Urban Mapping and Critical Placemaking

Discover and map your city on OpenStreetMaps

by Benedikt

My name is Benedikt and I have been living in Heidelberg since 2014, with some gaps in between where I lived in Vienna and Jerusalem. I am currently doing my Master’s degree in  Transcultural Studies at the University of Heidelberg, interested in issues such as social stratification, community politics, communication and conflict. I participated in this workshop as part of a postmigration research seminar at the Heidelberg Center for Transcultural Studies.

I believe that cities are not “just” places of residence but do offer a place for encounter and the re-negotiation of different worldviews and ways of life. In that regard, the aspect of mapping a city and the usage of public space seems crucial to me. How are people moving through the city? Which are considered places of leisure and which places of discomfort? Who is representing the city and who is being represented? 

For this reason, I took particular interest in the OpenStreetMaps workshop at the roadto_ “Do It Yourself Together” festival in Adenauerplatz on Saturday 6th July. The purpose of the workshop was to present OpenStreetMaps (OSM) as an alternative to corporate mapping tools such as Google Maps to navigate through – but also reshape – the city.

The workshop leaders, Christina Ludwig, Judith Levy and fellow peers from the department of Geoinformatics at Heidelberg University arrived early and heavily packed with tablets, maps and other tools for their mapping workshop at the festival site. 

What is OpenStreetMaps?

OpenStreetMaps is a wiki-style collaborative project that creates and distributes free geographic data. As stated on their website: „We started it because most maps you think of as free actually have legal or technical restrictions on their use, holding back from using them in creative, productive, or unexpected ways”.

Collaborative Mapping

Similarly to Wikipedia, basically anyone can contribute to the data network that makes OSM. Be it your preferred route to bike through the city, the best green spots to sit and relax or the next access to a public bathroom, OSM incorporates all this user generated information, which is constantly and collectively reviewed by other users, shaping a path for a radically democratic perspective on the city.

Although not many people did participate at once, various passersby were  happy to mark their favorite green spots, share their biking routes to move around Heidelberg or  discover ways of mapping the city on tablets with OSM.

Mapping Cities

The Urbanist David Harvey once described the ability to codetermine city politics and to participate in shaping urban spaces as an essential human right [1]. According to an UN report from 2018, around 55% of the world’s population are living in cities, projected to rise up to 68% until 2050 [2]. This means reversely, if we want to live in a just and peaceful world, more than 50% of it depends on socially just and sustainable urban spaces. Therefore, David Harvey proposed to leave behind neoliberal trends of privatization and to foster more inclusive ways of urban planning instead. “If our urban world has been imagined and made then it can be re-imagined and re-made” [3].

The relationship between individuals, places, stories and community is very important in that context. The US-American social psychologist Erin Toolis shows that often the voices of many are repressed in order to serve a certain master narrative: “a dominant discourse that portrays itself as natural, unanimous, and eternal, working to silence alternative narratives” [4]. People who don’t match this discourse then easily seem out of place or out of control. Who we are, where we come from, and where we are going is embedded within and represented by “symbols, structures and normative practices in public spaces” [5]. If it is left to Google, or other global, national or local businesses to map the urban space, this becomes part of how we imagine cities and makes it yet more difficult to re-think them. Marginalized communities or individuals have found many possibilities – or ways of placemaking – to reclaim public space: community gardens, murals, protests, alternative (e.g. tenant owned) housing projects or happenings such as the road to__ festival series. -The remaining issue is, such projects and voices have to be made heard.

Geographic Information Systems as Tools for Critical Placemaking

Places of leisure and getting together can be difficult to find within the limited publicly available urban space, it might be even more challenging to find routes for bikers or pedestrians to navigate comfortably and safe through the city. Participatory Geographic Information Systems (GIS) such as OSM “can allow for community members to access important information about their environments relevant to their mobility and life chances, such as spatial segregation by race and income, the location of public services, police stops and arrests, and pollution levels”. While Google Maps simply shows possible walking or biking routes, the community-based efforts of OSM give way for the most citizen-friendly routes, even incorporating the different aesthetics and values people have while moving through the city. But furthermore, the collaborative use of freely accessible web-based maps also singles out places of discomfort and can encompass maps of the city due to different identities or needs.


The workshop did present OpenStreetMap as a promising tool that can be helpful for those who have to move and/or live in a city so they can do so in a  more informed and safer way. It explained the necessity of free accessible and common mapping projects opposed to the predominant corporate alternatives. Yet, a closer look showed that using OSM methodologically can even open up ways to visualize urban issues and social injustices. It can be used to represent the otherwise not represented and to communicate such shortcomings to local policy makers more efficiently.


  • [1] Harvey 2003, 939.
  • [2] UN DESA 2018, 7.
  • [3] Harvey 2003, 941.
  • [4] Toolis 2017, 187.
  • [5] Ibid. 187.
  • United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2018. “World Urbanization Prospects 2018” https://population.un.org/wup/Publications/Files/WUP2018-Highlights.pdf.
  • Harvey, D. 2003. „The right to the city“. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF URBAN AND REGIONAL RESEARCH, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27 (4). OXFORD: BLACKWELL PUBL LTD: 939–939.
  • Toolis, Erin E. 2017. „Theorizing Critical Placemaking as a Tool for Reclaiming Public Space“. American Journal of Community Psychology 59 (1-2). HOBOKEN: WILEY: 184–99.