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Cartography and Contemporary Cities: Much More Than Mapping

By: , Posted on: February 16, 2016

Participatory mapping on the use of public buildings in the town-center of Bergamo (Italy)
Participatory mapping on the use of public buildings in the town-center of Bergamo (Italy)

Contemporary cities exhibit the uneven, heterogeneous features imprinted on them by the movement of their inhabitants. This development, called postmodern urbanization, is compounded by the phenomenon of segregation, whereby boundaries and social cleavages are multiplied (Soja 2000). Consequently, urban analysis must abandon stereotyped categories and outdated modes of representation to focus on the mobility of inhabitants understood as city users (residents, immigrants, tourists, commuters). It must revisit space as an analytical category that has abandoned its structures to take on the flexible quality of lived space. Breaking free from topography-based metrics, research must take residents into account and recover the spatial capital, the whole set of their knowledge and skills useful for territorial planning.

sigap strat
Methodology for translating field data into cartographic data

It is now clear that the only way to understand and operate urban space is to rely on cooperative planning. By exposing the variety of territorial dynamics and, at the same time, identifying, through the use of smart technologies, the cultural stakes inherent in urbanization, a participatory approach envisages a new way of understanding and managing cities. On the other hand, a smart urban policy is determined by the ability to understand the needs of inhabitants, i.e. to identify where, when, for whom, and how public administrators may plan their intervention. It requires analyzing and making sense of context and providing an adequate response. Geographer Michel Lussault maintains that the intelligence of urban features lies with a learning city: more than a smart city, a learning city is planned and built around the input of citizens, based on communication tools which make it an expert system driven by artificial intelligence (Lussault 2007).

Participatory mapping created through the online involvement of citizens
Participatory mapping created through the online involvement of citizens

We therefore feel the need to stress the relevance of cybercartography as an intelligent communication system to represent this new postmodern urbanization. Cartographic semiotics has demonstrated that, having discarded the idea of maps as mere instruments for recording reality, we now see maps as instances of a mediatization that actively intervene in shaping reality by mediating communication. The development of a new concept, that of iconization, has shown that during the communication process, reliance on the self-referential outcomes of maps involves the expression of highly conjectural facts as if they were true. That gives their interpreters a specific and particular idea of the place they experience: the idea directly produced by the maps themselves. In short, iconisation has enabled researchers radically to rethink maps. It raises the possibility of taking maps as communication tools that can be mastered and used to one’s specific ends provided one is in charge of their iconizing prescriptions (Casti, 2015).

In the field of urban research, it is now time we gave ample space to mapping intended as a method for producing information on topological space. In other words, a space shaped by the social dynamics, and as an essential tool for grasping the essence of the plural city. New forms of mapping have in fact been tested over the last few years. These are based on data collected through land surveys and conveyed in graphical designs that are meant to show the dynamics of contemporary society. Cartography, a tool of communication but also of analysis and research, is no longer used, as in the past, to “freeze” the territory and to offer a synthesis, but rather, as a process of analysis aimed to interpret social dynamism.

To take these innovations into account means to pay heed to the large group of researchers worldwide, who are committed to mapping the spatiality of the contemporary world with new smart systems. It also means to acknowledge that, now more than ever, cartography has become a symbolic operator able to cope with the challenges of contemporary society, to recover the social values produced by its inhabitants and to establish a postmodern, learning city.

Casti, 2015, Reflexive Cartography. A New Perspective on Mapping, Elsevier, Amsterdam.
Levy J., 2003, Capital spatial, in: Levy J., Lussault M. (ed.), Dictionnaire de la géographie et de l’espace des sociétés, Belin, Parigi.
Lévy J., 2013, Urbanité/s, DVD, Laboratoire Choros, EPFL, Lousanne.
Soja E.2000, Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

Reflexive Cartography: A New Perspective in Mapping is available for purchase at the Elsevier Store.

reflexive cartography

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Emanuela Casti, PhD is Professor and Chair of Geography at the University of Bergamo in Italy as well as Chief of its Diathesis Cartographic Lab, an experimental structure integrated within international networks. Prof. Casti has been studying the semiotics of maps for nearly 30 years, culminating in the formalization of a structured semiotic theory which has been successfully applied both to real case-histories, in Europe and in Africa, and in the context of the history of cartography. Within the Diathesis Cartographic Lab, she has developed a research methodology (SIGAP Strategy) centered on the symbiosis territory/cartography. She has authored and edited several books and more than 50 journal articles on cartography and related topics. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Italian Geographic Society (SGI). She is also member of several national associations, such as the Association of Italian Geographers (AGeI), the Italian Association of Cartography (AIC), as well as international ones, namely the International Geographic Union (UGI) and the International Cartographic Association (ICA).

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