Impact Mapping: Maps, Problem Framing, and Environmental Impact Analysis

Authors: Alex W Peimer*, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, Northeastern Illinois University
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: Environmental impact assessment, Section 404 stream and wetland mitigation, critical cartography, political ecology
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 1:20 PM / 3:00 PM
Room: Studio 8, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Environmental impact assessments are conducted to determine the cumulative environmental impact that construction activities have on land and water resources. A controversial aspect of the assessment is determination of whether impacts will occur as a result of the construction activity. Among other data, maps and geographic information (e.g. aerial photos) serve a critical role in this determination. In particular, maps and geographic information are used to define the scope and intensity of impacts. Impact assessment mappers tend to use maps because they purport that maps provide static representations of an objective external reality. Drawing from the insights of critical cartography and political ecology, this paper challenges this assumption by demonstrating that impact assessment mapping is an ideologically-loaded process of problem framing. Rather than “seeing” impacts, maps frame impacts as greater or lesser. Supported by written permit documents of U.S. Clean Water Act Section 404, this paper shows that mapping and maps serve a key function in the politics of knowledge and scale associated with framing “impacts” during impact assessment. Disputes and claims over what constitutes a “legitimate” map reflect and align with how assessors frame “impacts.” In light of efforts to ensure that impact assessment is conducted through transparent and democratic means, an implication of these findings is for assessors to acknowledge that impact determination can vary depending on the type of maps consulted. A best practice is therefore for assessors to systematically and comprehensively review map sources before making impact determinations.

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