Mapping the Road to Social Justice


Counter-Mapping is the act of mapping locations in opposition to the dominant power structures. People of power traditionally have determined what appears on a map and in what way, yet this new technique challenges the way society look at certain places or people. (Hodgson D L, Schroeder R A, 2002)

Detroit in the USA is a city where racial segregation between the African American and white communities exists still today. There have been studies which explore the negative health effects living in a segregated society pose, as access to things such as nutritious food and adequate health care, poverty levels and education are affected. This results in a higher mortality and morbidity rate for the African American community due to where they live. (Zenk S N, 2004)

Dr William Bunge was an African American professor at Wayne State University, until his participation in the Civil Rights movement lead to his dismissal. In the 1970’s he and Gwendolyn Warren another advocate for civil rights started the Detroit Geographic Institution. They aimed to promote equality and highlight racial injustice in the community, allowing free courses for African American youths who were trained in geographic procedures and urban planning. They felt there was discrimination in policing, housing, employment, spatial segregation, shortage of recreational facilities, poor quality of public education and access to medical services, and attempted to use maps to highlight this.

One of the more confronting maps they presented was titled “Where Commuters Run Over Black Children on the Pointes-Downtown Track”.


This map uses a harrowing reality of murdered children in a visual representation to express how little the white community cared about the racial injustices present in the city. Although you may ask how we know the commuters were white? Most working African Americans would leave at 3 or 4am to catch a bus to a factory several hours away, and those who did have cars were unable to get on these routes from 3-5pm due to the traffic lights rotations. This also highlights how Detroit’s urban planning is situated at further disadvantaging the community, preventing their access to roads.

As these deaths are not isolated incidences as proven above, it’s chilling to think that the white community of Detroit in the 1970s were more concerned about getting to work speedily instead of worrying about how many futures they were taking away.
“…it is a map of where white adults kill black kids. It is a map of racist infanticide, a racial child-murder map” (D’ignazio C, 2013)

Through viewing human aspects on a map instead of mere roads and businesses, people have the ability to change their perspective on issues and even have the ability to advocate for change.

“Geography is often defined as the study of the earth’s surface as the home of man. But from the view of which men’s home?” – Dr William Bunge

  • D’ignazio C, 2013 “The Detroit Geographic Expedition and Institute: A Case Study in Civic Mapping” MIT Centre for Civic Media August 7 2013, viewed 10/4/2015
  • Zenk S N, 2002 “Neighbourhood racial composition, neighbourhood poverty and food access in metropolitan Detroit: Geographic information systems and spatial analysis” University of Michigan viewed 10/4/2015
  • Hodgson D L, Shroeder R A, 2002 “Dilemmas of Counter-Mapping Community Resources in Tanzania” Development and Change vol. 33 no. 1 viewed 10/4/2015

One thought on “Mapping the Road to Social Justice

  1. thetremendousunknown

    Great blog post!

    I find the idea that maps (a visual piece of information) can now change people’s perspective on issues, advocate change and even promote social justice very invigorating. Albeit this map is disturbing it shows point blank how selfish and oblivious the white commuters of Detroit were in the 1970’s.

    It’s interesting to reflect that some individuals find maps to codify the miracle of existence (Nicholas Crane, Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Plant). Warren and Bunge definitely do not codify the miracle of existence in their map. However, one must consider has any action taken place after the release of such maps? Were the commuters of Detroit punished?
    Often maps are created to promote social justice but not a lot is followed up. For example, a report created by the Opportunity Agenda and the Joint Centre for Political and Economic Studies became aware that many participants were uninformed of where the work ended up and what the impact was.

    Now that GIS systems are capable of making people aware about certain issues and maps are no longer instruments of the powerful elites, more needs to be premeditated on how these maps actually impact society or the impact they have on individuals they are created for.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s