Mapping back: critical cartographies and collective mapping
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Critical cartography is an opportunity to work with maps critically. Collective mapping is a tool to take a collective, critical look at a specific space. The collective design process can help us organise, network and develop emancipatory strategies taking into account the knowledge, experiences and views of everyone.

Description of the tool

This tool, based on a toolkit prepared by kollektiv orangotango, contains examples of collective mapping strategies that can be used in urban political struggles, as a group reflection activity, a tool for local intervention or to build collective urban political visions. Critical maps can, but do not have to, emerge from a collective process of creation. They often occur as 'cartographic commissions' for activist groups or movements and create visibility for underrepresented struggles. Collective critical maps are created in a process of dialogical learning. They open space for silenced experiences, diverging views and the possibility to engage in a debate around them. Cartography does not exist outside of power structures. Thus, maps are powerful devices in society. They, for instance, put ownership rights and social norms in their place. Therefore “commoning” cartography is an important act to question dominant power relations. Counter-cartography can be understood as a political practice of mapping back. In these terms, it challenges dominant cartographic imaginations and methods that exclude non-hegemonic modes of knowledge and representation, therefore can be understood as a tool for diversity. On the other hand, it is crucial to map carefully and with respect and reflect on how powerful actors might instrumentalise our maps. Precisely because maps are powerful tools, it is necessary to keep questioning and reinterpreting them to make sure they are still useful for emancipatory purposes.

Steps of application

Do you want to reflect on your political practice together, share strategic information, make visible which free spaces have already been gained or which shortcomings still need to be overcome? Then organise yourselves through a collective mapping process! Prepare a map base that contains only the most necessary information, such as important streets, parks, bodies of water, central buildings, etc. When choosing the map section, bear in mind that if certain parts of the city are not shown, the people and groups who are active there, will also be excluded. A wide margin can be useful for notes and legends. The map base can be created digitally (for example, with online tools like or maps.stamen. org) or drawn by hand. Think in advance about the categories into which your topic can be divided and how these can be represented graphically. You can use existing icons or develop them on your (see for example:,,, which can summarise your topic even better. And you can pick up on what already exists, modify it and expand it with your own ideas. Photos, flyers and other visual elements can be integrated into the map like collages. Ask participants to bring photos, memories, newspaper articles, etc. that fit the theme. Especially when not all participants know each other, ‘human mapping’ is a good way to start. The floor becomes the map. Now everyone positions themselves on the map based on questions formulated by a leader: Where do we participate in shaping the city? Where do we appropriate public space? But also: In which part of town do we feel uncomfortable? Where do we lack open space? After each list, everyone explains where they are on the map and what shapes their relationship to this place. After this introduction, the group that prepared the process introduces the topic and explains the planned procedure. It is a good idea to work in small groups, define categories that are crucial for your topic (depending on the reason for the mapping: displacement, repression, but also housing projects, cultural centres, places that are used by certain groups...) and possibly design icons for them. If there is agreement on the categories and their representation as icons, these can be placed on the map. The information you mark on the map can concern areas, connections between places or individual places. If the relevant information does not fit on the map, you can put it in the form of infoboxes or graphics on the edge of the map and assign them with lines or by numbering. It is not the mapping method but the interest and needs of the group that shape the process. Maybe the content to be mapped cannot be put into unifying categories and can only be mapped through a detailed presentation of the individual circumstances.... Listen, take notes/draw! Attention! Map carefully and respectfully. Certain groups may not want to be made visible on a map and thus be exposed to repression. Information on maps is powerful and can be misused. That is why critical, solidarity-based cartography should always commit themselves to certain standards: People decide for themselves whether they want to be mapped! Good intention is no excuse. Instead, talk to people early on and get feedback and consensus (at the latest) before publishing. Check out the "Guideline for solidarity mapping" by "platz-da!” ( What happens to your map after the mapping process? Maybe you keep it to continue the reflection process; maybe you rework the map, layout and even print it or publish it as an online map. More likely, the value of the mapping was in the collective process and you no longer need the map itself. 2. Mapping intervention in the public space Are you working with your group on urban issues and want to know how other residents experience them? Map your city (or part of it) with passers-by in public space! Make a map base that invites people to map! It should be very simplified and contain important orientation points. Large maps arouse interest and offer space for versatile participation. Paper card bases are easy to print and design, whether with pens, stickers or as a collage. Card bases made of fabric are easy to transport, waterproof and nice to touch. Simply project a digital map onto an old bed sheet and draw the projection - and you have your fabric map. Icons can be sewn on or attached with pins. Design icons that represent your theme. Also take the material with you to make new icons on the spot with content that you did not have in mind beforehand. Clarify how you want to approach passers-by and what questions you want to invite them to map. You are mapping collectively with people you don't know. So make an effort not to produce the map that you have expected! Ask as openly as possible to not squeeze the experiences of the space users into your categories. Ask about subjective perceptions and emotions in the space. Post-its, on which passers-by can write their own drawings or texts, offer more space for subjective experiences than icons. You can supplement the analogue mapping with audio or video recordings. More important than the map are encounters that take place at the edge of the mapping. Explain to interested people how you will continue after the mapping and how they can become active! 3. city as a map, map as a playing field Do you want to learn about public space to playfully test how you can make your district the one you want to live in? Turn public space into a walk-in map and a playing field for urban political visions! The basis for this map can be a street section, a path in a park, or a bus stop and should therefore be chosen with great care. You should know in advance who usually uses this space and what kind of participation and reactions you can expect. Finally, choose the location for mapping according to its importance for the topic to be mapped. In addition to painted symbols, you can also make 3D buildings. These will help co-mappers to identify with the map and to orientate themselves 'in the district'. After you have made the chosen place into a map of the district by marking it and drawing important streets, squares, etc. on the ground, you first go to the map yourself, trace your daily routes together, visit favourite places and take each other to the places in the district that you would like to change. Now that you are set about redesigning the district, draw what you would like to change, build what is still missing, move the existing buildings as you wish. Invite interested passers-by to guide you through the district and share their experiences and wishes, and of course, make changes. Since it is unlikely that all ideas will be recorded on the map, it makes sense to record suggestions and visions. The materiality of maps: Online maps are a practical tool for networking and information exchange if they are carefully created and continuously maintained. Analogue maps, on the other hand, are usually automatically thought of as paper maps. However, other materials are often much better suited to represent our feelings, experiences or concerns. Run your hand over a material, tug or smell it to see if it is the right one, to carry your theme. Break with craft and aesthetic norms of traditional cartography! Cut up maps and rebuild them. Also, anything you find on-site can become material for mapping. Tutorial: Documentary: Materials for mapping:


The kollektiv orangotango is an activist circle of geographers, artists and educators, developing since 2008. In addition to participating in collective mapping, art interventions in public space and educational processes, the collective curates the "Not-an-Atlas" (2018), a global platform of critical cartography. Not-an-Atlas gathers more than 40 counter-cartographies from all over the world. This collection shows how maps are created and transformed as a part of political struggle, for critical research or in art and education: from indigenous territories in the Amazon to the anti-eviction movement in San Francisco; from defending commons in Mexico to mapping refugee camps with balloons in Lebanon; from slums in Nairobi to squats in Berlin; from supporting communities in the Philippines to reporting sexual harassment in Cairo. This Is Not an Atlas seeks to inspire, to document the underrepresented, and to be a useful companion when becoming a counter-cartographer yourself. In the 1980s critical cartography focused, to a large degree, on criticizing maps.. The critique uncovers how maps were, and continue to be, complicits of colonialism and nationalism and how they contributed to their stabilization and legitimization. Critical cartographers scrutinized maps in various ways using semiotics, discourse analysis or deconstructivism. This approach is represented most notably by John Brian Harley's Deconstructing the Map (1989) and Denis Wood's The Power of Maps (1992). This made many critical geographers and others skeptical regarding the use of maps as tools for the production and visualization of geographic knowledge. Other critical geographers began to call for Reclaiming the Map (Dodge & Perkins). It were especially artists who initiated the use of maps to criticize, provoke and challenge our ways of thinking about space, place and maps. This did not only aim at questioning familiar imaginations of the world. Quite often, it was also about challenging the aesthetic customs and boundaries of what actually counts as a map. A new wave of counter-cartographies that emerged with the new millennium. They included, for example, the Bureau d'Études and Currently, the Argentinian art and research duo Iconoclasistas plays a major role in the dissemination of counter-cartographies. They in turn are influenced by indigenous drawing traditions of Latin America as well as Gerd Arntz's and Otto Neurath's pictograms and mappings. Counter-maps also grow from a long tradition of post- and decolonial practices of mapping back. The idea behind indigenous counter-cartography is as simple as it is good: "More indigenous territory has been claimed by maps than by guns. This assertion has its corollary: more indigenous territory can be reclaimed and defended by maps than by guns" (Nietschmann 1995: 37). Even the term "counter-mapping" was coined by Nancy Lee Peluso (1995) working with the Dayak in Indonesia, using maps for (re)claiming their land. There have always been other forms of spatial representation – incongruent with western cartography. Just by the simple fact of their existence, indigenous geographic representations challenge dominant cartographic imaginations and methods that exclude all non-European modes of knowledge and representation. By reflecting dominant notions of territoriality and shedding light on different human-space interactions, indigenous cartography serves as inspiration for non-hegemonic worldviews and emancipatory practices. At the same time, in order to be heard and recognized, the claim for territory and empowerment has to translate into dominant cartographic tools. Hence, there is always the danger of distorting original messages or intentions, and to become instrumentalized by those in power. When dealing with geographical imaginations in an emancipatory way, William Bunge's work is an important reference. His geography from below emerged in Detroit's periphery and aimed at building cartographic tools for marginalized communities. Summary, based on the This is not an Atlas’ Introduction

Context of origin

Visual representation




Kollektiv Orangotango. The methods outlined here have emerged from many years of engagement with critical and collective mapping in different activist contexts. No method is universal. Adapt these suggestions to your context and develop them further!Kollektiv Orangotango was greatly inspired by the practices of the Iconoclasistas collective.