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Mapwashing: Co-Opting Civic Design

Tue, Sep 17, 2019    1pm

For decades, as some federal agencies and municipal governments have sought to encourage public participation in urban planning, they’ve turned to maps, models, games, and other playful, designerly means of soliciting and validating public spatial knowledge, and ostensibly using that insight to inform design and planning processes. But as cities increasingly turn to private technology contractors to manage urban infrastructure and development projects, their proprietary platforms and processes are often obscured. Can civic design tools, like participatory maps and community engagement apps, meaningfully inform these often obfuscatory processes? Or are these methods susceptible to co-optation — “map-washing” — by design-savvy tech developers who’ve mastered techniques of discursive engineering through their virtual platforms? Looking at examples from New York and Boston to Toronto and St. Louis, I’ll examine how participatory planning methods stand up to algorithmic planning.

Shannon Mattern is a Professor of Anthropology at the New School for Social Research. Her writing and teaching focus on archives, libraries, and other media spaces; media infrastructures; spatial epistemologies; and mediated sensation and exhibition. She is the author of The New Downtown Library: Designing with Communities; Deep Mapping the Media City; and Code and Clay, Data and Dirt, all published by University of Minnesota Press. She contributes a regular long-form column about urban data and mediated infrastructures to Places, a journal focusing on architecture, urbanism, and landscape, and she collaborates on public design and interactive projects and exhibitions. You can find her at wordsinspace.net.