Mental mapping – An introduction
Sustainable regional and urban development requires participation of various actors and a systemic understanding about regional characteristics. Especially the integration of youth and young adults is often neglected in regional planning, but important for intergenerational sustainable development. The Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), the follow up of the UN Decade on ESD, calls to support youth in their role as drivers for change by imparting participatory skills (UNESCO 2014).
Mental maps present a valuable approach to include young people in development processes through reflecting and analysing differences in regional perceptions. According to Shamai & Ilatov (2004) the knowledge of and belonging to a region, the identification with regional visions and integration in regional development processes are critical to the individual consciousness or sense of place. Regional identity is understood as all spatial settings and identifications together, which consist of the perception of a region, regional belonging as well as regional opportunities for action (Blotevogel, Heinritz & Popp 1989).
The concept of mental or cognitive maps originally comes from cognitive psychology and found its way as an interdisciplinary approach of spatial orientation in geography in the 1960s by Kevin Lynch, an American architect and urban planner with his reference work “The Image of a City” (Lynch 1960). Cognitive mapping is defined as “a process composed of a series of psychological transformations by which an individual acquires, stores, recalls, and decodes information about the relative locations and attributes of the phenomena in his everyday spatial environment” (Downs & Stea 1973, p. 7, cited in Kitchin 1994). Mental maps are simplified, abstract, selective and generalised representations of complex spatial realities. Following elements are integral aspects of mental maps:
- Pathways are one of the most important spatial elements and serve orientation purposes. People move on pathways (streets, pavements, footpaths, railway tracks, etc.) – regularly, occasionally or accidentally. Spaces are perceived as a collection of elements along such paths. For our spatial perception the quality and texture of the pathways are of importance, the frequency of users or security issues.
- Mental spaces are two-dimensional mapped areas of a region, such as city quarters, which can be entered or left.
- Boundaries are linear elements, which are not (only) used as pathways, but which set boundaries and differentiate spatial areas from each other (e.g. city quarters, densely built-up areas from parks, etc.).
- Focal points are central points of a city or region, which are of relevance for an observer. They are often characterised through crossroads and a density of different elements.
- Landmarks are specific visual reference points, such as notable buildings (church, tower, city hall) or landscape elements (large tree, pond) (cp. Was schafft Raum 2014).
Mental maps consist both of knowledge about places as well as knowledge about spatial relationships within a particular region (cp. Kaplan 1976).
Applying mental maps in teaching
Drawing mental maps present a suitable method for identifying differences and similarities in individual perceptions of a particular region. It can be applied in classes dealing with regional and urban development processes, such as geography and architecture, but also in environmental or management classes, e.g. when you like to identify perceptions of a national park, an environmentally polluted area or establishing an enterprise in a specific location.
After introducing the concept and purpose of mental maps, students (and regional stakeholders, if applicable) are asked to draw their personal mental map of a particular region. This task can be narrowed down by asking the students to focus on specific aspects – e.g. What do you associate with sustainability in your region? Where do you see problems in security issues (related to traffic)? Which areas are relevant for your leisure activities? Afterwards a common reflection round is being recommended, where the participants exchange their experiences of the method. For analysing the mental maps, students can be asked to present their maps and the various elements can be collected on a flipchart or whiteboard. At the end this collection of areas, landmarks and focal points will provide insights about differences and similarities of the regional perceptions of the participants.
See “Integration of societal stakeholders” below for involving regional actors into the process.