Art & Culture

Wild About Neighbourhood Maps

If you drew a map of your neighbourhood, what would it look like? Whether it’s the city as a whole or our local neighbourhood, each of us sees the place we live a little differently from everyone else. Even within the same household, the boundaries and key features of our communities differ as our perceptions of where we live are shaped by our experiences and familiarity. 

A map doesn’t have to be geolocated with precise coordinates and measurements. Humans have used maps to make sense of the world for thousands of years. The earliest known map dates from 600 BCE and depicts the geography around the city of Babylon. Since that time, maps have been created not only as printed illustrations, but in every medium imaginable, from embroidery to ceramics. Today, the maps we’re most familiar with live on our phones and are easily accessible with the flick of a finger. 

A hand stitched map show red roads converging on a blue town center, surrounded by green trees and blue rivers.
Artist Anne Biss uses embroidery to make maps. Photo via

Maps are, of course, 2D representations of the world around us, and can cover an area as small as a single room or as large as the universe. The features we choose to include offer our personal insights of the world around us. Even professional cartographers must make choices about how and what to highlight, and those choices show how they see the world. 

In 2020, the CityLab project asked people to share their personal maps of their experiences during the early days of the pandemic. Hundreds of people responded, sharing a wide array of maps that showed how they lived their lives during this unique moment. The variety of maps that were submitted is astounding. Maps of living rooms, of city streets, of subway commutes, of nearby parks. Some maps were deeply detailed drawings, while others were quick sketches, but all of them reflected the lives of the people who made them.

A map of a house. Each room is labelled with the author's experiences in that room such as "legend has it that this room as the largest, softest, most fluffy bed made out of actual clouds."
Anotations on pandemic quaranteine map bring it to life. Map by Alayna Delgado via CityLab.

We don’t often have a reason to make maps in our daily lives when directions to everywhere are easily available on our phones. But making a map of the places around us—even everyday places such as our street or our local park—can show us what’s important to us and what we value.

A map entitled Sandwiches and places to eat them near my house in Vancouver, BC. The street map is annotated with sandwich shops and the sandwiches they sell.
Sometimes, the things we value are sandwiches. Map by Sam Bradd.

So, if you drew a map of your living room, your street, your city, your life, what would it look like?

To get started, think about the story you want your map to tell. Do you want to draw a representation of your neighbourhood, of your route to work, of your favourite places? If you want to be more technical, you can use a base map to define your map area or you can simply go freehand. 

A coloured pencil street map. At the top of the map, green trees illustrate Prospect Park. Below that are streets with the school, fire station, daily shop, home, giant tree with giant roots, and the subway.
Maps don’t need to be fancy, they just need to capture what’s important to you. Map from the Center for Architecture.

Begin by identifying the most important landmarks that you want to capture and mark those on your map before filling in the places in between, or leave them blank to highlight the start and end points of a route. Add as much or as little detail to your map as you want—remember, the details you include are a representation of how you view the world around you and including notations about features that are important to you can bring your map to life. If you’re not sure what to include, consider some of the questions from the Big Here that I highlighted last week. 

Anyone can make a map. What does yours look like?

A map entitled "map of sounds in my neighbourhood, april 12. 2020, Cambridge, MA. The symbols on the map represent sounds from birds, wind, chimes, bikes, cars, trucks, talking, dogs.
Maps don’t have to be limted to physical phenomina as this sound map show. Map by C.X. Hua via CityLab.

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