Natural directions: green maps for the environment

For dozens of communities around the world, from New York City to Yellowknife, capital of Canada's Northwest Territories, the Green Map System (GMS) is putting the local environment on the map - literally.

The underlying idea is simple: to consider and map cities as ecosystems. After all, cities aren't just asphalt and concrete. Human settlements also include waterways, woodlands, green belts, and wildlife habitats.

GMS, an informal Web-based collaborative network, has been set up to encourage local communities to create their own environmental maps - on paper and online.

Such maps can help residents of a city "appreciate what's already there," says Wendy Brawer in New York, founding director of GMS. "And communities can use maps to develop a preferred future," she adds.

"We believe a Green Map is an excellent idea for evaluating our quality of life in Yellowknife, defining fresh new views of our city and connecting residents to more sustainable choices," the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society says in a flyer encouraging the people of Yellowknife to contribute to their city's nearly completed map. The Yellowknife map is one of the first rural or small-town projects under GMS.

Begun in 1995, GMS now includes 139 projects in 35 countries on six continents. Although many of the local maps have been created by environmental organizations, local government officials, and university planning departments, youth mapmakers have had a big role, too. "It's important that kids aren't just studying some distant rainforest somewhere," says Ms. Brawer, but rather some place closer to home. "They begin to see that a squirrel isn't just a squirrel; it's part of an ecosystem."

This summer the Girl Scouts of Greater New York will be doing green mapping for an urban ecology "patch." In April, GMS posted LoMap, a 250-site map of lower Manhattan produced by young people 7 to 17. A similar project is to be launched in the Bronx this fall, and the mapmakers' methodology is to be made available for others to adapt.

These local mapping projects use a common "vocabulary" of 125 specialized icons to identify features of interest, such as walking trails or wetlands or gardens. The icons can be downloaded as a poster in portable document format (PDF) from

Green Maps often include notes of "opportunities" for environmental cleanup, Brawer says. "Kids in Brooklyn have charted the garbage crisis in New York by bike," she explains. "It was a map called 'Are We Trashing the Apple?' It showed where the proposed garbage transfer stations would be in low-income communities of color along the waterfront." After the map was published, she says, that proposal was dropped. She hesitates to claim too much credit: "I don't know if that map changed the plan, but it's no longer the plan.... Having a kids' perspective really helped."

Different Green Maps are intended for different purposes. Brawer cites "anecdotal evidence" that people have used New York's Green Apple Map to locate desirable places to live - especially near community gardens, 400 of which are indicated on the map. The Rhode Island Greenways Map has been used in industrial recruitment as the former Quonset military base has been turned into the Quonset-Davisville Port and Commerce Park.

"We've tried to combine greenways and industry," says Jean Robertson, director of research and development at the Rhode Island Economic Development corporation in Providence.

In Toronto, which has distributed 40,000 copies of its Green Map since July 15, 1999, the focus is more on green tourism, including local tourism. The map, known as "The Other Map of Toronto," is based on an aerial photograph (see above) and plays down roads in favor of parklands, waterways, and the subway system - an eco-friendly alternative to private cars.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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