Can you find recycling on the Gold Coast? Mining pollution in Logan Square? A vegetarian restaurant in the far South Loop? Over the last seven years, Nadine Bopp’s students at the School of the Art Institute have. Their 21 neighborhood “green maps,” available on the school’s Web site, constitute one of the 400 registered projects in 51 countries that are officially part of the international Green Map System.

According to Bopp’s statement at, the neighborhood maps seek to “help residents and tourists make ethical consumer choices during their daily experience of the city.” But don’t take them at face value. Like all maps, they look simple, straightforward, and objective. And like all maps, they’re complex, extremely condensed, and subjective.

The Gold Coast map’s color scheme is gentle blue and green, with yellow streets and an intricate border. It could be a Chamber of Commerce map, but there’s no marker or label for the Marriott or Nordstrom. In between them, on the south side of Illinois between State and Wabash, two red arrows chase each other. That’s the Green Map System icon for “reuse site,” so I looked under “renewable resources” in the map’s index. The Jardine Water Purification Plant just north of Navy Pier heads the list, followed by 11 more names and street addresses. The icon that caught my eye was identifying “Afterwards New and Used Books” at 23 E. Illinois.

You might wish that the map were clickable. You might quibble with the spelling (it’s “After-Words”) or with its comprehensiveness (the Enterprise car rental at State and Ohio gets a double-arrow icon but the Hertz at State and Kinzie doesn’t). You might wish it were dated, so you could tell how current it was. What you can’t quarrel with is that this is a map unlike any you can buy at a bookstore or pick up at City Hall.

What makes it part of a movement is that the School of the Art Institute has signed up to use the internationally recognizable Green Map® icons. At Green Maps’s 1,200-square-foot office in New York’s East Village, founder Wendy Brawer oversees four staffers, four interns, and a worm-composting bin. The group’s Web site, relaunched in May, is viewable in English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian. Recent blog posts discuss the new Compost Green Map of Manhattan, announce (in Chinese) the launch of the “China Green Map Newsletter,” and display a YouTube video on the green map launch in the western Colombia city of Pereira. The group’s budget, mostly from foundation grants, is under $150,000 a year, which doesn’t include the volunteer and barter help it relies on.

Would-be mapmakers—students, professors, agencies, tourism boards—can apply to be licensed users of the icon system and pay for the privilege on a sliding scale. Aside from this legalism, Green Maps operates as a benevolent anarchy, a wiki with lenient admins. Brawer said the staff rarely turns down an applicant, although it may suggest seeking out a local partner. Similarly, there’s no overall grading of maps after the fact, and any comments are kept positive. “There have been a couple of maps we’ve been disappointed with,” she said. “We try to mention possible changes when the mapmakers can address them—for instance, when they’re converting a map to PDF format.”

I mentioned that Pittsburgh’s green map showed just a single brownfield in the 11-county area. Brawer immediately recalled that the sponsoring group’s goal had been “to encourage people to stay in the area after graduation,” so it mostly listed environmental goods and didn’t tackle tougher issues. “We hoped they’d do another project,” she says, “but I’m not sure the group still exists.” In Shanghai, where unofficial maps are forbidden, local would-be green mappers await governmental approval.

Writing 15 years ago in The Power of Maps, Denis Wood foresaw none of this when he summarized cartography in two sentences: “What gets mapped is what makes money for those who have money. And all the rest of it is a kind of technical handwaving.”

Building on geographic information system technology as well as environmental enthusiasm, Brawer says that these days “what gets mapped is what the view of the mapmaker is.” Or as Nadine Bopp puts it, “This map is a voice.”

In the winter and summer terms at SAIC, Bopp and each class of 20 students exercise their voice by producing a neighborhood map in an intensive course spanning 15 three-hour days.

Day one: “We talk about sustainability and urban planning and where they’re from. We get a lot of international students here, and so our maps reflect their perspective as well as just a local one.”

Day two: They look at the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s own colorful map, which identifies 222 vernacular neighborhoods such as Bucktown and the Gap (the city officially recognizes only 77 community areas). Working within the constraints of mass-transit travel time and student safety, they “vote and vote and vote” on which neighborhood to map, with the lowest finisher on each ballot being eliminated until a decision is reached.

Day three: “We all go to the neighborhood together” to get acquainted. On the following days they split up into groups of four and each walks every block of its piece of the neighborhood, making notes and taking pictures. The students rarely visit or consult with local residents or community organizations, and with three weeks from start to finish, there’s little time for revision. Landscape architect David Tulloch of Rutgers University, who does green map projects on a longer timeline, has written about his difficulties in convincing undergraduates to revise their work and community groups to help them do so, but those are problems that Bopp can barely think about. “We’re kind of in our own bubble here,” she says.

I thought there was some mistake when I saw a row of crossed pickaxes along Milwaukee Avenue on the Logan Square map. Isn’t that the Green Maps icon for mine pollution? No mistake, says Bopp. Those pickaxes represent jewelry stores: “There are no mines in Chicago, but they support mining and slave labor elsewhere.”

Of course, some of these shops do jewelry repair as well. Might they not qualify for the benign double-arrow reuse icon—as does the Gold Coast car rental agency, because it promotes reuse of another product environmentalists have serious reservations about? Every dot on every map distills dozens of arguments like this and renders judgment.

Are those judgments right or wrong? That’s not quite the point. The point is that the multitudes now make the maps.v