Green Maps: An Interview
It's amazing to see how the seeds we helped plant can take root in new places, each blossoming in their own way and growing strong. I seeded a movement by revisiting the ancient power of mapmaking and refueling it with local leadership, globally designed symbols and adaptable tools. This has yielded a new medium for engagement, Green Maps, which now offers a fresh perspective to 775 diverse communities. With hundreds of unique outcomes -- printed and interactive maps, websites, books, classes, exhibitions and events -- that promote and link thousands of green living, natural and cultural assets and challenges around the world, I'm happy to share a bit of the story behind the movement. I hope you will be inspired to visit GreenMap.org and use Green Mapmaking to connect your own interests, skills and networks and support your community's trajectory toward sustainability at the same time. (Wendy E. Brawer, eco designer and social innovator responded to journalist David Kupfer's questions in September 2011.)
David Kupfer: What was your personal entre into the environmental movement?
Wendy E. Brawer: I was given the initials WEB at birth, and always resonated with concept of the web of life. I loved being outdoors as a child, but surging with creative energy, I became an artist. I bicycled, heated with wood and ate vegetarian food from the co-op - this was all rather normal back then in Seattle, where my honey and I lived as young artists. So I was living green even before I started working in the field and identifying as a movement member.
My moment of crystallization came in 1989 -- I encountered an entrapped orangutan. I wanted to help her, and she tossed me a stone that smacked sense into my palm. This made me realize I had the freedom to do something that would wake people up and help them view the world from a new perspective. This took place in Yogyakarta Indonesia, where today, this orangutan is credited with catalyzing the Green Map movement. She shifted my focus in a fundamental way. I came home and starting learning more...
What is and what was your path to becoming an ecological designer?
We left Seattle and headed west in the mid-80's, on the adventure course. We had a little apartment in Tokyo -- just 150 sq feet -- in an old-style neighborhood where many temples and cemeteries were clustered after the big fire of 1923. So even though it was intensively urban, there were beautiful green spaces that were part of our everyday, and the streets were lined with beloved flowering plants tumbling from containers of all types in front of every house. I experienced mass transit with millions of people and learned how to live well with less energy and less stuff. I deepened my appreciation for durable design qualities. Tokyo's intensity made me want to learn more about applying design thinking -- I wanted to use it to address issues more directly than I had as an artist.
It was a natural shift -- even back in Seattle, some of my work had blurred the boundaries between art and design. I reused mixed materials and made works that could be rearranged, abstractly mixing in the human element. I made my first 'social sculptures' to encourage the free exchange of stuff in my 'Put N Takes' in the Pike Place Market and other spots. I took my artistic license seriously. I always enjoyed collaborating and this was important to my attitude towards ecological design.
So when I returned to NYC after meeting the orangutan, it was at a transformation time for me. I had already gained some design skills and studied environmental issues. I went to classes, conferences and lectures, and joined groups involved in waste reduction, cycling and population stabilization. My industrial design teacher, Mark Seltman and I began co-teaching Design for the Environment in 1990 in the adult ed program at The Cooper Union. This was a great vehicle for sharing ideas and resources at a time when few existed. The class became a 'think and do' tank, and a great convergence space. I become more solution oriented and purposeful as I infused eco-design into my identity.
At the same time, I was thinking about green products -- what could I produce that was sustainable in both its message and its materials? I saw the world as a delicate web -- how could I help reveal and protect its complexity?
I had one foot on a tiny island that had an enormous influence and the other foot leading me out into the world -- what could I do to support others getting who were getting involved in eco design? I co-started the first US chapter of the O2 ecological designers network (o2.org) and the other end of the spectrum, I was taking part in the Industrial Designers Society of America to gain a soapbox with what I saw was at the crux of the issue -- designed obsolescence and a persistent 'designosaur' attitude that was driving us toward extinction. As chair of IDSA's Eco committee, I helped change the code of ethics and the annual design competition's criteria, raising the bar on design education and practice. I was appointed Designer in Residence at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in 1997 and in many ways was propelled there by my open attitude toward culture change that was fueled by the inherent creative freedom I had gained as an artist as well as the orangutan's gift. That's why I named my website EcoCultural.info
How, when and why did you create the first Green Map?
In December 1991, I was in a room full of sustainability folks up at the United Nations. The Earth Summit 'prep com' was scheduled for March in NYC, leading up to the main event in Rio in June 1992. With so many eco-leaders coming to town, a wide range of group events, lectures and tours were being proposed. I thought about the individual's experience. Would they see all the signs of progress toward sustainability being made in NYC? I decided to make a map -- universally understandable, resource-efficient, and conceivably publishable in a few weeks. I came up with the name -- Green Apple Map -- on the spot and before the day was done, 10,000 copies were donated. The next day a dozen cohorts got together and got organized. We celebrated with a mix of 250 New Yorkers and UN folks on the first day of spring offering talks and tours at 17 of the 143 sites on the freshly printed Green Apple Map.
What was the initial reaction?
The response was pretty positive -- the Green Apple Map drew lots of nice local and international press. There were many requests for copies and plenty of suggestions for the next edition (which we published just a few months later). I was thrilled when it was included in the awesome Power of Maps exhibit at the National Design Museum in 1992.
The map started opening doors for me, too. I became the first greening consultant for Times Square, designing 'self-emptying' recycling bins for 42nd Street, researched materials for an architect, collaborated on a conceptual plan to make Manhattan a zero emission vehicle island by 2010, contributed to design classes and magazines and generally thrilled to be 'part of the solution' in this ever-changing city, especially as it was changing for the better.
In seemingly no time, I was responding to people who wanted to make a Green Map like ours for their community. I considered writing a book, but spent a lot of time thinking about movement building. I observed people using maps and noticed how important the symbols were. So I thought -- a universal iconography could connect locally-made Green Maps all over the world. But we needed a system, a way to communicate and pioneers to test out ideas and create waves.
I brought these concepts -- a visual language of sustainable initiatives such as farmers markets, community gardens, solar sites etc., and a system for helping people make and share maps -- to the O2 event that took place in Copenhagen in 1995 in parallel with the UN Social Summit (where I was invited to speak about the greening of New York). Everyone put something on the O2 table -- and suddenly, there was a modem, a new medium for collaboration, a global network of informed designers ready to co-create icons and make different kinds of Green Maps for their communities and boom, we were on our way. I got http://GreenMap.org going and shepherded the icon development project through its release as a font the following spring, and co-created the first of the adaptable mapmaking guides.
ECOoperation published Copenhagen's first Green Map in 1996 -- it was the first to use the new icons and framework, and attracted more communities' involvement. By the turn of the century, 36 unique locally-made editions were changing perspectives and we had projects underway on every inhabited continent. As seen on our Timeline*, our network has grown steadily, with our movement surging as we launched the interactive Open Green Map platform over the last couple of years. We're now in 775 cities, towns and campuses in 59 countries.
For me, it's been wonderful to work with great thinkers behind the maps -- some of whom have been there for Green Map for eons, like Misako Yomosa in Japan, Beth Ferguson in Austin, Ciprian Samolia in Romania, Marco Kusumawijaya in Jakarta, Maeve Lydon and Ken Josephson in Victoria and many more. David, as the third San Francisco Green Mapmaker, you have opened many doors for the global program and at the same time, created a compelling view of both Northern California and the city -- you are a good example of how mapmakers benefit their home and planet at the same time. We also have longtime advisors like Bob Zuber and Nina Reznick and our board, which includes people like Sara Tucker, Dia Center's IT Director who has pitched in since Day Two and Thomas Turnbull who built the Open Green Map and continually helps us move forward. Without them, and the involvement of fresh interns, mapmakers and supporters everyday, it's doubtful we could have made such great inroads in both the global north and south, bridging the worlds of activists, students, designers and policymakers, and created such a wealth of Green Maps and related murals, tours and events that resonant with broad audiences. (See timeline here.)
Are Green Maps political tools or just educational?
Take a look at the stories in the book you can download free at GreenMap.org/impacts. You'll see how they have contributed to policy change, helped decision-makers and activists see eye to eye, reverse over-development plans, make environmental and climate justice issues evident and create new opportunities for green infrastructure. As education tools, civics classes have used Green Mapmaking as participation in government tools. Amplifying local voices for change, many of our 500 locally printed editions and over 200 Open Green Maps have generated media attention that helped form pressure points on local political issues too.
Critical assessment is part of every Green Map's research phase, ideal for life-long learning. Educators find the resources in our Participate section (shortcut GreenMap.org/youth) of value as they seek to connect community and classroom, take part in planning and visioning the future of their home place. There you can find resources that help youth get involved with school energy conservation and develop expressive communications skills. There's multimedia in that section as well as interesting papers are online in the Universities section.
Can you explain the process of developing the iconography for Green Maps?
Green Map Icons fill many roles -- connector, promoter, identifier, inventory tool -- essentially we have given a globally recognized brand to the signifiers of sustainability and consider these (currently copyrighted) icons one of our most important assets. Printed, interactive, postcard, mural or video, these icons are used on every Green Map.
Designing this living lexicon began with a list, and even now, when we update and expand the Green Map Icons, the list is the starting point for a discussion about the elements of sustainability at the community level. We talk about each suggested theme as a network. We have aimed for broad meaning so we consider if a new concept is already adequately covered by an existing icon, or does it need its own -- for example do we need permaculture, community kitchen, cancer cluster or are we covered by the icons for eco-agriculture, community center and unhealthy spot?
If you publish a Green Map locally, you can tweak an icon's title to clarify it in the local context, and add icons your map team has developed (or familiar symbols -- such as transit station -- that everyone in the community knows) to your map. Currently, on the Open Green Map platform, we cannot make changes, but there are 8 languages to choose from so we can include the majority of the world's people. We created this tool (and the mobile and iPhone tools that go with it) to reduce technological and financial barriers to online mapmaking and sharing. Open to public viewpoint, images and ratings, the data can be shared, compared and embedded in other websites, all highlighted by Green Map Icons.
Before we started building the Open Green Map, we released Version 3 of the award-winning Green Map Icons in May 2008. As is our practice, we created a new font so the iconography is easy to use the icons with any application. We made sticker sheets, flashcards, translation tools, and posters. The poster can be downloaded here, along with related resources, a bit of history and credits, even the means to search 'by the icon' through the 18,000 sites on the Open Green Map platform. The poster includes a 'pattern code' to help locally designed icons and Version 4 harmonize with the current set. Already, we have begun a list, and expect to use http://lab.greenmap.org to convene the discussion about updating this fall. We'd love to have some help with this process. It's really important yet quite time intensive -- defining, designing, reaching a consensus, adding them to Open Green Map in multiple languages, redeveloping posters, fonts, etc. If readers of Reality Sandwich want to contribute, visit the icons' web page -- or click here to pitch in.
Will these Icons become open source eventually? We hope so. In the meantime, we invite sustainability-minded folks to register to use them on Green Maps and related education and outreach resources at http://GreenMap.org/join, or to contact us at info at greenmap.org if you want to discuss licensing them for another purpose.
How have/can young people become involved in Green Map production/creation?
Youth Green Maps have been made since 1998, and young people took part in community projects even before that time. 12 year olds even designed our youth friendly Green Map Icon as they mapped out their vision of how to convert an army base to public space in Calgary! Their expressive outcomes can be quite powerful, especially when they choose to tackle tough issues. It's quite moving to see how they frame what they have discovered and how it's given them the means to communicate with peers, elders and decision-makers. We made some free downloads -- Energy and Environment Exploration modules for use in and out of the classroom. Find these 'get your feet wet' tools and short overviews of youth Green Maps at http://GreenMap.org/youth.
You have become an organic farmer, can you speak to your motivation for that, and what are you growing where?
I think all of us who are involved in the movement need a place(s) where you can put your hands on the earth and experience its richness in all seasons. Even though I belong to a community garden in the city and have little plants gracing my home and workspace, being part of an organic berry farm in a verdant valley is a wonderful and eye-opening thing. Especially now that we are on the climate roller-coaster, it's important to become more resilient and understand how basic needs get met. I don't really think I have become an organic farmer or even ‘half farmer, half X' which is a Japanese transitional concept, but I sure do enjoy the work and being there often. I keep Green Map bubbling on the front burner from my little desk on the porch when I am there, keeping the flow in balance as I draw closer to the planet and people I love.
The world is a beautiful place. Come and join me from the place where you stand, and help everyone see it that way.
David Kupfer is a native of San Francisco, a city for which he recently designed and produced a Green Map (www.sfgreenmap.org). He has worked as an environmental consultant, greening Hollywood studios and productions, Bill Graham Presents and String Cheese Incident Festivals, Zen Centers and Taquerias, as an organic farmer and advocate, environmental educator and activist, for the University of California's Appropriate Technology Program as an editor and teacher, and has written for a variety of national publications such as The Sun Magazine, Progressive, Whole Earth, Hope, New Farm, Earth Island Journal, High Times, Backpacker, Adbusters, Alternet, Sing Out!, Diva, Permaculture Magazine and for the Directors Guild of America and California Certified Organic Farmers.