It’s a process to catalog, analyze and preserve the intangible and tangible cultural assets of a specified geographic area, and it’s recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as an essential community planning tool. Tom Borrup, author of “The Creative Community Builder’s Handbook” and community development consultant, advocates cultural asset mapping as a vehicle to engage the community in collaborative, creative practice while unlocking a community’s soul.
Asset mapping helps a community record and synthesize a local cultural inventory while injecting serious discussion into the planning conversation, says Borrup. “It visually communicates and catalogs what is often invisible or misunderstood, but what is essential to a community’s identity.”
There is both an art and a science in the process of the asset mapping, Borrup notes: “The science is the data driven aspects, the coding and plotting and taking stock of physical resources, like landmarks, museums and local industries. It’s also in the structure of a plan to create the map of community networks and assets. The arts are the shared and creative aspects of mapping – what brings out emotional aspects and personal memories that inspire well-being and our sense of place, as well as a better understanding of a community’s history. Building the asset map also is an artistic process, with great attention to detail as people express their ideas and record their findings through visualization. This creative graphic process is what helps motivate participants to see things differently and to collectively discuss what they value.”
According to Borrup, participants become empowered as they discover their own strengths and the unexpected resources that are revealed. “They’re inspired by their own cultural capacity and become more confident in developing the partnerships and the strategies that will bring about change,” he says.
Asset mapping helps capture the full scope of cultural resources across a community, even helping to define the cultural capital, like tradition, which doesn’t necessarily fit into a solid form. Yet these assets, like oral histories and local heritage, may be the game-changing capital which in turn lead to successful planning for a diversified economy, or to being a source of economic opportunity like cultural tourism, according to Borrup.
“All communities have these resources that contribute to quality of life — they can be subtle, like the memories of residents, as well as more concrete like cultural institutions and parks. By identifying the resources that bind a community, we begin to understand and measure what’s valued, and ultimately plan for how these assets will continue to shape community vitality,” he comments.
While new information technologies and sophisticated GIS systems have democratized the mapping process and enhanced data collection, making it easier to distribute and update, Borrup warns that technology shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with face-to-face exchanges that build relationships across disciplines and that spur creativity: “Technology is an important tool but we need to watch that it doesn’t detract from the human collaborative process that prompts discussion about development and change.”
This process is where experience and exchange add context to the information being evaluated and gathered. In a recent planning journey conducted with the Marquette MI community, Borrup engaged a diverse group of 120 in a process of mapping city assets. As the group developed this city’s arts, culture and creative economy plan, it uncovered community strengths as well as inter-dependencies among government, business, residents and arts organizations. “Maps help us locate and arrange our clusters of shared strength and structures, but the process itself is what constructs new meaning for planning and community advocacy,” Borrup confirms.
The process continues, as communities have an opportunity to comment on, and even tweak, the map they helped shape. “New collaborations are built, and the map itself is not the final product,” he says.
- “The Creative Community Builder’s Handbook: How to Transform Communities Using Local Assets, Arts and Culture.” Commissioned by the McKnight Foundation, best practices related to ten successful community building strategies. 2006, Fieldstone Alliance and Partners for Livable Communities.
- Extended life span of interactive maps, one city’s inventory: