Counter-mapping the neighborhood: Youth making recommendations for a mobility desert

What if youth living in underserved neighborhoods had an opportunity to inform processes of community development using mobile technologies?

Photo of Katie Headrick Taylor
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

The Oasis Bicycle Workshop in Nashville, Tennessee, operates in the basement of a youth-serving organization. The mission of the Workshop is to empower young people to build and ride their own bicycles within a youth "mobility desert." This area of Nashville is racially segregated and was intentionally isolated (by an interstate highway system) from other, more vibrant, whiter parts of Nashville during processes of urban renewal. Young people especially feel the burden of this isolation since they do not have access to cars. The Workshop teaches young people to build their own bicycles from discarded, donated parts. Volunteers then teach young people how to ride safely through the city streets. In one Workshop iteration, the director, Daniel Furbish partnered with a researcher at Vanderbilt University, Katie Headrick Taylor, to support young people in mapping the mobility desert with mobile and location aware technologies. Young people then met with urban planners, cartographers, and local stakeholders and shared their geospatial data, arguing for specific changes to the infrastructure that would facilitate independent mobility for youth. We called this "counter-mapping," and from this process, young people got a new bicycle lane constructed within their neighborhood (called the "Music City Bikeway") and better sidewalk connectivity. Urban planners also began systematically incorporating youth voices into planning conversations by visiting local public schools.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)

If you chose to self-identify your race, ethnicity, or origin, please share here: (the answer will not be public)

I grew up in a working-class family in the valley of East Tennessee.


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Washington

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Tennessee

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

The pilot work was conducted in Nashville, Tennessee, but we are trying to iterate and study a Mobile City Science Curriculum for young people living in underserved areas of cities to Seattle (Ranier Beach), Chicago (Bronzeville), and New York (Corona, Queens).

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

This project addresses the problem that young people's lived experiences are left out of processes of community development. This issue is especially problematic in areas of the city where young people cannot safely access resources and learning opportunities such as libraries, parks, and community centers. We see everyday that young people are uniquely impacted by the built environment, yet are rarely invited to share their ideas for the future. With today's widely available location aware and mobile technologies, there are endless opportunities for young people to record, learn about, and share their lived experiences with a more "powerful" audience. Unfortunately, these opportunities for engaging young people in "data science" to impact change in their communities are rarely realized.

How do we systematically include youth, living in underserved neighborhoods, in processes of community development? We can do this through a Mobile City Science Curriculum. This solution supports young people to collect, analyze, and share data from their lived experiences in urban spaces using geospatial and mobile technologies. Young people, participating in this project, will learn and engage in data science around their neighborhoods, using GPS, GIS, and wearable cameras, to create persuasive arguments for how the community could look in the future so that it is more conducive to the interests, desires, and constraints of youth. These persuasive arguments, or "counter-maps," will be shared with local stakeholders, including urban planners, parents, school administrators, and leaders of youth-serving organizations, in public charrettes. Young people and adult professionals and stakeholders will engage in problem-based conversations that respond to the experiences from, representations of, and visions for the community that youth bring to the charrettes.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Education

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Growth (the pilot has already launched and is starting to expand)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Young people will first "ground-truth" current maps of their neighborhood by walking and biking important routes that they use, marking inaccuracies and points that may be missing. After that, they will use GPS devices and wearable cameras to walk "desire lines" through the neighborhood, marking routes they often take, or wish they could take, if the infrastructure were different. They will upload these desire lines into a GIS and share with the team. Youth will then do "asset and deficit" mapping of the neighborhood in a GIS, highlighting the places and routes that are currently on the ground, and those they wish they could see come to fruition. Finally, youth will create and share counter-maps with local stakeholders in design charrettes.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

In the pilot work in Nashville, Tennessee, three major changes were made by six African-American youth that counter-mapped the mobility desert in which they lived. First, the city's urban planning process fundamentally changed. Urban planners began visiting local public high schools to get youth input in the "Nashville Next" planning process. And second, the community in which these six youth lived received a bicycle lane within the subsequent year. The bike lane was named, "Music City Bikeway" and extended along the path that the youth rode themselves and then recommended to urban planners and cartographers in the public design charrettes that we organized. Finally, Taylor published initial findings from this pilot work in the journal, Technology, Knowledge, and Learning. The title of the article is, "Counter-mapping the neighborhood on bicycles: Mobilizing youth reimagine the city.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $100k - $250k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Mobile City Science will provide youth-serving community organizations, social science educators, and/or urban planners formalized ways of teaching young people how to create insights and data-driven approaches to urban design and planning through ubiquitous, mobile computing. Therefore, once we have the initial support to study and formalize the best curricular materials, these groups can use the curriculum without us having to be there.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

Research organizations at CUNY (Children's Environment Research Group) and University of Colorado Boulder (Children, Youth and Environments Center for Community Engagement) have been working on the issue of getting youth perspectives into processes of community development. The Mobile City Science Curriculum is unique though because it capitalizes on youth's interest with mobile and geospatial technologies as well as their own physical mobility throughout their neighborhoods. Finally, the MCSC has an interest in teaching young people data science, a burgeoning professional domain.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

The field is moving toward more community-based collaborations so that research questions speak directly to the problems facing young people. Instead of starting from teaching children something adults think they should know, we are moving to first understanding what are the relevant and rich issues in children's daily lives that encompass learning opportunities and will fundamentally improve their futures. The built infrastructure is increasingly important for us to consider as impacting the wellbeing of children, but we cannot address the issues without first asking them what the issues are.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka, who was it? (the answer will not be public)

University of Washington, Seattle


Join the conversation:

Photo of Bev Haman

I agree with Maud Schaafsma below that this proposal may not be the right fit for this grant.  However, I applaud your project's mission and success so far.  Teaching youth self-reliance is so important and has been missing from our society the past thirty years.  Involving youth in community development is also an important, but fairly recent, method to build a sense of well-being and connection to where one lives.  Good luck!

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