Bioregional Mapping

Information on methods pretaining to Bioregional Mapping.

What is Bioregional Mapping?

by Ben Johnson
UBC School of Community and Regional Planning

An Introduction to Bioregional Mapping

by Doug Aberley & Michael George
Tsleil-Waututh Nation Treaty Office November 1998

Many First Nations and other governments have compiled vast amounts of written and cartographic data as part of the treaty negotiation process. Unfortunately, much of this information remains in a variety of formats and is not easily accessible to community use. Valuable information lies in computer files and map cabinets, useful to experts, but not available for planning, educational, community development, or cultural interpretation purposes.

Bioregional mapping is a technique that allows the collective biophysical and cultural knowledge of a First Nation, or any government, to be placed in a single multi-layered atlas. When existing sources of information are plotted on these maps, it usually becomes apparent that the are gaps in the quality or quantity of information that a community can use for efficient decision making. Research programs can then be designed to efficiently collect any new information that is needed to holistically represent community identity.

Before reviewing the bioregional atlas two types of orientation will help
A. Why bioregional mapping are different than typical cartography;
B. By what process bioregional maps are made;
C. The use of bioregional mapping in western Canada;
D. First Nations adaptation of bioregional mapping.

A.Why Bioregional Mapping is Different
Bioregional maps differ from traditional cartographic documents in several ways:

1. The maps are made in the community by community members. The visual language of mapping is relearned, and becomes as important as speech or reading as a tool of communication. Maps made by governments or business interests will describe the world from their perspective only. Bioregional maps allow a community to describe itself from its own perspective.

2. The maps combine scientific and traditional information, with each type of
information given equal respect and representation. Bioregional maps can only be made if a community assembles both a library of scientific reports, and a record of oral history in the form of tapes, videos, and ethnographic surveys.

3 Maps are made which equitably depict biophysical and cultural information. Traditional planning maps are reasonably good at showing information about the physical environment. Bioregional maps also add information about the people who inhabit the land.

4. The maps each tell a story in two ways. Spatial information shows the location of
Things or events on the land, and descriptive information tells stories about what happened in a particular location. The map tells a story, in both written and visual formats.

5. The maps are living documents, changed or created as new information is collected. As the bioregional maps are presented to community members, government agencies, business interests, and the general public, many new sources of information will be revealed. Because the maps are made in the community they can be revised simply and in a short period of time.

  • This technique of community-based planning is compatable with indigenous land stewardship regimes. It is also a technique that has long been proposed by "western" regional planners:
  • Patrick Geddes pioneered the concept in Scotland and India from 1892 to the 1930s;
  • Ian McHarg, a Scot regional planner and long time chair of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Planning and Landscape Architecture, revised the technique in the late 1960s;
  • Frederick Steiner, a student of McHarg's and Chair of the Planning School at the University of Arizona, has further updated the approach in the 1990s;
  • John Friedman, the foremost contemporary planning theorist has also proposed a variation of the bioregional planning and mapping theme;
  • Bioregional planning is now formally taught at the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia.

Bioregional mapping is absolutely consistent with an indigenous peoples worldview, and is also at the cutting-edge of contemporary western planning thought.

B. How Bioregional Maps Are Made
Bioregional maps are typically 2 x 3 feet in size so that they can be easily read, yet are not too unwieldy to display. The area that is being mapped should be in the centre of the map image, with 4 to 6 inches of blank area around the planimetric base map image.

Bioregional maps can be made in three ways.

  • They can be made by hand using simple and inexpensive tools and large-format xerography. Tracing paper is used to copy a base map image from existing topographic maps.
  • They can be made using digital mapping or CAD (computed aided design) software.
  • They can be made using GIS (geographic information system) software. GIS software requires that a digital map of a particular territory be imported from a CAD or other cartography software.

A base map is created, with custom made title block, north arrow, and linear scale. This is a time to have some fun. The design of the base map is totally up to the community. The map can have a decorative border, a north arrow that uses a animal or other totem symbol, and can be otherwise customised to represent community identity.

Scientific and local information is then collected, read, and summarised for inclusion on a series of biophysical or cultural maps. Biophysical maps include geology, soils, hydrology, physiography, flora, fauna, and various levels of ecosystem association. Cultural maps include tradition use, colonization, land ownership patterns, education levels, income levels, and administrative boundaries. Bioregional maps have been made on nearly 100 topics. It is up to a community to decide how it will best describe itself.

Information is then placed on each map image in two ways. Where things are located or where events occurred - spatial information - is shown. Second, descriptive information, the "story" of particular occurrence or location, is told in written or graphic form. By tying spatial and descriptive information together, the map reader saves the time of having to read often technical reports to know what story a map is telling.

Once the bioregional map atlas is completed it becomes the common foundation of knowledge from which planning scenarios can be prepared, and decisions ultimately made. Complex information that is otherwise difficult to present is clearly depicted. The community learns about itself in the process of making decisions about its future.

C. Use of the Bioregional Mapping Method
Bioregional mapping has a long tradition in western Canada. In 1985 Doug Aberley first explored the technique with a simple atlas of northwest British Columbia. In 1994 the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia began offering classes in bioregional planning. Each year students at SCARP prepare a bioregional atlas of a part of British Columbia. In 1995 the Community Animation Program, a joint project of Environment Canada and Health Canada, began offering bioregional mapping workshops to interested community groups in Yukon and British Columbia. Also in 1995 the Salt Spring Island Community Services Society published a bioregional mapping manual titled Giving the Land a Voice: Mapping Our Home Places.

D. First Nations Adaptation of Bioregional Mapping
In 1997 the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, with a 720 square mile traditional territory in BC's lower mainland, pioneered use of bioregional mapping as a means of furthering their interests in both treaty negotiation and community building processes. The Tsleil-Wautt people have created a forty sheet bioregional atlas that describes a collectively held "vision" of how their culture has evolved in the past, has survived in the present, and how it will grow in the future. The bioregional atlas format has allowed a vast amount of often complex information to be presented in a relatively inexpensive format that is accessible

The Tsleil-Waututh Nation Bioregional Atlas was created by following steps including:

  • A large "in house" research library was assembled;
  • A 1:100,000 scale 2' x 3'digital map base was constructed using a CAD program (Microstation);
  • A three part research process was carried out. First, libraries, archives, and government offices were "plundered" for reports, maps, and other useful information. Second, local community members were interviewed for their traditional knowledge of history, legends, and material culture. And third, data contained in existing reports prepared by the Tsleil-Waututh Nation were distilled into visual formats.
  • A series a draft "doodle" maps were created with assistance from community members. These maps were continuously added to and revised;
  • All available biophysical and cultural information was translated into a digital mapping format;
      • Draft and final maps were checked by numerous community groups:
      • Lands and Resources Committee,
      • Treaty Caucus,
      • Traditional and Elected Councils.
      • Community Open House;
  • Once approved, the map atlas has been used for treaty negotiations, economic development, public education, cultural protection and other purposes.

The first series of maps was finished in November 1997. They are organised in 7 "chapters" to tell a story of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. The chapters, each which include 1-10 maps, are:
1. Biophysical Setting
2. Patterns of Traditional Use
3. Impacts of Colonialism
4. Current BC and Canadian Jurisdictions…"Power" Maps
5. Tsleil-Waututh Nation Stewardship Vision
6. Watershed Unit Plans
7. Variable Title Approach to Urban Treaty Settlement

To November 1998 the maps have been presented on more than 40 occasions to government officials, university classes, corporations, Tsleil-Waututh community members, and other community groups. The overwhelming response has been that the atlas presents the worldview and political aspiration of a First Nation in a manner that has rarely been achieved in the past.

The bioregional atlas continues to expand and change. A second edition of the atlas, with colour photographs embedded in the map images, is currently in production. Community members use individual maps for public presentations, and as part of school projects. The bioregional mapping library is visited for a variety of research purposes. The bioregional atlas is working as intended. On one level the atlas has assisted in advancing treaty negotiations, on another it is working to build community.

For more information contact Michael George or Doug Aberley, Tsleil-Waututh Nation Treaty Office, 3082 Ghum-Lye Drive, North Vancouver, B.C.

Maya Atlas

by the Toledo Maya Cultural Council (TMCC) in association with the Toledo Acaldes Association (Check out the sample map!)

Giving the Land A Voice, Mapping Our Home Places

by Doug Aberley

This is an excellent book, based on mapping techniques for a whole community or on a site level. It is the result of a series of workshops held in 1994 by Doug Aberley and several other geographers.

The 1999 Revised Edition contains detailed, explanatory directions, sample inventory sheets, ways of protecting sensitive areas, directions for creating a Bioregional Map Atlas, over 20 sample maps and 8 full-colour artistically rendered maps.

Available from:

LTA Land Trust Alliance of British Columbia
204-338 Lower Ganges Road
Saltspring Island, BC V8K 2V3

$20 + postage