This article was originally published in the July-August 2007 issue of the CARFAC Saskatchewan Visual Artists newsletter under the title “Creative Connections: Mapping Culture and Identity in Saskatoon.” Please note that I’ve added new information that I received after the article was published.
Creative Connections: Mapping Culture and Identity in Saskatoon was a panel presentation given in Saskatoon on June 1, 2007. It was part of the Canadian Cartographic Association’s annual conference which itself was part of the University of Saskatchewan’s Congress 2007. According to the promotional literature, “Creative Connections is one component of the Cultural Capitals Program. Its purpose is to promote Saskatoon’s potential as a creative city and to foster the conditions necessary for creativity to thrive. The project is a partnership among the Saskatchewan Arts Board, the City of Saskatoon, and the University of Saskatchewan.”
The panel consisted of four presenters: Greg Baeker is an urban development consultant, Bill Holden and Nancy Bellegarde work for the City of Saskatoon Planning Department, and Elise Pietroniro is affiliated with University of Saskatchewan GIServices, a provider of mapping and consulting services.
Given this context, the session was fairly data- and tech-heavy and made me wonder if I could write about the project in a way that was of interest to visual artists. In fact, when I first heard about the panel and looked at the list of speakers, I wondered how much of the presentation would be of interest to the cultural sector in general. However, even though the people involved seem to have very little to do with the arts, I found that the project does create optimism for the future of cultural activity in Saskatoon.
The session was introduced by Peter Stoicheff, Associate Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts at the University of Saskatchewan. He described the context and origins of the Creative Connections project, explaining that it started a few years ago with the establishment of a cultural roundtable comprised of government, business, university, and cultural leaders from the community. The roundtable is overseen by University of Saskatchewan President Peter McKinnon. The current phase of the project is a component of and funded via Saskatoon’s Cultural Capitals Program. Dr. Greg Baeker—of AuthentiCity consultants of Toronto—was hired to coordinate the Creative Connections program.
As the first presenter, Baeker introduced the emerging field of cultural planning, where culture is seen as an integral part of any economic development plan, rather than the traditional view of culture as an add-on for its own sake. He explained that cities haven’t done a good job of integrating place, economy, and culture together in a meaningful way, and that the field has been led by developments in the United Kingdom and Australia. Whereas efforts to develop cultural policy have traditionally been discipline-based, the move in the 1990s in Australia was towards creating horizontal integration within communities and forgoing the traditional disciplinary boundaries. Baeker described this as “putting all the silos on the same farm” rather than either creating one uber-silo to contain all activities, or creating a series of silos that were individually strong but disconnected from each other.
After describing the context of cultural planning, Baeker went into a description of cultural mapping. He talked about two different aspects of mapping: resource mapping and identity mapping. Resource mapping looks at the people, facilities, organizations, sites, collections, festivals, events, and so on that are part of the cultural activity of a city or region. These infrastructure-type resources are fairly easy to define and map, and it’s simply a matter of collecting the data from the appropriate sources in order to identify where things happen. Part of the challenge lies with data collection, and as I will explain later, more significant challenges include interpretation and visualization. In terms of data collection, many organizations already collect the data that can be fed into cultural resource maps but they do it for their own purposes. The ultimate goal of an overall resource map of Saskatoon is to set up a system that standardizes the collection of data.
If resource mapping is a challenge, identity mapping even more so. Within the scope of Baeker’s presentation, identity includes symbols, stories, characteristics of place, and the way people make connections between all of these. Identity mapping is difficult because not only are these things intangible, there is rarely any concerted effort to collect this kind of data, and the shape of the data is malleable and very difficult to standardize.
Regardless, this idea of cultural mapping is part of a recent shift in awareness of what creates economic sustainability. Until recently, the general consensus within the field was that there were three pillars of sustainability: economic development, social equity, and environment. Any discussion of culture and cultural activity was subsumed into the discussion of social equity. The shift recently has been to break culture out of the social pillar, and identify it as its own significant pillar of sustainability. Rather than being a subset of social equity, culture can also be seen as kind of “glue” that holds together the other aspects of life. However, Baeker was quick to point out that the theory of culture as its own pillar is still ahead of practice, and that it will be awhile before culture is generally accepted as its own contributor to sustainable economic development.
Baeker was followed by three presentations that went into increasingly finer detail about the specific project of cultural mapping in Saskatoon.
Bill Holden from the City of Saskatoon gave a presentation about measurement and data-collection frameworks. He talked about what, why, and how various kinds of activity in the city are measured. While culture is just one of many areas that planners analyze, Holden’s description gave a window into how city planners think. He explained that planners and policy-makers gather information that help them analyze and understand the needs of the community in order to create relevant policy. He noted that data collection is dependent on the development of indicators and benchmarks for analysis. It is this last point that I found most interesting because Holden was very clear that the quality of data was closely tied to the quality of the questions, and that the type of questions asked were very likely to influence the answers given, and thus any policies and programs developed from that data.
At the next level of detail, Nancy Bellegarde from the City of Saskatoon gave an overview of the data sources for some of the sample maps that were on display and which were described in the final presentation. The data came from such sources as city tax data, zoning records, business license information, business directories, yellow pages, and Tourism Saskatoon data. Of note is that all of this is resource data. It gives a picture of the infrastructure of cultural activity in the city, but is blind to the more intangible identity data.
Elise Pietroniro from GIServices at the the University of Saskatchewan closed off the presentations with further details about their mapping strategies. She talked about the value of using maps to interpret the available data. She explained that the value of mapping was that it allowed a visual representation of a very complex data set, and that it could help to confirm assumptions, or to give new views and/or interpretations of the data. Pietroniro then gave a demonstration of the actual software they were using.
In the demonstration, she showed a couple of ways of mapping some data. The maps that were prepared for the demonstration consisted of a number of maps of Saskatoon with different aspects of cultural data singled out. There was a map showing the registered heritage sites within the city. Another showed all areas that had been identified to be associated with “cultural activity.” This included heritage sites, art galleries, performing arts venues, libraries, as well as shopping malls. Other maps showed the cultural resource maps of specific areas: the various business improvement districts, the downtown core.
Along with the demonstration, Pietroniro talked about some of the limitations of their system. Among these are the fact that the existing software is unable to overlay different types of data, that events are difficult to map because they are not always affiliated with a permanent location, that visual consistency would be a challenge, and that there might be duplication when it comes to multi-use facilities, or misrepresentation when a large facility has only a small amount of cultural activity associated with it. There is also a challenge when it comes to placing festivals on a map: they are time-based, can take place at multiple venues, and are thus difficult to quantify. She also discussed future applications such as tourist information kiosks and a web sites. In the question and answer session following the presentations, these possible public applications of the data raised concerns about privacy. While Pietroniro talked about catering to all possible users, she didn’t clearly communicate not all data would be available to all users. I found that there seemed to be two main purposes for the mapping: the collection and visualization of data towards civic planning and policy development, and the creation of public-access tools.
While Greg Baeker talked in fairly broad general terms about the ideas and benefits of cultural mapping, the actual practice as presented by the other three speakers was frustrating. The specific implementation of resource mapping made me wonder whether identity mapping will even happen within this project. While I can understand the reasons why identify mapping has been neglected so far, I also believe that these intangibles are the most important aspect of any attempts to map culture. Furthermore, because the questions we ask affect the answers we get, I am concerned that the data collection process is being driven by the software tools available. During the presentation I found myself coming back to the idea that if the only tool a person has ever used is a hammer, then all the problems start to look like nails. In this case it seems like the container exists, and the data will be forced to fit. I would rather see the data shaping the tools and the containers that will be used to visualize and present it.
The mapping itself was interesting in many respects. I found it curious that such sites as shopping malls were included. The level of granularity caused me some consternation. One could make a case demonstrating a thriving cultural community—or the opposite—simply by defining terms. But how those terms are established, and how you define culture are very often judgement calls. In a conversation I had with Nancy Bellegarde before the presentations started, it was pointed out that defining cultural sites is a big challenge. For example, restaurants are not generally considered cultural sites but they often serve as venues for the display of visual art and/or the presentation of live music. Similar challenges exist for shopping malls, retail stores, and even office buildings. One could easily skew the data by offering very restrictive or very inclusive definitions of terms. Another challenge in defining culture occurs when it comes into contact with any of the terms it is commonly paired with: heritage, sport, arts. Regardless, the system as demonstrated does not seem to allow for these shifting definitions.
Throughout the presentations and discussion, I also wondered how the knowledge we are learning from emerging online social networks can be applied to a project like this. Such communities as MySpace and Facebook give immediate maps of social connections, and their models could perhaps be applied to the attempts of governments and policy makers to analyze offline activities.
In terms of the benefits of this work to visual artists, the shift in perception from looking at culture as a cost towards seeing it as a sustainable driver of economic growth is a positive step. I think this project has a great deal of potential but in order to do what the consultant has envisioned, it will be necessary for the interested parties to look beyond the limitations of an easily-accessed physical inventory and to look at the more difficult task of actually mapping the connections between people, organizations, and institutions.
In early July 2007 the Saskatchewan Arts Board informed me of their facebook presence: