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The dialectic of colonialism: Rethinking maps, remaking our cities

Dallas Rogers, Head of Urban Discipline at the School of Architecture, Design and Planning, University of Sydney, comments on the history of map-making in our cities.

The dialectic of colonialism: Rethinking maps, remaking our cities

This story originally appeared in INDESIGN #90, the ‘City Futures’ issue – get your copy here.

There’s a fantastic geographic information system (GIS) map by the Government Architect NSW (GANSW) showing the national parks, reserves, rivers, beaches, and other green and blue spaces of Sydney: the Sydney Green Grid. This map encourages us to think about the city as a set of layers or grids — hydrological, ecological, recreational, agricultural, transport, utilities and development. GANSW hopes the map will act as a “catalyst for the establishment of a new interconnected high performance green infrastructure network which supports urban growth in greater Sydney.”

Yet these exciting new mapping projects sit uncomfortably within the history of cartography in Australia. Navigation, surveying and map-making were key to the colonisation of Australia. Depth sounding Sydney Harbour, surveying the pastoral landscapes of the interior of Australia and observing the planets in the solar system opened the way for colonial exploration, exploitation and violence. Enlightenment science was implicated in the colonial project through cartography, and it is from new developments in science that we get GIS mapping technologies today.

The cartographic legacies of colonialism live on in Australia through the contemporary fields of surveying, urban planning, urban design and architecture. As Alison Page and Paul Memmott remind us, “the British colonists blanketed Indigenous lands with their values, placed layers of concrete, steel and glass over the earth”. They add: “It can be seen in the grid layouts of townships all across Australia, the streetscapes and human-made parks, with buildings turning their backs to the rivers, and roads filling in streams.”

I’m part of a loose collective of new cartographers who are asking if maps, even old maps, can be reclaimed from the colonial archive to radically rethink how we might remake cities in more equitable ways. This new breed of critical map-makers are thinking about Country and landscape, colonial land theft, environmental degradation and contemporary housing inequality as a problem of cartographic method and representation.

The Colonial Frontier Massacres, Australia, 1788 to 1930 project is using GIS to map frontier violence and the massacre of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia during that period. Similarly in the US, The Land Acquisition and Dispossession, Mapping the Homestead Act, 1863-1912 project has mapped colonial land theft across the American West. This map shows how First Nations peoples were dispossessed of their land by colonisers.

In the contemporary research space, The Anti-eviction Mapping Project is using GIS to map the gentrification of US cities such as San Francisco, while the Mapping Atlanta project is tracking the entry of “large corporate single-family landlords across metro Atlanta”. The layering of archival and contemporary data in GIS can produce impactful storytelling and truth-telling devices in a way that reclaims the power of map-making.

I’ve also been working with Andrew Leach, Amelia Thorpe, Laurence Troy and Jasper Ludwig on a Private Property Frontier Map. Drawing on the early parish maps of Sydney, we’re mapping land grants across the entire Sydney basin from the first land grant onwards.

Contemporary Australian society is permeated with questions about the legacies of colonisation and the impacts of private property. Understanding the pace and pattern of the creation of private property ownership of land through the land grant system allows us to understand the pace and pattern of colonial attempts to claim Aboriginal Country as private property. The housing affordability crisis in Australia is merely the most recent example in a long list of effects of privatising the ownership of Aboriginal land.

Related: Chris Fox also from INDESIGN #90

The NSW State Government recognises the significance of their collection of colonial parish maps. Its Parish Map Preservation Project is digitising over 35,000 editions of parish, town, municipal, county and pastoral maps in their collection. As the NSW State Government notes, “Native Title investigations highlighted the need to preserve and provide convenient access to early edition parish maps”.

I first met Professor Grace Karskens, author of The Colony and People of the River, at the NSW State Archives while I was researching parish maps. Karskens was searching through the old maps and plans for Aboriginal place names recorded by colonial surveyors as a part of the Central Coast Indigenous Placenames Project. Karskens has also worked with Darug knowledge holders Leanne Watson, Erin Wilkins and Jasmine Seymour on research exploring the Aboriginal history and place names of the Dyarubbin/Hawkesbury River. After this research was complete, the team worked with NSW Spatial Services and the Geographic Names Board of NSW to map these Aboriginal names with GIS.

These partnerships between new cartographers in government, academia and various cultural groups are important because the maps we make tell us a lot about ourselves and our relationships with each other. Maps are not neutral media of communication. Rather, maps are storytelling tools that we use to craft narratives about the world we live in — and to contest or resist those narratives. Creating different types of stories about our cities, including through maps, will be key to remaking our cities in more equitable ways in the future.

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