Cognitive mapping for community planning & development

What is it?
Cognitive mapping is a participatory exercise used in a variety of disciplines, whereby participants actively reflect on their local environment and experiences of place through the creation of hand-drawn maps.

The purpose of this exercise is to increase both the researcher and participants’ awareness and understanding of place and the ways in which our physical environments shape our lived experiences, choices, and decision making.

For Community Planning and Development, cognitive mapping provides researchers and planners an interactive community engagement method that results in rich, unique qualitative and quantitative data.

What is needed?
Materials: Paper, markers/pencils/pens/crayons, audio/video recorder, a table or clipboard on which to draw

Time Required: 1-2 hours

Location: Ideally a quiet space for best audio/video recording

Actors: Activity Facilitator, Activity Support to assist with audio/video recording and note taking, 1 or more participants

Preparation: Activity facilitators should prepare a theme and set of questions to prompt the map creation process. For instance, when this exercise is used for community planning ends, then a facilitator could prepare questions that enable land use classification and qualification, such as:
What are the boundaries of your neighborhood?
What is your neighborhood called?
What are important places in your neighborhood? What do people do there?
What are the most frequently visited places in your neighborhood?
What are your favorite places and why?

Is an expert needed?
No, no expert needed

How to
1. Describe the purpose of the exercise, and how it will be used for your project or research.
2. Show example of a cognitive map. For instance, you can draw a map of your current or childhood neighborhood. Emphasize that the map is not about geographic precision, but rather a reflection of the participant’s experiences and perceptions of their community.
3. Ask participant(s) to start by drawing a general map of their neighborhood, delineating the extent or boundaries, different major land uses (residential, commercial, open spaces, etc.), and major transit corridors.
4. Once the participant(s) have a rough sketch, asked prepared questions to gauge further insight and detail. For instance, ask them to describe what they have already drawn and why they drew certain things, or alternately, ask them to highlight or draw more features, like their favorite places or places most frequently used by residents.
5. Continue to use the map as a basis upon for questions and discussion. After you have asked your prepared questions, proceed to discuss the experience of completing this exercise – Was it interesting, enjoyable, surprising? Did you learn something from it?
6. Once interview(s) is completed, capture and assess data collected through the transcription of interview recording, review of maps drawn and notes taken. Summarize major takeaways and findings.
7. Apply findings to your research or project.

Good practice tips
1. Create open-ended, simple questions that allow participants to drive the conversation.
2. Think critically about how you will interpret, use, and share data collected. Describe this clearly and openly with contributing participants.
3. If you decide to provide an example, make sure to emphasize that the example is but one form of completing this exercise, and that there is not right or wrong way to draw this map.

Success stories
Cognitive Mapping was used as a primary method in the Story Mapping Changing Neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. project at the University of Maryland – College Park. The project centers on five D.C. neighborhoods facing significant demographic, socioeconomic, and cultural change, and the story of those changes as told by long-term residents, businesses, and active community members. Along with mobile GIS and web-assisted mapping, participants were asked to describe their experiences of neighborhood change through hand-drawn cognitive maps.

To learn more
Kitchin, Robert M. "Cognitive maps: What are they and why study them?." Journal of environmental psychology 14.1 (1994): 1-19.

Peace Corps Office of Overseas Programming and Training. “Model Sessions: PACA Tools.” Using Participatory Analysis for Community Action, Booklet #5. U.S. Peace Corps, 2007;

Story Mapping Changing Neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. project, Urban Studies & Planning, University of Maryland – College Park;

Created on 31 Oct 2016 22:15 by Jeanne Choquehaunca
Updated on 28 Nov 2016 13:26 by Barron Orr

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