Mapping Diversity in Iowa City

Maps are political. They can represent an entire country or a single block, and they can inform us as readily as they can obscure information from us. We can learn quite a bit about our communities and their histories by turning to maps. For example, a current map of the U.S. shows the borders of the fifty states but does not show us that the country is laid over land systematically stolen from indigenous peoples over time. When a map is created, certain information about a space is prioritized over other information—imagine how impossible they would be to read otherwise!

Assortment of various maps in browns, blues, and whites
Photo by Andrew Neel via Pexels

If we zoom in even further, we can look at city planning and the ways that the spaces within our maps are political, too. Planning and design are largely dominated by white men, and the spaces they design tend to fit within this same framework. When planners share such identity markers, the spaces they design reflect both the needs and the privileges of that group. Just like a map, the way a city is designed can alter our perception of the space: who is this space for, and who can flourish here? 

“The location and space are not inclusive because someone wanted to check a box — they are inclusive because the organizations’ structures facilitate coalitional work.”

On an even smaller scale, the spaces we work and live in—those individual locations inside a city block—can communicate our missions, values, and privileges. At the Multicultural Development Center of Iowa (MDCI), inclusive spaces are intentional. MDCI’s mission is to realize racial equity through accessible STEM programs and providing support for BIPOC business owners. The STEM Factory, located in the south district of Iowa City, is positioned intentionally to serve underestimated communities in the area. The physical location of the building is amplified in its interior: multiple groups are housed in the building, all with a commitment to racial, environmental, and economic justice. Unlike the quiet, siloed interiors of many academic buildings, the shared spaces that house MDCI, Astig Planning, and Resilient Sustainable Future for Iowa City are organized to facilitate community connections. On any given day, you might hear kids celebrating their building skills during a visit to MDCI’s STEM Factory, meet a business owner who lives in the area, or observe the evolving murals on the walls. It’s easy to take a break and do a quick chore from the communal chore list or help package up portable STEM kits for local partners. The location and space are not inclusive because someone wanted to check a box—they are inclusive because the organizations’ structures facilitate coalitional work. 

Blank journal, magnifying glass, and camera laid over a brown map
Photo by Dariusz Sankowski on Unsplash

However, MDCI and Astig Planning don’t plan on stopping at realizing a single coalitional location. To effectively work for racial equity, environmental justice, and inclusion across Iowa City, we need to reconsider our maps. Not only are maps political, but they tell us stories about the land we live on and the spaces we walk through. So, what does it mean for a map to be inclusive? This summer, I am working with MDCI and Astig Planning to create a StoryMap that charts the locations and stories of BIPOC resources and business in Iowa City. The project is a small part of Astig Planning’s Inclusive Economic Development Plan, which aims to offer insights and solutions to the barriers that BIPOC business owners face to decision-makers across Iowa City. Astig focuses on transforming our community through realizing environmental and racial justice. By developing ethical planning practices that serve our community rather than extracting information from them, Astig centers equity in its work. Using data shared with Astig by emergent and existing BIPOC business owners, our StoryMap will be a product that is publicly accessible. Rather than extracting the experience of business owners in Iowa City, the StoryMap will become a resource for that community. While BIPOC owned businesses might already be present on a map of Iowa City, the goal of the StoryMap is to highlight those businesses through images, audio clips, and other multimedia content. All maps tell a story, and together with MDCI and Astig Planning, and the BIPOC business owners of Iowa City, we plan to tell Iowa City’s story equitably. 

By Kaity Lindgren-Hansen