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Community Mapping: What's Affecting Your Neighborhood?

Updated: May 8, 2019

In service learning, students learn to tackle real-world problems in their community, while building deeper understanding and skills for themselves.

I've seen first-hand what service learning can do to help the local community, while also providing valuable learning experiences for young people. The best thing is - it can be a real win, win. By both empowering youngsters to make positive real-world change (e.g. tree planting, building community facilities in under resourced countries, sourcing materials and planting a vegetable garden at a homeless refuge) while, at the same time, encouraging face-to-face interaction between young people, committed volunteers, community organizations and local businesses; there's incredible potential for valuable learning to take place, in a way that classroom-based learning simply could never match!


Engaging Young People in Local Sustainability Issues

But how can we go about getting children engaged in sustainability issues facing their community? Well, we could encourage students to go around the neighborhood canvassing for opportunities to help local charities and organizations for service learning. However, that would be time consuming and probably not beneficial to the learning process.

Or we could hire a 'gap year' company to organize community work for us in a developing country. But the downside to this is, it would be costly and commercial service learning experiences have the tendency to feel rather contrived, sometimes leaving you wondering whether you made any real difference to the community you were working in.


Community Mapping: Compass of Sustainability

Or alternatively, you could start by looking in your own backyard (so to speak), through a process known as Community Mapping! This is a really useful hands-on precursor designed to give students a good feel of the sustainability challenges their neighborhood is facing, and get them to think about any collective action they could take to give back to their community. It relies on a mixture of kinesthetic learning, class discussion, brainstorming, mapping and action planning, to really get to the heart of local sustainability issues.

A brilliant framework to use for Community Mapping (and any sustainability-based educational activity for that matter) is the Compass of Sustainability; a smart tool for breaking down complex sustainability issues into bite-sized pieces using Nature, Economy, Society and Wellbeing (North-East-South-West) as the axes of investigation as outlined below:

This is the Compass of Sustainability, a smart tool developed by AtKisson Group to understand complex sustainability issues into more management pieces for focused action.
Compass of Sustainability - A Smart Tool Developed by AtKisson Group to Understand Complex Sustainability Issues

  • N is for Nature – All of our natural ecological systems and environmental concerns, from ecosystem health and nature conservation, to resource use and waste

  • E is for Economy – The human systems that convert nature’s resources into food, shelter, ideas, technologies, industries, services, money and jobs

  • S is for Society – The institutions, organisations, cultures, norms, and social conditions that make up our collective life as human beings

  • W is for Wellbeing – Our individual health, happiness, and quality of life

In preparation for Community Mapping, it's really important that you get your class to spend time brainstorming a list of possible indicators that they might expect to encounter as symptoms of a larger sustainability challenge beforehand. Break the group down into smaller subgroups, and ask each team to brainstorm using the following key questions as a guide:

  • What should you be looking out for (e.g. run-down housing, soup kitchens, excess litter, foul smelling river water and so on...)?

  • What do you see, read or hear about in the news?

  • Do your parents discuss any neighborhood issues at the dinner table?


Community Walk: A Simple Guide

Community Mapping is easy to organize and it only takes around 60 minutes to complete - all you require are a few craft supplies for making a map, notebooks and writing implements (plus a camera as an optional extra). So, without further adu, it's now time to lace up your boots and go exploring!

Get your students to walk around the neighborhood in small subgroups, while actively making their own maps. Depending on the learning objectives, the study area and class size, you might consider assigning local issue topics to different teams, so they each have a specific focus (e.g. Nature, Economy, Society or Wellbeing).

While on the walk, take time to pause and ask students for observations and allow time for note-taking. The point of the community walk is to look for symptoms of problems that are usually ignored, so take enough time for a thorough survey. It's also a good idea to take sketches and photographs of important indicators (making sure to be respectful and ask for permission, if necessary). Speaking to local people and conducting questionnaires can give you some great insights too.


Back In the Classroom

Upon return, facilitate a class discussion. Ask students:

1. What was your reaction to seeing the issue? Surprised? Upset? Angry? Confused?

2. What issue(s) do you think this was a sign of?

3. What community programs are in place to tackle this issue?

4. What actions could we take to help?

Now ask the students to draw a community map on A3 paper. Most urban maps contain roads, highways, waterways, parks and buildings, but this map will also tell a story of what life is like living and working in the community. Adding field sketches / photographs and newspaper clippings can also be a useful addition.

Make sure students include:

Community assets - The places that add value to the community, such as libraries, government offices, community centers, religious buildings, schools, public gardens, playgrounds and even a wall mural that brightens up the community.

Individual assets - Skills and talents held by community members (including the students themselves) such as public speaking, musical talents, drawing skills or event organization.


Share the Results

Now it's time to share and gather the findings of the group investigation together. A great way to do this is to ask each mapping team to present to the rest of the class, using their community map to highlight their key findings.

Run a brainstorming session and create a single list of connecting themes and emerging community issues, creating a summary of the main similarities and differences of the maps.

"A brilliant framework to use for Community Mapping (and any sustainability-based educational activity for that matter) is the Compass of Sustainability; a smart tool for breaking down complex sustainability issues..."


A Vote of Change

You should now be left with a concise and easy-to-understand list of local sustainability issues, backed up by real-world evidence collected by the students themselves. Now it's time to take a vote from the list for action planning.

Ask students to vote on the local problem they feel most passionate about. Select one topic that will allow the class to work together towards maximizing the impact. If there's more than one topic, allow students to form groups - it's vital that they are passionate about the issue, so they feel strongly invested in the outcomes.

Now refer back to the maps. Get the students to analyze which community assets match the issue they selected. For example, if the issue was homelessness, students might want to identify local soup kitchens or homeless shelters and connect with people that may already be making a difference.


A Plan of Action

Once the issue and community assets have been identified, get the students to form a detailed action plan. For example, if the class is interested in improving the environment, organize a litter clean-up day in the local park or nearest beach.

The Most Important Thing is: Make Action Reality!

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