Counter-mapping Canada Water

What does it mean to experience a place, to connect (or not) to a neighbourhood? This is a question we are contemplating at the Paper Garden; exploring creative, multi-dimensional and sensory approaches to mapping with children and young people, which are more akin to the way early peoples told the stories of the land.

If you imagine your local area, and then think about your memories of this place, what comes to mind? Then dissociate from your personal memories and imagine life here over a longer period of time, thinking about the way the streets may have looked in the past. What was here before these streets, who moved across this land, and what other plants and animals have lived here?

Now, consider how this corresponds to looking at your neighbourhood on Google Maps or in an A-Z. What has been lost, and what has been gained? While personal experience and a sense of history are surely lost, a practical depiction of the layout of the land in the present has been gained. As Sébastien Caquard, a geographer interested in the mapping of stories, wrote, “A place is a location comprising both the material and the immaterial. The material comprising the landscape, geographical location and the topological characteristics, and immaterial comprising the human dimension of emotions, memories, reminiscences and recollections.”

Different maps can capture different elements of a place, and in the context of a changing Canada Water, workshops in the Paper Garden have been focusing on creating a map of the area that speaks of its changing landscape and children’s hopes for its future. Using clay, children from local primary schools have been creating sculptures that represent buildings they would like to see in their area. Workshops have been framed by the theme of biodiversity: what it is, why it is important, how much we have in the city and how this has changed over time, and how we can create homes for nature in our neighbourhoods. By incorporating these ideas into the sculptures, creating allotments, roof gardens and bug hotels in the sides of buildings, for instance, they tell us about how we can, and need to consider biodiversity when designing urban spaces.

Emma blog 1 (1).jpg
Emma blog 3 (1).jpg

After one of the workshops, year 5 children from St Joseph’s primary school wrote about the sculptures they had created, using the prompt “I wish for my city…”

I wish my city to be small and eco-friendly, inspiring and an example to other cities and countries. I don’t want my city to be loud. I want it to be silent. I want my buildings to be low and helpful to others. I want my city to be full of hotels and shops so that more people can come. – Erica

I wish for my city to be eco-friendly with lots of animals. There will be tons of community centres and parks. There’ll be an area where people become better friends. Finally, there’ll be a tall building with balconies dedicated to unicorns. – Sophia

I wish my city would be eco-friendly and animal-friendly. I want it to be that biodiversity can have a good time together and enjoy it. My team of Dominic, Alvin, Erica and I made a roof garden more towards the insects. – Anna

I wish my city to be a better place with more greenery and trees and no pollution or fossil fuels or anything that causes global warming or natural disasters. Just peace and harmony. No shouting. Just relaxation. Ahhh! Wouldn’t that be nice? – Kamil

Counter-mapping, or subversive cartography, is a method of creatively representing places that moves away from the standard, two-dimensional form that we are familiar with from Ordnance Surveys or Google Maps, which tend to look from above and work to scale. These standard maps, though useful, omit the experiential and human aspects of living in a place – the memories, emotions, histories, images and stories that are associated with a location, ranging from the collective cultural level down to the individual meanings people assign to the places in which they exist.

Many counter-mapping practices have been developed by indigenous peoples making claims to land rights. Using imagery that speaks of cultural stories and a long history of land use, indigenous groups can show that rather than being uninhabited, as state governments and corporations might prefer to believe, their lands have a long history of occupancy, culture and tradition. For traditional Zuni farmer and Director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in New Mexico, Jim Enote, counter-mapping in a particular community can be used to create openings and opportunities for people to speak about places and their meanings. These stories, memories and histories are bound up with identity, belonging, being part of a place and having an ancestry in it. “To assume that people would look at the earth only from a vantage point that is above and looking straight down doesn’t consider the humanity of living on a landscape”, Enote says.

Emma blog 2.jpg

The map of Canada Water we are creating in the Paper Garden is in part inspired by these counter-mapping practices. We hope that the process of creating the map can be used to open up dialogues about the history of the area, with a specific view on how nature and land use have changed over time. Over the past 500 years, the area now known as Rotherhithe has turned from marshland to market gardens and then to docklands; docks have been filled in, a transport hub and shopping centre have been built, and development over the next 15 years will create new streets, parks and facilities, and feature tall, modern buildings.

The map will be displayed in three different locations: Albion and Redriff primary schools, and the British Land marketing room in the historic Dock Office. Rituals will be developed that allow the different parts to be exchanged. Indigenous claims to land, made through counter-mapping, can be a way of resisting the power of the state and industry. In Canada Water, making claims to the rights of local people to the land and what they can do with that land often means working in collaboration with such actors. This map, we hope, will be one way to get the voices of young people and other local community members heard by those involved in the development – from developers themselves to future business occupants.

This work also means acknowledging young people’s desire to be included in London’s prosperity. One child from the year 5 workshop wrote:

I wish my city to be a fancy city with a Gucci hat full with sticks even shoes that attract birds. Remember we must be fancy to help the needy - Emmanuel P

The “fancy city” he describes could be interpreted as one in which the prosperity and wealth the new development will bring is shared by all. It brings to my mind the excitement of sixth form students on work experience with Global Generation last summer, when they were presented with the designs for the Canada Water Masterplan. The slick architecture of those modern buildings represented inclusion in London’s prosperity, and the opportunities the development could bring for young people.

In the workshop, the year 5 pupil made a cuboid topped with the letters G-U-C-C-I: a store selling luxury goods. Beside it, he made a pair of shoes from which plants grew, attracting birds and other wildlife. It is not impossible to envision a future Canada Water in which prosperity and opportunities for local residents, and biodiversity, are not only considered but prioritised.