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Say it with a map: An ode to maps

07.20.16 | Announcements

Delta's Todd Parker with our sliding display made by the Rebuilding Exchange.

With contributions from Max Kaczor and Samira Hanessian, Communications and marketing interns.

We love maps here at Delta Institute. As visual and systems thinkers, we appreciate how maps can be powerful tools for communication and analysis, elegantly translating complex data sets into compelling statements about pressing environmental issues or socioeconomic inequality.

We love maps so much that we even had our friends at the Rebuilding Exchange build a reclaimed wood sliding map display that invites people to interact with our maps and overlay different data layers. It’s big and bulky, and we have to disassemble and reassemble it everywhere we take it. But we do it, because maps have an amazing ability to cut through the noise and level the information playing field between technical and non-technical folks.

Here are some of the interesting ways we use maps to engage communities, help governments make critical decisions, and create meaningful environmental solutions.

Prioritizing areas for action

We recently worked with the Green Lake Association in Wisconsin to develop a plan to reduce phosphorus loading into the lake, which is a recreational lake that sits amidst acres of farmland in south central Wisconsin.

Green Lake Watershed, Wisconsin EVAAL Model

This map of Green Lake Watershed shows the priority areas (in red) that will have the greatest impact on phosphorus reduction efforts.

It’s not easy to predict how water and phosphorus move across a landscape, so we had to consider factors like: ground cover, the risk of erosion from weather, proximity to the lake, and what kinds of conservation practices are already in place. Two modeling tools (the Soil and Water Assessment Tool, and the Erosion Vulnerability Assessment of Agricultural Lands) enabled us to illustrate where these factors overlap in significant ways. We used these maps to recommend priority areas for our partners in the Green Lake Association to target their agricultural best management practices to reduce phosphorus pollution in the lake.

Visualizing economic challenges

The Illinois Medical District on Chicago’s near west side is home to a number of large hospitals and educational institutions that fuel economic activity in the area. These anchor institutions also have great potential to influence the physical, economic, and functional health of their surrounding communities, which are densely populated and in need of jobs and job training.


Snapshots of different data sets of the near west side of Chicago.

To understand the economic conditions of area residents, we gathered publicly available data, like average household incomes, access to transportation, and education levels. By looking at all of these factors together, a clearer picture emerged of the inequity and challenges faced by near west-side residents.

With funds from the Citi Foundation, we’re exploring more ways to repurpose vacant land for the benefit of area residents in a way that builds partnerships that align area institutions and businesses with area residents.

Engaging the community in brownfield redevelopment


Residents identify community assets on a large map of Little Village.

Through a series of communities meetings in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood around neighborhood revitalization efforts, we showed community members a large print-out of the neighborhood and asked them to mark important community assets. By inviting them into the process, we learned what was important to the community and where redevelopment is likely to succeed.

This map was developed further, as information from sources like the City of Chicago’s Data Portal were layered over the community assets. The final selection of sites are included in the
Little Village Vacant Property and Brownfield Redevelopment Strategy
. The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization is now using the strategy to help redevelop brownfields for community investment.

Little Village Map

Map of community-identified & publicly-available assets in Little Village

You can read more about the strategy here.

Maps help us tell the story of the neighborhoods, cities, and regions where we work. They are powerful tools that tell us and our partners things where vacant land is closest to public transportation, where a farmer’s conservation practices would have the biggest impact on water quality, or where the community wants to see development.

So here’s to you, maps! Thanks for helping us analyze, visualize, and communicate the complex environmental, economic, and social data we sift through in our work.