Power, Inequity, and Maps: An Urban Analysis

Our world today is the result of centuries and centuries worth of human migration and complex natural phenomena. This world is a reflection of our lives. However, we can also see it through the eyes of a man-made two-dimensional invention: maps. The many contested boundaries of the world are defined by maps. They have also been used to oppress, in particular, places where they were used to segregate societal groups from those who live in the most marginalized areas.

Aerial view of Paris. Image Courtesy of Daily Overview

While maps are useful for navigation and helping us to understand the immense scale of the world around us, they have limitations. One example of a map that severely distorts reality is the Mercator Projection. This makes Greenland appear to be one-eighth larger than South America, despite it being only one-eighth smaller. Urban planning relies on maps for the design and layout of urban settlements. However, maps are often disconnected from the many experiences of people “on the ground”. Maps can be unable to account for the complexity of urban areas.

Le Corbusier's Plan Voisin with a satellite image of the city . Image © David Pinder

Le Corbusier’s 1925 Plan Voisin is a clear representation both of maps being used to tell stories and maps that treat a site like a tabula rasa , ignoring the history and context of a particular site. Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin vision was to destroy two square miles of Paris’ traditional downtown and build 18 cruciform glass office buildings in their place. These towers were placed on a rectangular grid within a green space that could be used as a park.

1922 Map of Rabat. Image © Bibliothèque nationale de France

The marketing of this scheme included a map showing the proposed scheme juxtaposed with a satellite image. Le Corbusier’s drawing to the left shows a picture of an organized city with neatly laid streets and clean lines. The Marais neighbourhood on the right shows the opposite. The satellite image depicts the Marais neighbourhood’s narrow streets in all clarity. Le Corbusier had intended to “solve” its chaotic streets through his plan. This is the essence of Le Corbusier’s “Science of Urbanism,” which was essentially an imposition of ideas. These highly organized maps were used to represent the utopian ideas of Le Corbusier, and other Modernists. However, they tended not to take into account the complex socio-cultural nature urban life.

Old Medina area of Rabat. Image © Wikimedia User Yamen under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

However, maps have been used not only by urban planners to show utopian societies but also to justify and organize oppressive colonial regimes like the one in France. The French administration created a series maps showing Rabat after Morocco was designated a French Protectorate. An 1922 map of the city that showed planned infrastructure projects is a powerful reminder of how maps can help shape societies that are based on inequality and inequity. This map was drawn with the all-encompassing eye of a colonial urban planner. Certain areas are excluded and highlighted with deliberate and calculated intent.

Rabat’s twin city, Sale, is not shown on the map. This is because Sale was largely inaccessible to outsiders. It was therefore ignored by colonial urban planners. The Rabat map, which is a continuation of previous colonial urbanism efforts in Algeria, shows a method for segregating local settlements and European settlements by creating an open space, such as a “cordon sanitaire”. In the map, Medina’s historical indigenous quarter is shown as a red area. This form of diagramming suggests that this space is to be monitored and controlled.

This 1922 map of Rabat, in a similar way to Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisinmap is an attempt to control urban space. The yellow lines drawn on the map go over areas that already exist, allowing them to penetrate an urban fabric that has been there for centuries. The map shows that the medina remains neglected and that the European quarters to Rabat to the south and west of Rabat are permitted to grow. This means that the local population is forced to live in substandard conditions in an area without adequate infrastructure and funding.

Many urban planning conversations today have seen a shift towards holistic design. Maps are now complemented with “ground-level” perspectives and community participation. Today’s society has an almost limitless number of tools that allow people to create their maps at home. It is important to understand the relationships between power and the two-dimensional representations of urban space, given the increased availability of maps. Satellite images are a great way to understand urban settlements. They show the city as it is today, its history and people’s lived experiences.