A quest of its own making
Darin Jensen, a cartographer and professor of geography at UC Berkeley, understands the common perception that GIS (geographical information systems) have rendered his profession irrelevant. But all signs are proving to him that it could not be further from the truth. Food mapping projects, for instance, are popping up all over.
“I see cartography as having a resurgence,” he said in a recent interview, one of many he has granted to the media since the buzz around Food: An Atlas, his crowd-sourced and crowd-funded “guerrilla cartography” project, went viral in the middle of its Kickstarter fund-raising campaign last fall.
The idea of a food atlas began percolating a year ago as Jensen’s students were at work on Mission: Possible (missionpossiblesf.org), a set of maps interpreting geographical elements within San Francisco’s Mission District. Jensen observed that many of those inquiries centered on food subjects, and that revelation influenced his choice of the theme of his next endeavor, an experiment in guerrilla cartography.
The word “guerrilla,” as Jensen explains, “implies a disorganized and rapid response to an issue. Guerrilla does not ask permission or seek approval. Guerrilla is not radical by nature but can be. Guerrilla cartography is making a map because the map calls itself to be made. Regular cartography is my j-o-b [as in] making the maps I am supposed to make.”
To find those food-themed maps calling to be made, Jensen sent out an email appeal via lists of food researchers and mapping professionals around the world. He and his local editorial team expected to receive some pieces that were fully realized and nearly ready-to-publish as well as many ideas-in-the-rough offering data that they would interpret and render into maps. Indeed, the flood that poured in contained everything from the brilliant and savvy to the banal and useless.
As the maps took shape, they were arranged into chapters covering food production, food distribution, food security, and cuisine. Food security turned out to be the largest section, which surprised Jensen in spite of the fact that he devotes some of his own time each month volunteering at City Slicker Farms in West Oakland. “I was almost completely unaware of what would be uncovered for me with these maps,” he says.
Among the maps there is one plotting food memories from elderly people in Dundee, Scotland; another showing all the farming going on inside the boroughs of New York City; one on spaghetti as a world phenomenon; another on food “swamps” of Baltimore (“a food swamp is a place where unhealthy foods are more readily available than healthy foods”). Quite a few maps address the subject of miles traveled from field to plate. For instance, a map by a Danish high school class charts the routes traveled by items in their lunch boxes. Another shows a tomato’s European tour, which “for not any well-explained reason, “ Jensen says, “went from Spain to France and back to Spain.”
An entire chapter in the atlas is sourced from Mission: Explore Food, a book for kids created by the Geography Collective, a group of guerilla geography activists, teachers, therapists, academics, and artists working together in the United Kingdom to encourage people—especially young people—to “see and think about the world in new ways.” (thegeographycollective.wordpress.com)
Jensen describes a printed map as an “historical document that captures a phenomenon in place and time.” The fact that information in Food: An Atlas will be dated even before the first copy lands in a reader’s hand did not deter Jensen from going forward with a hardbound book, and was in fact the fulfillment of what he calls his “cartographer’s commitment” to making such documents. Standard book production schedules average two to five years from manuscript to printing, so an impetus for trying a “rapid response” guerrilla approach was to crack that barrier an get relevant information out while it’s still sort of fresh. The plan was for a startling five-month turn-around from the initial crowd-sourcing call for material to printer-ready files. (In fact, it took seven, due to “unforeseen complications.”)
As the 50-year-old parent of a young daughter, Jensen speaks earnestly about shifting paradigms of time and technology, and he knows that the insight geographers and others derive from graphical interpretations of information about our world are instrumental in the actions we take toward change. “I see issues that need to be solved,” he says, “and it’s not going to be our generation that solves them.” Projects such as this one help prepare the next generation for that work. And while water and energy are the subjects young people may most need to grapple with, Jensen thinks his next atlas will be another on food, given that the flood of new food maps calling to be made has not ebbed since his initial appeal.
An important footnote to this story is that Food: An Atlas was conceived from the start as a NO-profit venture. Everyone involved in creating it worked gratis, with proceeds from the Kickstarter campaign ($29,569, or $9,569 over the initial goal) going into hard costs, such as printing and mailing, and any remaining funds earmarked for donation to a food justice concern. Even Jensen planned on pulling it off entirely in his spare time… until the project got so hot that he could no longer hide the excitement from his department and had to admit that he was checking in with and managing it throughout the workday. (Needless to say, the UC Berkeley Geography Department had every reason to be interested in it as well.)
As of press time for this magazine, the atlas was still in the hands of 1984 Printing, the Oakland print shop chosen to produce the 110-plus hardbound copies promised to backers and an additional 1,500 softbound, which were 75 percent sold out as of this writing. For more information, or to see if any books remain available for purchase, go to guerrillacartography.net. ♣