphic artists use a variety of techniques to copy, enlarge or reduce visual images. You should have a clear idea of the several processes by which multiple copies of your base map can be made. This is perhaps the most complicated part of bioregional mapping, so the steps involved are presented in some detail.

Option One uses a 24″ x 36″ vellum original which is copied 40 times on bond paper. After you paste up the individual atlas sheets, copy each individual finished sheet on bond paper to create final images.

Option Two uses a 36″ x any length of vellum. Make 40 reduced size base map images to fit on 24″ x 36″ bond paper. After pasting up the individual sheets, copy each individual finished atlas sheet on 24″ x 36″ bond paper. The only difference from the above method is that the type will be reduced when the final copies are made.

Option Three involves making a vellum copy of the original base map, then making 40 black line prints from the vellum copy. After pasting up individual atlas sheets, make reduced size copies to fit on 24″ by 36″ bond paper. This is the cheapest method. A blackline image is much less crisp than a photocopy, and it will fade over time.

7. Research data for individual map sheets.

Refer to the following chapter to acquaint yourself with the tremendous variety of information that can be shown on maps. You could hold a group brainstorming session to make a list of additional types of data that you want to seek out. Once you have chosen the range of cultural and biophysical information you need, you can begin a systematic research process, dividing the task between individuals or teams. Start the search for information locally, then spread the net as wide as is required. Review Chapter 3 for sources of information for your research.

It is imperative that detailed records be kept of where you find the data and who supplied the information. If possible all the information that is retrieved should be purchased or copied so that you can start a permanent bioregional reference library.

8. Translate research into visual format.

This is the fun part. Aspects of the information that you have collected can be depicted in any number of creative ways. Data can be shown by points, lines, or shading applied in a range of sizes and/or densities. Data can also be described in graphs, tables, sketches, or by short written notation. The trick is to spend quite a bit of time experimenting with the best way the most information can be depicted in the clearest possible manner.

How is a specific map in the bioregional atlas conceptualized? Suppose that within the larger category of Economy you wanted to describe how fish are used by humans. Rivers where fish migrate and spawn could be highlighted with a bold line. Streams where fish are extinct could be marked with a different type of line. Sport fishing sites could be marked with a fish symbol. Catch statistics for different streams or ocean areas could be shown by graph or table. Pollution spills or industries poten­tially dangerous to fish could be located. Coast guard bases, lighthouses, major harbours and processing plants can also be added. A list of fish species could be pasted in a corner, as could sketches of the types of commercial fishing gear. Because the map can fill up very quickly with information, it is important to use the entire map area, and be as brief in your descriptions as possible. Instead of a long table which shows the fish harvest for each of 100 years, it may be as effective to make a notation which states, “Three million salmon returned to the ‘X’ River in 1927. By 1990, only 1 million fish were returning, most of which were hatchery bred.” Soon you will develop a knack for distilling a complex picture into formats that tell a story in a clear and concise way.

It is perfectly okay for certain types of information to be repeated in different parts of the atlas. Locations of pollution can appropriately be shown on both maps which describe environmental degradation and the fishing industry. Any data that is repeated will obviously make a greater cumulative impression on the map reader.

Too much information placed on a single sheet leads to confusion. If you have many types of information to depict within a map category, simply make several different maps. For example, if you have a great variety of economic data to show, have Map 24A describe aspects of historic economic data, Map 24B show structure of the current economy, and Map 24C describe location of largest employers, locally-owned businesses and recent bankruptcies and closures. You could use two or more map sheets to show how distribution of a feature has changed over specific periods of time. This time series technique is particularly useful when showing how land use, settlement patterns, species habits, etc. have expanded or contracted during different eras.

Experience has shown that it is best to lay down point, line and shading information first in pencil, and later with any number of home-made or commercially available materials. Lines can be made with black felt-tip pens or with flexible adhesive tapes made by Letraset which have different patterns and widths. It is also possible to photocopy, or copy by hand, internationally recognized symbols for any number of land uses from various architectural guides.

Each individual map also requires a legend and a box in a standard location which numbers the map sheet. A legend describes what values you have attached to all the lines, symbols and shading you have used on each separate map.

The final step is to place written or graphic information on the map. These blocks should all have uniform borders and be placed either at the margins of the map, or in spaces within the body of the map which have no point, line or shading symbols. Once you have decided where everything goes, use a glue stick to permanently apply the notations, graphs or other items you have custom created. It is critically important that no edges be left unglued. In the reprographic process any lifted paper will create a distracting dark shadow.

9. Copy finished sheets.

Take the finished map collages back to the reprographics company, and make two copies of each individual map sheet. Don’t roll the original sheets, as creases could develop or pasted bits become loosened. Large scale photocopies of original maps can be rolled with ease. The original maps should be entrusted to someone who has a flat, heated storage space that is free of insects or disturbance.

10. Acetate overlays.

In some cases it will be useful to compare information that exists separately on different atlas sheets. The use of clear plastic acetate sheets allows this matching to occur. Pertinent information from one or more atlas sheets can be traced onto the clear acetate. The acetate sheets can then be placed over any sheet in the atlas to directly compare one set of data with another. For instance, the relationship of First Nations territories to watershed boundaries can be shown, or the location of proposed protected areas compared to government owned lands.

It is not necessary to trace the entire base map on the acetate overlay. Simply trace the information you want to depict and the standardized outside border of the sheet. Use this border to “register” the clear overlay over any map in the atlas. It is visually quite effective to use colour pens to mark acetates.

11. Fix and/or laminate sheets.

The reprographic technique used to copy the original base map or the final copies of the finished maps does not make a durable image. It is advisable to use a clear, spray-on fixative that will ensure that the images do not rub or flake off. If sufficient funds exist, laminate one set of finished individual atlas sheets so that they can be repeatedly displayed without damage. If desired, the atlas to be laminated can be touched up with colour before it is sealed, using felt tip pens or coloured pencils to highlight elements. This can be a time-consuming process, but the results are striking.

12. Display and use map atlas.

Once the bioregional atlas is complete it can be used in any number of ways. A laminated set can be used for repeated display at community meetings, conferences, university classes, museums, and meetings with government and industry officials. Slides can be taken of the maps, and along with photographic scenes of local life, they can be made into an effective slide presentation which can be used to generate income. One set of maps should be left in a public place where notes can be added describing where important new environmental or social events occurred. It is from this set of maps that a revision of the atlas can be periodically made.

Most importantly, the atlas should be used as a jumping off place for decision making about the future. From the wholistic 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.

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