image by Claudia Martinez Mansell
Documentation of space, and human occupation of space, can be instrumental in elucidating land usage and concomitant social constructs and power dynamics. Mapping can provide a visual platform to reimagine those uses and dynamics. At Bourj Al Shamali Refugee Camp, understanding the current use of space and envisioning future green spaces amidst dense urban dwellings are driving motivations for creating aerial maps of the camp. In 2015, Claudia Martinez Mansell and community members of the Bourj Al Shamali camp in southern Lebanon used Public Lab kite and balloon mapping kits with standard digital cameras (red-green-blue, RGB) to take aerial photographs and stitch the images together using Photoshop, to produce the first aerial map of Bourj Al Shamali, nearly 70 years after the camp was originally established.
The Bourj Al Shamali Refugee Camp in southern Lebanon was created in 1948 for Palestinian refugees after the creation of the State of Israel, and was intended as a temporary relocation space. The families that populated the camp mostly came from agricultural regions in northern Palestine (now Israel), but the next generations of those families, who still live in the refugee camp nearly 70 years hence, have lost their agrarian community identity and become urban poor. The 20,000-person camp is a densely populated urban environment, now with five times as many inhabitants as when it was first established, with very little open or green space. For historical cultural connectivity, health, and sustainability, community members are advocating for the camp’s first public green space and promoting an urban agriculture pilot initiative, and have launched a new website, www.bourjalshamali.org as part of this initiative. In order to design useful green spaces, residents first need to assess the current land uses and visualize current and potential open spaces. Geographic visualization was the impetus for community members working with the non-governmental organization Al Houla Association, and long-time colleague Claudia Martinez Mansell, to map Bourj Al Shamali. From discussions around the potential utility of aerial mapping emerged additional community questions about the relative population density and distribution of resources in different neighborhoods, locations of fire-fighting equipment hubs, and ability to strategically plan future developments. Additionally, community members and Martinez Mansell began to wonder how the mapping process and ownership of a complete map may impact community involvement in camp governance and operations, which are currently under the jurisdiction of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA). The Al Houla Association asserted three overarching goals for the community aerial mapping project: to increase visibility through increasing awareness of issues, to create dialogue between community members and working groups, and ultimately to improve conditions through visibility and dialogue.
Bourj Al Shamali community members, including community leader Abu Wassim, and Martinez Mansell first set out to use kite mapping kits to take low-altitude, high-resolution aerial images of the whole camp. However, many obstacles such as antennas and electrical wires created physical challenges to kite mapping, resulting in ripped and downed kites. These setbacks did provide opportunity for further community engagement though, as a local seamstress repaired the torn kites and a local carpenter built a more sturdy rig for the camera. Eventually the team also used balloon kits for mapping, but those also had issues with antennas and electrical wires, and two balloons fell victim to the amusement of young men with pebble guns who shot them down. Since the flying was so tenuous, the community members doing mapping canvassed much of the camp on foot in order to find places to deploy the kite or balloon rig, and talked with curious onlookers throughout the camp. The simplicity of the kite and balloon mapping tools set people at ease, and many thought of the experience almost as a game. By the end of the mapping process, almost everyone in Bourj Al Shamali knew about the project and most had seen their peers flying kites and balloons to capture the aerial images. Community members eagerly await the final aerial map, but are using Photoshop offline instead of online MapKnitter to stitch the aerial images together in order to maintain control of the images and project until the map is complete. It is important that the map be locally accessible, to be utilized and shared by the community, rather than existing solely in the cyber world, which is often cumbersome in Bourj Al Shamali.
To evaluate whether or not access to an aerial map of the camp has impacted the community in the intended ways -- increasing community involvement in governance, increasing dialogue around community issues, enabling beneficial development within the camp (e.g. of green spaces), etc -- Martinez Mansell will be asking community members to complete a survey questionnaire before receiving maps, and will ask them to complete another survey after a year of having the maps. The surveys will ask questions regarding the person’s use of the map including how often they refer to it, whether or not the distribution of resources in the camp has been altered, and the person’s involvement in various parts of the community. Other factors, including the number of maps printed or downloaded inside and outside of the camp, will also provide insight to the utility of the map. Martinez Mansell is interested in whether or not aerial maps and the community mapping process can be used to provide insight and action steps for a variety of humanitarian issues. Of utmost importance with this project, however, is how well mapping and aerial maps can serve the community of Bourj Al Shamali, and enable the community to create open and green spaces for public health and cultural continuity.