Arts Engaged
Engage Now

Chapter Nine

Cultural Mapping

by Stephanie Moore and Tom Borrup


Cultural mapping is not only a method for cataloguing the cultural assets of a community it is also a tool useful for community engagement and collaboration. For the purposes of this chapter, cultural mapping is understood to be the process of identifying and stating, in a written or visual inventory, all cultural assets within a specific geographic area. This includes the gathering of tangible and intangible assets from the community including but not limited to cultural organizations, artists, and stories. Cultural mapping provides an understanding of culture, history, and a community’s unique identity that should be used at the beginning of any community development or planning project to create a list of potential partners, community resources, and tools needed for successful implementation. Input is sought from the community to guide the development of a plan to create a map of community networks and assets.

As a major part of municipal cultural planning, cultural mapping has grown out of research since the mid- to late-1980s in cultural planning from Canada, Australia, the United States, and various western European countries. The Community Planning Handbook by Colin Mercer in 1995 helped broaden the understanding of cultural resources. The Creative City Network of Canada, created in 1997 to support the community of municipal cultural workers throughout Canada, has since created three toolkits (Cultural Planning, Cultural Mapping, and Public Art) that have become invaluable for cultural workers throughout the world. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) officially recognizes cultural mapping as a vital tool for preserving the cultural assets of the world and offers multiple resources for identifying both tangible and intangible assets. Information about cultural mapping and cultural planning will continue to grow as more municipal and federal governments recognize its potential for building and strengthening communities.

This chapter focuses on cultural mapping as a stand-alone strategy for building strong communities and increasing community engagement. Without acknowledging the importance of mapping as a specific community development tool, cultural workers will generate disconnected lists. Without understanding how the assets build connections between the people within the community, the maps themselves are useless to the individuals who created the map.

John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight (1996) have demonstrated that emphasis placed on non-native assets, those assets not directly based in the community, makes it difficult to build a positive community identity. For cultural mapping to build and foster a strong and sustainable community with empowered local leaders, it must include the individual and organizational capacities from within the local community.


Cultural mapping allows individuals to discover and identify multiple as well as shared stories of their community. The following are definitions necessary for understanding cultural mapping:

  • Cultural mapping is the process of identifying and stating, in a written or visual inventory, all cultural assets within a specific geographic region.

  • Culture includes the arts, heritage, beliefs and environments that make up our individual identities.

  • Assets are the facilities, organizations, people, ideas, customs, and relationships that contribute to a way of life in a specific place.

  • Community refers to a group of people within a specific geographic area, i.e. cities, neighborhoods, states, or regions.

Cultural mapping is an important process that can build a network utilizing assets found in a community. It allows a community to discover the resources that contribute to the unique environment and qualities of that place. Cultural assets are therefore best recognized by members of the entire region and cannot be fully gathered by just one individual or organization no matter how thorough the effort. Mapping can be carried out in a number of ways but should always focus on community and collaboration. The process itself of getting people together to share resources and stories–and the working relationships that can result–have equal or greater value than the map or inventory of assets that might be generated.

Part I introduces a theoretical background that must drive the outcomes of all community-oriented mapping projects. To provide an example of the mapping process, a single model along with its ability to engage citizens is presented in Part II and within the online companion to this book (; this is by no means the only way to undertake mapping.


Part I – Theoretical Background: Community Engagement

Engaging a community in a cultural mapping process promotes both diversity and equality, builds community identity, and supports cultural sustainability while producing a usable list of the community’s cultural assets. Each of these five outcomes can be used to understand the importance of mapping as a practice and can help inform how the map will be used within a community. Collecting information about the community and encouraging full participation while working towards a common goal is the essence of cultural mapping.

The Planning Process

Throughout the entire process it is important to maintain an environment that has several characteristics that may sometimes be challenging to balance. It is that balancing act that is the art form of the planner:

  1. It is about creating, nurturing, and mending relationships. Planners may or may not be part of a community in which they work, and while they need to build trust, it is in the relationships across members of the community that are formed in the planning process that have long term value.

  2. It is about learning. It should not be assumed that any participants come into the process with fixed positions. The planners, as well as all participants who learn together are more likely to arrive at more creative and more sustainable visions and solutions.

  3. It is about addressing tough issues. Conflict should not be avoided but should be welcomed and embraced. Conflicting ideas provide opportunities for learning.

  4. It should be about fun. Humor itself can be a great tool for fostering dialogue and learning. The joy of coming together to share, meet new people, explore, even debate should be emphasized and utilized. People will not want ever to engage in planning again if the process is tedious, consistently contentious, or without moments of levity.


Around the world, communities are increasingly more diverse as individuals move for better opportunities, to be closer to family, or for new experiences. Cultural diversity as a major concern for all communities has been repeatedly addressed by UNESCO and was the subject of the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity in 2001. Accessing the value of diversity requires a tolerant and understanding world in which every culture has a place. This is a pre-requisite for understanding the roles and value of all cultural assets within a community. The literature on community cultural development and cultural planning focuses on the importance of creating open dialogue throughout the community (Congdon, 2008; Dreeszen, 1998; Goldbard, 2004). Through this dialogue all forms of culture can be addressed and planned for according to the unique identity of the community.

Diversity not only includes ethnic or racial differences, but also differences of economic class, sexual orientation, age, and religion (Congdon, 2008). When engaging in community development it is imperative to have key leaders from diverse backgrounds involved in the project. By including diverse perspectives, the cultural map will include assets that have previously been overlooked by large cultural institutions. Everyone has their own perspective on the community and they should be given the opportunity to share their stories without prejudice.


Promoting equality where diverse cultural and social perspectives are prominent can be difficult in any community. However, creating a welcoming space is necessary for honest open dialogue to occur. The mapping process itself should mirror these values. It is important to remember that no one’s ideas are any better or worse than another’s. Freire (1974) asserts that dialogue is the only true means of communication. He states that a horizontal relationship between individuals, one that is built on mutual trust and respect, is the only way for meaningful dialogue to occur. The opposite of this relationship, known as anti-dialogue or a vertical relationship, contributes to hierarchical statements of opinions without active listening. Listening is an essential and often overlooked skill in cultural mapping.

Equality must also address the importance of accessibility for the entire community and not only the creation of a level playing field for communication. This is especially critical in the design of cultural facilities. Grodach (2010) holds that cultural spaces can and should function as public spaces and must be designed to accommodate everyone–not just the standard audience. This necessitates creating a space for underrepresented groups to be visible in the wider community and including a diverse array of programming to reach multiple segments of the population in those spaces.

Another method for encouraging equality in cultural spaces is to follow universal design standards when designing and implementing a building. A well-designed space can help create an environment that is welcoming and encourages dialogue among participants. Universal design is a “design approach that assumes that the range of human ability is ordinary, not special” (Ostroff, 2001). Universal design standards are continually growing as the definition of accessibility evolves to include a wider range of people regardless of age, ability, gender, economic status, education, and more. This focus on accessibility ensures that all segments of the community have the opportunity to feel truly connected to the place in which they live.


Both economic and cultural sustainability can be addressed through the cultural mapping process. Hawkes (2001), a leading scholar on cultural sustainability, has written extensively on the interconnectedness of the four pillars of sustainability: cultural, economic, social, and environmental. He designates cultural sustainability as vital to the health of every community and affirms that if a society’s culture fails then so will everything else. To ensure cultural sustainability within a community it is necessary to celebrate the diverse cultural assets and create an environment in which they are respected and able to thrive

One way to build a framework for cultural sustainability is to encourage a shared sense of ownership in the collective culture. Community members must have a chance to be part of community decision making and planning. Without this opportunity, individuals will continue to become more disengaged with society and not understand the importance of sustaining that way of life (Hawkes, 2001). Acknowledging both the shared values and the diversity within the community leads to the creation of a community’s unique identity. When individuals are part of this process they gain a sense of ownership in their community. This sense of ownership then becomes an important value that is passed down through generations, encouraging a future built on this shared cultural foundation.

Community Identity/Place

Pride in one’s community is an important outcome of building community identity or a sense of place. This pride encourages civic action among citizens and encourages service to the community. However, people have become increasingly disconnected from their immediate surroundings as they connect on a more global scale via new technology (Baeker & Cardinal, 2001; Evans, 2001). Placemaking or building community identity within a geographic region is a known outcome of any cultural mapping project. Developing a map that includes the unique qualities of a community, both tangible and intangible assets, can build a network of stories that not only connect the individuals who told them, but also attract new residents and visitors to the area.

Creative capital is a concept that has been encouraging cultural development and planning across the United States. Quality of place is an essential piece of creative capital and is promoted by the creation of a unique community identity. Evans (2001) mentions that cities are now looking towards culture to recreate their identities and become a part of the creative city race. Cultural mapping can help strengthen this endeavor by creating a document that can be used to promote the community and attract new residents.

A strong community identity can also be an integral part of a cultural tourism campaign. Cultural tourism has become an important branch of the tourism industry. Thorne (2008) states that cultural tourists spend more time and money during a vacation than other tourists because they want to become immersed in the community they are visiting. They want a more complete experience, to be a part of the community, explore the diverse cultural offerings, and are more likely to develop an indelible connection to the area. Therefore, creating a cultural map can bolster a cultural tourism campaign and create pride and ownership of the community by its members.


Developing a list of community cultural assets is the principal goal of every cultural mapping project, however community engagement and collaboration must be used to reach that goal if the map is to be useful. Identifying both the tangible and intangible assets is necessary to complete a comprehensive map. Borrup (2006), Creative City Network of Canada (2009), and Kretzmann & McKnight (1996) all verify that the practice of creating a map from only tangible assets will ultimately miss much of the individuality of the area. Listening to the stories of the community and engaging in an open dialogue with current residents will help develop a map that truly represents the community and acknowledges the importance of the past on the current state of the cultural sector. Listening and dialogue also build stronger community connections which enhance its capacity to address a variety of challenges.


Part II – Overview of the Cultural Mapping Process

Part I established the theoretical background that could inform creation and implementation of a cultural mapping project. This section will summarize the ways a cultural mapping project can engage the community. It was mentioned previously that cultural mapping can be a stand-alone endeavor or it could be the beginning of a cultural planning–or any city planning–process. Either way, it is important to engage the entire community and allow residents to offer feedback at every step. This makes certain everyone has ownership of the finished product and is a part of its successful implementation: building community pride and identity.

There are five major elements of a cultural map: Planning, Mapping Design, Community Support & Insight, Creating the Map, and Finalizing the Map. In each of these five steps community engagement should be a priority in order to build and foster a strong community. What follows are examples of ways that community engagement can be emphasized throughout each step as well as the benefit of those steps to the community. For a detailed model of a cultural mapping process that emphasizes community engagement please see

Step I: Planning

The cultural mapping process should begin with an internal capacity and community networks assessment before opening the project to the entire community. An internal audit is necessary to ensure that all ideas, resources, and current partnerships are organized. This serves as a good foundation for the community engagement work that will follow.

The establishment of goals, objectives, and parameters for developing a cultural map is essential; however, it is critical to include the entire community in doing so. Beginning the planning process with a town hall meeting allows community members the opportunity to be involved from the start. Asking for assistance in this also enables the community to build a sense of ownership in the project. This creates the opportunity for the cultural map to strengthen community identity and sense of place.

During the planning process it is essential to gather all available resources–human, technological, communication, fiscal–before beginning the public phase of the project. It is important to identify established partnerships when developing a list of resources. Many times a collaborating organization may have vital technological or human resources to donate to the process. The community also holds an abundance of human resources. Encouraging community members to be a part of a steering committee, task force, or to volunteer individually to distribute communication and surveys will enhance the sense of ownership in the resulting map. Also, without enthusiastic collaborators and community input, it is impossible to engage others in positive community development.

Step II: Mapping Design

Cultural maps can take multiple shapes. They can be, for example, a written inventory, a searchable database, a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) map, or a hand-drawn map. The design chosen for the cultural map not only depends upon the technology and funding available, but also on the community environment. Understanding how the community would engage with the map is a necessary question to ask during this step of the process. If the majority of the community has a lack of online resources it would not make sense to create a GIS map that only a few could access. On the other hand, if a GIS map is an important component for connecting across local and regional barriers, it should not be neglected.

Creating a database system and deciding on collection methods are necessary parts of Step II. As mentioned earlier, assets can be both tangible and intangible, making a clear organizational system necessary. This is critical in order to be able to find and sort the information once the project is complete. Setting categories for information is a great opportunity to include the wider community. For example, instead of making an executive decision to include only performing arts, visual arts, historical sites, and stories, the community can help identify categories that are important to them and uniquely define each of these terms so that terminology is used consistently throughout the mapping process.

Collecting data takes a great deal of time and human resources. Capitalizing on the use of community volunteers to engage in data collection can build strong foundations for the final cultural map. There are multiple ways to collect information–survey, recording, one-on-one interviews, focus groups–methods that are easily used by the community. Some valuable means to engage the community in this process include having middle and high school students take oral histories throughout the community; hosting a booth at a local festival or farmer’s market to gather cultural information; or hosting focus groups throughout the neighborhood. These methods collect information at the grassroots level, can open dialogue among diverse demographics, and can build a diverse dataset representative of the entire community.

Step III: Community Support and Insight

This step includes ways to announce the project to the community, getting them excited to participate, and hosting focus groups and meetings. Creating trust in and a sense of transparency about the project are essential for a fully inclusive cultural map. Encouraging participation and support for this project can come from announcing the cultural map as a way to find the unique identity of the community or to learn more about its under-recognized cultural assets.

The data collection methods agreed on in the previous step will be put to use here and should be fun and inviting for everyone. This step should be the most community focused of all. Listening to the community is the purpose of this step. It will be clear how engaging the collection process is once results start being entered into the database. Since everyone has a different view of the community, the level of engagement should be evident based on the responses received. If the community is only providing the standard cultural pillars in the community then it will be necessary to ensure the data collection materials are clear and the survey questions are open-ended. Truly listening to the heartbeat of the community will create an inclusive cultural map.

Step IV: Creating the Map

Completing the cultural map takes great attention to detail and a firm grasp of the parameters of the project. The map design from Step II will guide the creation of the map. Creating the actual map will involve a small group of individuals, but must include regular check-ins with the wider community. After asking for community support during data collection, it is crucial to keep the community involved throughout the implementation process. This way both the tangible and intangible assets can be correctly categorized and plotted. Transparency at this time also serves to build trust between the organization leading the mapping and the community, enhancing the likelihood of broad support for whatever projects result from the mapping.

Step V: Finalizing the Map

After completing final edits based upon the community review, the map is ready to be made public. This step should be designed to gain enthusiastic participation by a wide range of community members. Collaborators and, most importantly, the community as a whole should be thanked for their help in creating the map. This can be done as a launch party, as part of another community event, or as a press conference. What is important is that the entire community learns about and has access to the finished product. During this final step the community should have the opportunity to engage with the map and see how they helped shape it. This step should not be the end of community engagement but should be the door that opens up new partnerships and collaborations throughout the community.


Cultural mapping is a tool for building community that can then be used for advocacy and cultural planning, as well as economic and community development. The process of engaging citizens in the creation of their unique cultural identity, by finding the assets already existing in the community, promotes community empowerment, sustainability, diversity, and equality and strengthens their sense of civic pride.

Part I above described the theoretical background for understanding the many positive effects of cultural mapping as long as community engagement is a vital part of the project. Working on a cultural map can enhance the current partnerships in the community and build new collaborations by revealing the common identity among all community members. It outlined common definitions of diversity, equality, sustainability, and community identity/sense of place. As essential pieces of the planning process, cultural mapping is one of many tools that can be used to build and foster a strong community.

Part II focused on how each step of the cultural mapping process can engage the community and the benefits that result from that engagement. Inclusive planning and implementation of the cultural map can ensure that community identity and sense of place is strengthened. These inclusive methods also create a map that is diverse in its definitions of resources and types of resources plotted and provide an equal opportunity for all cultural assets in the community to be a part of the final map.

Cultural mapping promotes the idea that a community has a shared identity which is strengthened by its diversity. Creating a space for open and honest dialogue about cultural assets is difficult but should be the driving force behind cultural mapping. As mentioned throughout this chapter, without respect for all segments of the community on the part of the “mappers” and the community’s trust of the process, the resulting map will be incomplete. Significantly, cultural mapping does not end when a map is created. Community engagement is not something that will, without effort, continue to be a part of the community once the map is complete. Once the community has engaged in this collaborative project it is important to build on the partnerships created. It must be continually fostered through collaborative and innovative projects that benefit the larger community. The mapping process provides the cultural community a means of beginning community engagement; it should not be the end of it.


The Cultural Mapping Process - Expanded Details