The Cartography of Home: Austin's Atlas

The Chronicle talks to Ann Armstrong of map project Austin's Atlas about the local preservation tool

Ann Armstrong
Ann Armstrong (courtesy of Ann Armstrong)

"I love maps," says Austin architect, artist, welder, and mapmaker Ann Armstrong. "They're functional art. They give you a bird's-eye view and show you the relationships between things you might not notice otherwise. They help you discover new places. As they age, they become more interesting and valuable. And they can help you find your way home."

Since 2013, Armstrong has been doing Austin a great service with her collaborative Austin's Atlas project, which has become in part an online preservation tool, if a subjective and accidental one. "It started with an idea for an idiosyncratic map" – an illustrated pedestrian guide map that focused on "urban oddities," funded with a Downtown Austin Alliance placemaking grant. "The project grew in different directions from there." Its purpose, she said, "is to encourage a more intimate relationship between people and place." In addition to pedestrian guides, Austin's Atlas now offers online mapmaking tools, workshops, guided walks, "mappy hours" for map-sharing, public art projects, and a crowdsourced atlas that contains an impressive and fascinating aggregation of maps – everything from KUTX's Austin Music Map to Spatial Austin's addictive, interactive Austin Demolished: Eight Years of Wrecking Ball Data (Mapped) – that help us see our city in any number of different, ever-changing ways.

Austin Chronicle: Why did you create Austin's Atlas?

Ann Armstrong: I love this place – the amazing green tree canopy, quirky neighborhoods, swimming holes, the warmth of the air, and the people who live here. But over the past decade, I've seen many things that I love and care about erode and disappear right before my eyes, at a rate faster than could ever be replaced. I needed a proactive way to deal with my grief, so I started taking walks and tuning in to the changes afoot, as well as to what stood still. All of the projects that Austin's Atlas encompasses grew out of these strolls through the urban fabric and became a way to engage with other Austinites, create art and documentation based on this place, and simultaneously cope with my feelings of loss.

AC: Why are the maps – yours and others – a good way to keep track of a changing city, including exposing some parts most people don't think to see?

AA: The city changes so rapidly these days, it is futile from the get-go – but that doesn't mean one shouldn't try. The front end of this project is about looking closely at the city that surrounds us – what do we see, love, hate, where do we go, how do we get there, etc. – and capturing our perceptions of it. The larger hope is to encourage people to be more proactive in shaping this place. Documenting how we see it can also help spur us on to think of what it can become. We live here, so the city is ours, and what we make of it is up to us. A map isn't necessarily a solution, but it is a good starting point for organic change.

Check the Austin's Atlas website for more details.

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Ann Armstrong, Austin's Atlas

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