«Urban Problems and sPatial methods VolUme 17, nUmber 1 • 2015 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development | Office of Policy Development and ...»
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140 Urban Problems and Spatial Methods Spatial Experiences: Using Google Earth To Locate Meanings Pertinent to Sense of Place Nicholas Wise Glasgow Caledonian University Abstract Using aerial images that enable research participants, during an interview, to discuss and locate points of spatial significance in their community represents an innovative approach to place-based research. This method allows for participants to discuss spaces relative to their associated meanings and enables researchers and community planners to understand the makings of place in a particular community. This article discusses how researchers and planners can use Google Earth to organize and spatially reference qualitative data to allocate community members’ subjective meanings of particular spaces and landscapes. The article includes examples from the Dominican Republic to outline the suggested approach.
Introduction “…to experience a geographical place, it seems, is the want to communicate about it” (Ryden, 1993: 19). Maps provide users and researchers copious information by detailing places relative to one another; however, perceptions of human experiences often remain unnoticed in maps.
Researchers use mental maps to better visualize people’s experiences and to understand how people view their world to seek meanings not necessarily visible (Relph, 1997; Ryden, 1993; Wise, 2014).
Google Earth represents a contemporary and innovative approach to seeking meanings and insight into everyday spaces and places and to locating and reinforcing understandings of sense of place and sense of community. The approach outlined in this article can be useful for community planners to get a sense of how people engage with and interact in particular spaces and places to better inform future decisionmaking. Using aerial images during the interview process provides research participants the ability to spatially identify and discuss points of spatial significance in a particular community. Cognitive mapping exercises, in which researchers use Google Earth to reference data gathered from identified points on the map and subsequent interviews, therefore enable interviewees Cityscape 141 Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research • Volume 17, Number 1 • 2015 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development • Office of Policy Development and Research Wise to characterize pertinent discourse regarding experiences, perceptions, and imaginations, which can all be referenced spatially. Using Google Earth as a tool to organize and spatially reference qualitative data will enable researchers to allocate subjective meanings of particular landscapes with which members of a community interact frequently. Moreover, enabling researchers to understand the makings of place in a particular community further integrates sociological and geographical understandings.
The conceptual and practical method of data collection presented in the following section was piloted in the Dominican Republic as part of a wider ethnographic study. Interviews were held with members of the community using Google Earth images to encourage interviewees to discuss significant spaces and places in the community while the researcher referenced these points. Subsequent data collected during field conversations and participant observations can also be stored along with interview data in placemarks to efficiently organize and spatially reference a wider collection and range of data.
Theoretical Framework Geographers and planners attempt to understand people’s perceptions and experiences in and of the spaces, places, and landscapes with which they socially interact. Lynch’s (1960) work on social psychology concerning structure, identity, and meaning has provided foundational conceptual insight on place and social perceptions. Furthermore, this insight concerns how individuals evaluate spaces, places, and landscapes. Mental maps and imaging practices intentionally rely on individuals’ psychological perceptions of social spaces. Lynch (1960: 6) noted “…there may be little in the real object that is ordered or remarkable, and yet its mental picture has gained identity and organization through long familiarity.” Lynch’s (1960) typologies for interpretation involve paths, edges (for example, perimeters or boundaries), nodes (points), landmarks, and element interrelations.
Similarly, Sack (1997), writing from a geographical standpoint, conceptually complements Lynch’s approach, suggesting that to understand places researchers should address social relations—adding supplemental meaning to paths, edges, and nodes. Sack (1997: 155) suggested “…awareness is the capacity to see things not only from our own partial and personal perspective but also from other points of view.” Documenting points on Google Earth maps also enables researchers to consolidate multiple points of view spatially—which is the main point this article will suggest and show.
In reiterating mental mapping approaches, this technique has been a core approach of behavioral geographers, who pioneered humanist thought (Madaleno, 2010). Researchers who have conducted mental mapping exercises have attempted to explore lived experiences to uncover people’s cognitive perceptions, understandings, and images of particular places (Downs and Stea, 2005; Fenster, 2009; Gould and White, 1986; Madaleno, 2010; Smiley, 2013; Wise, 2014). Moreover, mental mapping endeavors have offered researchers insight into cognitive perceptions of, for example, globalization (for example, Madaleno, 2010), relative locations (for example, Gould and White, 1986), local landscapes (for example, Wise, 2014), migration (Kusek and Wise, 2014), and why people travel particular routes (for example, Wood, 1978). Building on concepts offered from mental maps, using Google Earth images provides the researcher and the interviewee the opportunity to identify and spatially reference points during discussions. Participants identify actual sites on
aerial images instead of drafting from memory, as they would in more traditional mental mapping techniques. Seeing and identifying particular spaces and places evoke memories, and the narratives that participants communicate supply meaning of lived experiences, offering insight into sense of place. The objective of this article is to challenge researchers to look beyond what is inherently visible. This approach provides the potential for researchers and planners to further gain from new knowledge offered by local residents. Such data may offer new or alternative perspectives on contested spaces or landscapes and can offer insight into existing social divisions to better inform future planning or community development.
Google Earth in Research The epistemological and methodological rationale of this approach reflects on organizing and spatially referencing experiences of fieldwork and interview data. According to Sui (2004), approaches using nascent technologies encourage researchers to seek supplemental meanings of spaces, places, and landscapes. Google Earth enables researchers to conduct spatial analyses of landscapes, with the ability to zoom in on specific site locations and identify cultural and physical features based on the elements of recognition—such as shape, size, pattern, tone, texture, shadows, site, association, resolution—brought in from remote sensing (see Lillesand, Kiefer, and Chipman, 2008). Applying a spatial technology such as Google Earth to studies on sense of place represents a unique and innovative approach not only to advance the collection of data, but also to efficiently organize and spatially reference data gathered through interviews, conversations, and participant observations.
Beyond using this technology in physical and geological sciences, geographers and urban/regional planners use remote sensing technologies in research to interpret cultural landscapes. Hong (2003), for example, incorporated aerial imaging with ethnographic research, arguing that remote sensing technologies are advancing cultural landscape interpretations. The use of Google Earth supports inductive social and cultural research relating to the area of qualitative Geographic Information System (GIS) and remote sensing (Bender et al., 2005; Cope and Elwood, 2009). Google Earth has even been referred to as “desktop archaeology” (Kennedy, 2009). It has become a tool to assist social science researchers, but mainly through spatial observations and interpretations (for example, Brunn and Wilson, 2013; Kennedy and Bishop, 2011; Lisle, 2006). Street View, where available, enables the researcher to navigate farther along paths and into certain areas identified by interviewees (Brunn and Wilson, 2013). In terms of storing and referencing data, features embedded in Google Earth enable researchers to view historical images; measure distances; and create placemarks, lines, and polygons to store data, similar to storing data in GIS attribute tables.
Although this approach is inherently ethnographic, ethnographies aim to understand people’s everyday lives and sense of place (Watson and Till, 2010). Ethnography is a snapshot of a community’s everyday cultural practices, in which researchers take on some proximate role to immerse themselves with a group’s natural setting. With ethnographic studies, which are observational and participatory, social and cultural researchers spend an appropriate period of time living alongside a local group of people to engage in and reflect on daily activities. Participant observations help researchers and planners understand community identity in terms of how people interact with their environment, surroundings, sociopolitical situations, and cultural landscapes (Basso, 1996;
Watson and Till 2010). Although ethnographic methods are rigorous, they challenge researchers to critically evaluate and write about social phenomena in addition to understanding everyday meanings and situations in a local community. Although ethnography was pioneered in anthropologic inquiry, “…geographers have brought our discipline’s theorizations of space, place, scale, landscape, and environment to develop further understandings of spatial processes and concepts in ethnography” (Watson and Till, 2010: 122). In this regard, Google Earth is a tool to help ethnographers locate these spatial data, because the use of this readily available technology can bring snapshots of fieldwork locations into a new perspective.
Applying Google Earth technology to research presents an alternative dynamic in human (cultural and social) geography methodology, assisting with visual ethnographies of space and place. Google Earth captures clear images of the landscape—particularly over time—and enables cultural and social geographers to discuss and identify meanings with local members of the community by assessing meanings imprinted in the landscape or sites of social activity—each pertinent to sense of place. It enables people to recognize spaces and places of significance and engage with landscapes and sites in the community in a different way. It may also provide researchers the opportunity to see how spaces and places connect and link, because people will speak from experience, and researchers and community planners then will be challenged to connect and relate the narratives presented. This approach provides participants another way to link their cognitive memory with spaces and places of familiarity; participants can trace memories and experiences in certain spaces on the images for input into placemarks (or lines and polygons) in Google Earth back in the computer lab. Cope and Elwood (2009: 1) noted that such geographically based technologies can be used to store “non-cartographic forms of spatial knowledge, such as emotion,” as a way of pinpointing and consolidating data—the images presented in the following section illustrate this approach. Each point marked in Google Earth will have a particular association, and the data referenced offer researchers and planners much insight into how people interact in their local settings.
Therefore, in line with the main points put forth in this article, Google Earth becomes a database for storing and referencing experiences. Ground-truthing is often necessary to capture experiences that cannot be interpreted only from images. Collecting photographs is another way of referencing spatial images in places where Street View is unavailable, such as in the case of rural areas of the Dominican Republic (the use of GPS-enabled cameras or video recorders is easily spatially referenced in Google Earth or GIS). Analyzing the landscape involves critically reporting on features;
spatial designations; and how, where, and why people gather in certain locations. This approach offers much insight and meaning for social scientists, geographers, and planners. In this regard, the landscape becomes the stage on which broader narratives need to be explored (Basso, 1996; Manzo and Devine-Wright, 2014), and interpretations add insight to meanings of community involvement and sense of place.