VIU's Cultural Mapping Project Examines What Connects Residents to their Downtown Core

VIU’s Cultural Mapping Team is ready to go to downtown Courtenay on March 5 to ask citizens the question: What connects you to your downtown? After data is collected in Courtenay, Port Alberni and Nanaimo are next on the list.

February 17, 2016 - 12:15pm

VIU students and faculty embark on community research project with Vancouver Island residents

In an era of unprecedented change what often anchors a small city is its downtown core. But as economic, social and demographic sands shift over time that anchor can drift. A team of Vancouver Island University (VIU) faculty and students are undertaking a cultural mapping project in an attempt to find out how well anchored the downtowns of three island cities are - Courtenay, Port Alberni and Nanaimo. Called Where is Here? the end result of the project will be the creation of a multi-layered “deep” cultural map.

“The deep cultural map is about developing a rich content tool that taps into the lifeblood of the community and the mainstream of the creative economy. This goes beyond bricks and mortar and looks at ways in which communities behave and interact in space,” said project coordinator, Sharon Karsten.

Along with being project coordinator Karsten is a Simon Fraser University PHd student and director of the Comox Valley Art Gallery. She says the students are going to be hitting the pavement at a public event in each of the three cities with iPhones in hand to film answers to a simple question: What connects you to your downtown?  

“Through that question we are trying to delve more deeply into the intangible dimensions of what a downtown is. We want to hear stories that help us understand what attracts and connects people in the downtown core,” said Karsten.

“It could be a bar or bridge; a coffee shop or green space. They might tell us about a first kiss, or a hardware store they worked at 50 years ago. The list is endless and we don’t know what kind of answers we’ll get. What we hope is the map we create from those answers can be presented to decision-makers in a way that’s relevant and insightful.”

The lead investigator for the Where is Here? project is BC Regional Innovation Chair in Tourism and Sustainable Rural Development, Dr. Nicole Vaugeois. She says the team will help uncover new information that can be used to create vibrant downtown areas that both residents and visitors value.

“The downtown of a city is a symbol and an emblem of community pride but sometimes the pressures of mall culture, the drift from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based one and demographic shifts can contribute to a community losing sight of that,” said Vaugeois.

Over seven months the team will also be including perspectives from residents, going through historical archives and developing a platform where citizens can upload their own pictures and videos to the project. They will be supported throughout by Vaugeois and two other VIU faculty members - VIU media studies professor Alanna Williams and Director of VIU’s Master of Community Planning program, Dr. Pam Shaw. Each faculty member brings unique expertise to the table.

Shaw is a Geographic Information System (GIS) expert who has been involved in community planning projects in countries all over the world. She says community mapping with traditional GIS techniques will be the jumping off point for this project, but they will be adding layer upon layer of information on top of that.

“I’m hoping we can gather a wide range of opinions from First Nations, industry, retail, non-profits and perhaps most importantly figure out the reasons why people are downtown,” said Shaw.

“It starts with community mapping. That’s where my expertise lies but we’re taking it to a much deeper level. We’re moving from points on a map to showing intangible cultural points, which means it’s more than just simply referencing place. We want the stories, feelings, and perceptions of people to come alive. It’s about history, government, the evolution of culture, identity and a tie to landscape.”

Team member Sarah Holden is a VIU Geography and Global Studies student. She says after months of preparation she is excited to finally be going into the communities.

“What we’re doing is a totally different form of data collecting. It’s much more organic. We’re talking to people and listening and it is the people that will be directing the outcome. To me that’s exciting and it certainly makes me curious about what the final product will be,” said Holden. 

The team has been developing a platform to launch from over the last two months. Recently the students were split into three teams - each with an assigned city. Events are planned in each community with the first kicking off March 5 in Courtenay. The project will culminate in a three day symposium in Courtenay from July 20-22 where more than 25 speakers will share their knowledge on cultural mapping and the VIU team will share their work with delegates. For more information please go to the project site at

VIU would like to thank all the community partners who are involved in this project: City of Port Alberni; the Downtown Courtenay Business Improvement Association; City of Nanaimo Culture Division; Downtown Nanaimo Business Improvement Association; The Comox Valley Record; Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; North Island College; and Simon Fraser University. 


MEDIA CONTACT:  Dane Gibson, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

P: 250.740.6288 E: T: @viunews  

Tags: Research

Sign up for our VIU news and experts email