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HOMETOWN U: Seeing the city with fresh eyes

  • Author: Kathleen McCoy
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published July 16, 2014

If you could make a map of Anchorage, what would be on it?

Bree Kessler, an urbanist and public health professor from University of Alaska Anchorage, has a few ideas. How about mapping locations of surveillance cameras downtown. She and a team of enthusiasts are on it. They promise surprises and a website soon.

Or, how about this during our nine months of winter: Once snow covers the ground, map exactly where the foot traffic goes. If we can only plow some sidewalks, how about we plow paths people actually use.

I'd never heard the term "participatory mapping" before, but it's happening in Anchorage this week and several more times this summer -- in Mountain View, Spenard and Government Hill. Think of it as geography by and for the people. A Centennial project grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum and others to UAA's Center for Community Engagement and Learning has paved the way for mapping fresh views of these local neighborhoods.

On July 19, two Fairview residents will guide visitors along that community's streets. Resident and architect Klaus Mayer has mapped out five points of interest to share. Christopher Constant, community council president, will have five more. They'll leave time for fellow walkers to recommend a spot or two they'd like to visit and discuss. UAA's website will host a shared Google map so viewers can add stopping places and explain why.

"The focus is on space, and where we see some potential for something different, whatever that might be," Mayer said. Participants can share different ideas they've picked up from other communities. The goal is to see the landscape with fresh eyes, to consider other ways it could be used.

I thought of how many times I can drive home without ever really seeing the streets I pass by. Transportation corridors can become blank tunnels except for traffic in front of you. It's an argument for getting out of your car and taking to the streets, simply to open your eyes.

That's why he walks, says Anchorage resident Eric Larson. He's lived in Anchorage for 26 years without owning a car. On his many long strolls through the city, he says he's "discovered curious houses, interesting people, cut-through paths, hidden hollows and new places in town that I never knew existed." He's writing a book about his urban walking.

For Kessler, the Centennial salons-on-foot have social meaning.

"The walks to me are about public space," Kessler said. "Where the public spaces are, and talking about them as public spaces. It's important to use that language, so people feel like belonging."

Mayer and Kessler explain their upcoming venture while we sit at the lunch counter in Lucky Wishbone, a milkshake-and-fried-chicken restaurant along East Fifth Avenue. At 5 p.m. on a Wednesday, the aroma of frying chicken has filled the tables and packed a line for take-out. The two-hour Fairview walking tour will end here.

"Yes, we will eat here, literally right here, so people can experience it," Kessler said. "This is a neighborhood institution."

Looking at local geography this intently has a rich tradition. Back in the late 1960s, a geographer named Bill Bunge created the Detroit Geographic Expedition. Instead of going outward in search of fantastic land formations, they went inward, into the inner city, in search of social justice.

Their goal was linking academic geographers with "folk geographers" to create maps of "oughtness," maps that showed how things are and how they ought to be. They organized shortly after the 1967 Detroit riot to illustrate the chasm between leaders who considered the city a fine example of integration and its residents, who could identify many areas of discrimination. The big idea behind the movement was asking how maps "could get closer to the people who live in them."

Today, participatory mapping takes place in many major urban areas, including New York City, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Often the goal is to take back or at least create public access to vacant, abandoned land so residents can use the space. In Chicago, the city will sell a vacant lot for $1 to any homeowner living on that same street.

The walking tours and mapping exercises are all about imagining space beyond its current use. Toward that end, Kessler has another civic exercise. Plug a parking meter, then use the spot for something else—a yoga workout, a garden patio, a chess game. She's collaborating with the Anchorage Park Foundation and the Live.Work.Play. team from the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation. September 19 will be PARK(ing) Day, syncing with the global celebration.

"Imagine if all the parking spaces along Fourth Avenue were filled with greenery," Kessler says. "What would that feel like?"

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.

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