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We are used to thinking of maps as a representation of reality. Yet the process of choosing what to include and what to leave out of a map reflects our value choices. Thus, maps can be a powerful tool for visualizing something different and in the process, provide a pathway toward altering a community’s reality. 

- Alda Yuan, Managing Director, BRIGHT

This chapter will demonstrate the utility of mapping as a method of visualizing the project corridor. It will introduce a step-by-step method of identifying the project area and sites of interest as well as some tools to help visualize how they relate to one another. Mapping these locations is crucial for scoping out the goals of the planning process. 

Key Takeaways

  • Collaborate with project partners and stakeholders to define the scope and unifying themes of the corridor  
  • Conduct research to identify blighted, vacant, and brownfield sites within the corridor
  • Use mapping systems (like My Maps or QGIS), watershed maps, ward maps, and zoning maps to visualize the various properties, assets, stakeholders, sites of interest, and general nature of the corridor project
  • Research and incorporate demographic data and environmental indicators to identify the areas of greatest need

Identify the Corridor

Inventory Sites of Interest

Identify the Corridor


Before you begin the process of revitalizing a community, you must determine the scope of the project, the physical area that the corridor will encompass. This is important because it will help focus your efforts.

Narrow the Focus

Before finding specific sites to target for redevelopment, project leads need to determine its scope. First, set some limitations and some guidelines. These limitations might be spatial (i.e. only considering sites within a certain ward or neighborhood) or based on other criteria (i.e. no toxic sites). Work done to connect with and consult stakeholders (go to Chapter 2) should be helpful.

For instance, a local historical society might know of an old factory that could serve as a great indoor/outdoor space for a farmers' market. This space could serve as an anchor, with other sites centered around it. On the other hand, a local elder might remember a previous attempt to clean up a handful of gas station sites and how it ran into snags. That might dissuade the project team from choosing those sites or at least prepare the team for potential difficulties.

Feet on the Ground

There is no replacement for a hands-on approach to identifying sites. As the following sections note, mapping is an excellent tool, and in-depth research of sites is necessary, but seeing the spaces in person is extremely important. This is why it is critical to have project partners who are part of the local community and know the area well. Those who do not live in the community or are less familiar with its history and geography should visit, if at all possible. Even project team members who live within the community might still benefit from a walkthrough to look at spaces from a new perspective.  

Identify a Unifying Theme

It may be helpful, based on preliminary discussions with stakeholders (go to Chapter 2) and after a walkthrough, to settle upon a theme for the project. This can help identify sites, shape end-uses, and better explain the project to funders. The theme need not be complex. For instance, if it happens that Roger Ave. used to be a center of community life, the project can focus on sites along this road and make its revitalization the unifying theme of the project. Or perhaps the community lacks green spaces and introducing parkland can be a major goal of the corridor project.

To demonstrate, the South Platte RiverPlace Initiative mapped five sites for redevelopment that were already surrounded by other well-funded revitalization projects along the Platte River in Denver, Colorado. The city of Denver, along with the Greenway Foundation, facilitated significant investments for the improvement of the South Platte River and its surrounding areas. These investments were expected to create new parks, commercial space for small businesses, affordable mixed-income housing, and food markets. In turn, the South Platte RiverPlace Initiative identified five catalyst sites, within the area that received revitalization investments, as the best opportunities for reuse and redevelopment. The initiative recognize that the South Platte River area became an attractive area for redevelopment/investment and identified a corridor project area that would benefit from the momentum of past investments. Below is an image of the mapped corridor:

Introduction to Environmental Justice Mapping

A Game Changer in the Making? Lessons From States Advancing Environmental Justice Through Mapping and Cumulative Impact Strategies

Inventory Sites of Interest

Gather Data

The first task, once a project area for the corridor has been identified, is to gather all  potential sites of interest. The simplest way to cast a wide net first before narrowing down is to obtain a list of blighted and vacant sites from the local redevelopment or environmental protection authorities. In some areas, the local agency will have this information online, or will have developed an online tool to check the status of certain properties.

Many times, finding these blighted, vacant, and brownfields properties can be as simple as googling “blighted properties in ward/borough X.” In other instances, it may be necessary to reach out to the local zoning agency and ask them to share a list of blighted properties. In the event that the local authority possesses a list, it may be incomplete or outdated, so additional legwork will usually be necessary. 

Depending on the size and location of the corridor being contemplated, it may be possible to do a walkthrough of the area to confirm sites on the list and to identify new sites. If this is not possible, Google Earth/Google Maps may assist in checking whether sites are truly vacant or blighted. Keep in mind, however, that satellite images are not always up to date. 

If the local authorities do not have a pre-existing list of blighted properties, one can be built from the ground up. Here, you have several options: 

  • Work with the local redevelopment agency.
  • Identify local non-profit/public interest organizations such as the Urban Land Institute that may be able to provide community support. 
  • Contact local universities or institutions of higher education and work with academics that have expertise in urban planning or local issues.
Preliminary Due Diligence

Once sites are identified, project leaders should perform some preliminary property research on those sites. Pre-existing lists of vacant sites may already include some helpful information such as ownership. Local agencies often have property research tools on their websites. The goal is to discover information such as the owner of the property, assessed value, and whether there are any liens on it. 

If the local agencies do not have this information readily available, each county is legally required to possess a law library. This law library will have access to legal databases, usually Lexis or Westlaw, which can help locate the actual documents associated with each property.

Map the Properties

Layer Watershed and Zoning Maps

Map the Properties

Map to Visualize

Mapping is incredibly important because maps can hold a large amount of information and reveal new connections. Seeing all the sites collected in one place can help determine the best candidates for further research.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) 

GIS stands for Geographic Information System and is a generic term for any software that allows visualization and analysis of geography-based data.

QGIS is considered the gold-standard of open source GIS software.

Sophisticated mapping software exists but these can often be costly or require specialized expertise. Community partners, such as universities or local groups, may have access to these services and the knowledge to use them. However, free and simpler options also exist, especially for the preliminary planning stages. One option that will already be readily familiar to most is Google Maps. 

Google Maps offers a My Maps service, through which users may construct their own personal maps, using the standard basemap as a scaffold. The web application has several important functions which require some detailed explanation. 

Brief Intro to My Maps - Free Version

This will be a step-by-step analysis on how to use the Google Maps, My Maps software. If you are familiar with the product or your organization uses different software, please feel free to skip to the next section. Simply keep in mind that the completed product should be a map detailing all the blighted, vacant, and brownfield properties in the area.

First consider the function buttons which reside underneath the search bar along the top of the page. The hand icon is the default and allows a user to grab and move the map around, without altering it.

A screenshot of the toolbar on the My Maps online tool. A blue arrow points towards the hand button, which is used to pan across the map.

Second, there is a pin icon which allows the user to drop a marker on the map. 

A screenshot of the toolbar on the My Maps online tool. A blue arrow points towards the pin button, which is used to drop pins on the map.

The easiest way to make use of the pin is to select it and then click on the map at the location that needs to be marked. Once the location is marked, it can be labeled with a title and a description containing additional info.

A screenshot of the dialog box that pops up after dropping a pin in the My Maps online tool. The dialog box allows the user to input a name for the pin as well as a description.

Clicking on the marker itself also opens up a dialog box that permits attachment of an image/video as well as modification of the appearance of the marker. This latter function is particularly useful for maps which will have a variety of locations that fall into different categories. A hospital could be designated with a red cross while a bank could be designated with a dollar sign or another symbol that communicates the category of the marker in an intuitive way.

A screenshot of the dialog that pops up when after you save a pin and you click on it once more. On the lower right-hand corner of the dialog box is a paint bucket icon that brings up a menu of colors as well as other icons that can replace the default blue pin.

Also note the panel on the left side of the page where the pins dropped are assigned to a layer. Those who have used an image modification software, like Photoshop, will be familiar with this concept. Layers can be toggled on and off so that the map view can be altered without adding or taking away data.

For instance, all properties with potential petroleum contamination can be placed on one layer and all those that were formerly laundromats can be placed on another. Additionally, throughout the map making process, the “base map” tool on this panel can be useful as well. Base Map allows the creator to toggle between map views, including satellite (google earth), terrain, and atlas.

A screenshot of the layer dialog box in the My Maps online tool. Map layers can be individually named, styled, and toggled on and off.

Markers can be moved from one layer to another by dragging and dropping. My Maps permits the user to identify objects on the same layer all with a single symbol or to apply individual styles to each marker. Imagine for instance, creating a layer for places of interest and marking parks with a tree symbol and recreation centers with a swimming pool icon. 

Next to the pin function button is one with a series of connected lines not quite forming a triangle. This is the draw a line tool.

A screenshot of the toolbar on the My Maps online tool. A blue arrow points towards the draw a line tool, which allows the user to draw lines or shapes on the map.

Selecting it opens up a drop down menu with the option to create driving, walking, or biking routes. In addition, it permits the user to add a line or shape directly onto the map. To create a rectangle around a plot of land, simply click on one corner, move your cursor to select the other corners and close the rectangle by clicking on the original point. Once the original corner is selected, the shape will become a polygon. The defaults are set so that the border will be bold and the interior will be a semi-transparent grey.

A screenshot of the dialog box that appears after the draw a line tool on the My Maps online tool is used to enclose a polygon. The dialog box allows the user to label the polygon with a name as well as a description before saving.

As with pins, these polygons and lines can be added to and moved between layers. Different colors can be applied to differentiate them from each other. These polygons can have a variety of uses. They can be used to mark off the project area, and then toggled on and off (via the layers) to help visualize whether the plots being selected are within the appropriate area. They can be used to denote a watershed or mark off federally owned land. They can also be used to give a rough calculation of the area of a plot of land. 

After creating the polygon, selecting it brings up a dialog box similar to the one that appears when selecting a marker, except that there will be two numbers in the bottom left-hand corner. The first is the number of acres within the boundaries of the border of the polygon no matter how irregularly shaped it is (though it does have to be closed), and the second is the length of the perimeter. Though these estimates are inexact and more advanced software would be needed to make precise findings, this is a quick and easy way to get a good sense of the available space.

A screenshot of the dialog that pops up when after you save a polygon and you click on it once more. The dialog box will display the square miles enclosed by the polygon as well as the length of the perimeter.

The final icon, a ruler, allows the user to measure the same values described for the polygon tool without creating an object. It works just as the polygon icon does. The user clicks at the point where the measurement should start and then selects other focal points. A running total distance will be displayed. Enclosing an area in measurements will bring up a calculation of the perimeter length as well as the area in acres, just as with the polygon creation tool. 

A screenshot of the toolbar in the My Maps online tool. A blue arrow points toward the ruler button, which allows the user to measure distances and areas on the map without drawing on it.

Thus, the My Maps tool is an incredibly versatile and powerful way to visualize the proposed project area. It can be adapted and changed easily, and the tools are fairly intuitive. This is especially so because of the variety of ways properties can be added to the map. One method is to simply type in the address. Another is to find the property on the map by panning to it and dropping a marker there.

However, the easiest way to add properties or sites en masse is to import those locations. The addresses must be in a .csv file or equivalent. This can be created using excel. There are many online guides of how to do this, including one here. The basic idea is to create an excel file with addresses entered into columns. The first row should hold an identifier for the information in that column such as “City” or “Zip Code.” One column should contain the titles you would like each of your data points to be labeled. This allows up to 2,000 locations to be marked at once. 

Layer Watershed, Ward Maps, and Zoning Maps

Additional Layers Provide Context

Mapping the blighted properties is a good first step, but for a fuller understanding of the community, the watershed and zoning maps should also be tracked down. These will inform the selection of corridor sites as well as the potential end uses for those sites. After all, an area that resides in a floodplain may not be a good location for a residential site, and it would be unfortunate not to know that a planned commercial hub is in an area of the city zoned for residential use. Although zoning changes over time and watershed maps are not perfectly predictive, obtaining updated maps with this information is nevertheless important.  

Watershed/Flood Maps

Watershed maps are mandatory, so the local environmental or planning agency should have them on file. In the event that they do not or they turn out to be unresponsive, there are online resources. Many of these tools are geared toward a high-level analysis of large watersheds instead of a detailed block-by-block analysis, but they are a good place to start visualizing. 

First, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an online tool that allows citizens to search for watershed maps by filters such as city name and zip code. Because these maps are watershed-wide, it is unlikely to be at the level of granularity that a small community needs. Many times, they will show an overall watershed, which is then broken down into smaller, creek watersheds in localities. Still, they may be a good starting point. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has a similar online tool, except it allows the user to download the watershed map in a way that can be viewed in Google Earth.

The local planning agency should also have annotated flood maps but if it does not, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has an online map visualization tool. Layers with different colors of shading show the boundaries of the floodplain and other areas of interest.

Regardless of where the map originates, it is unlikely to be 100% accurate. It may be out of date. Given climate change, many watersheds are changing, and flooding is more likely.

Ward Maps

Many cities are subdivided into smaller spatial units called wards, as a means of providing more direct and local representation for residents. Within cities, there are often stark variations in culture, public safety, access to green space, public infrastructure, exposure to pollutants, proximity to industrial facilities, etc. depending on what neighborhood you are in. Thus, it is important to recognize and represent the unique interests of residents from different parts of the city. This has important implications on local elections and city planning decisions that aim to undo existing inequities within a city.

It is vital to know what ward your corridor project is in as that determines which local government officials you should reach out to. Most ward maps can be obtained from your local city planning agency and are usually posted on their website.  

In DC, for example, the maps of each ward can be downloaded from the Office of Planning website. In total, there are eight wards, each with one representative on the City Council, and 37 Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) within those wards. The ANCs have the closest ties to the residents of a neighborhood and consider a wide range of policies and programs affecting their communities, "including traffic, parking, recreation, street improvements, liquor licenses, zoning, economic development, police protection, sanitation and trash collection, and the District’s annual budget."

Zoning Maps

Zoning maps should be easily attainable at your local city planning agency. If they are not responsive, contacting your local government representative to hunt down a zoning map on your behalf may be effective. The local chamber of commerce may also have a zoning map. 

Zoning can be a huge impediment, so it is important that you acquire a zoning map early in the planning process. Many of the existing zoning laws and city plans were created at a time when city planning was less sophisticated. Zoning plans are often optimized for cars and seek to maximize the separation between residential and commercial areas in a way not at all conducive to urban density or walkability. On top of that is the reality that zoning laws have often been used precisely for the purpose of impeding development for environmental justice communities. Yet, just because an area is not properly zoned for the types of end uses that your project calls for does not mean that those properties should be abandoned, especially if they otherwise seem like a good fit for the corridor.

As cities and townships have started to recognize the disparate impact of some of their own measures, they have also started to become more creative in helping communities work around cumbersome zoning processes. 

One such mechanism, known as Enhanced Financing Districts (EFID), has been used effectively in California. It allows the creation of a separate local government entity to finance infrastructure projects within a defined area. Municipalities will subsidize development and then divert increases in property tax revenue that come from the redeveloped property to repay debts.

Some localities deal with the problem of zoning impediments by passing legislation to either loosen the process or drop+ zoning laws altogether in a defined area. Other mechanisms also exist, and local government authorities may be willing to work with communities interested in revitalization to develop new strategies.

Finalize the Project Map

Washington, DC Case Study

Finalize the Project Map


Once the above elements are incorporated into the project map (making sure that they are separated into layers so they can be toggled on and off for different views), the map is substantially complete. Before using the project map to pick target sites however, some additional locations would be helpful to visualize. 

First, create icons and label groups and institutions that may be interested in revitalization or may have helpful assets. This might include community groups, local non-profits, schools, and businesses. These can be found by simply googling non-profits and community groups in the target area.

However, there is also a chance that some groups outside your specific area may be willing to contribute, especially those geared primarily toward neighborhood improvement. It is worth looking at other local agencies as well, and it may be useful to add them to your map. Additionally, keep in mind that churches, recreation centers, and other neighborhood groups may also be willing to help, so it is worth adding these organizations. In other words, review your list of stakeholders to determine whether and how to visualize them in your project map.

Next, it may be helpful to have a visualization of demographic data. There are many different sources for this but one particularly useful one is EJScreen, maintained by EPA. This tool allows the user to generate maps with demographic data such as a percentage of low-income or minority populations along with data on proximity to wastewater, toxic sites, and other environmental indicators.

Altogether, this information should permit project leaders to identify the areas of greatest need and potential to construct a corridor consisting of inter-related sites whose development can catalyze holistic community revitalization.

Washington, DC Case Study

Step 1 - Identify the Corridor

Community members in Southeast Washington, DC expressed a need for enhanced stormwater and water quality management, a critical issue in the corridor. After several site visits and research about specific sites in the area, ELI and project partners concluded that the corridor should help connect Watts Branch and its parks to the Anacostia Park, staying narrow enough to Burroughs Avenue to facilitate a greenway from the neighborhood center to the river.

A screenshot of a map of Ward 7 in Washington, DC. A project area is marked off in light grey.
Step 2 - Inventory Sites of Interest

DC's local Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs collects reports of vacant buildings and puts together a list twice of year of vacant and blighted properties. 

Step 3 - Map the Properties

Since Ward 7 was already the focus and the corridor boundaries had already been identified, properties within the intersection were loaded onto the map.

A screenshot of a map of Ward 7 in Washington, DC. A project area is marked off in light grey. Sites of interest have been labeled with red pins.
Step 4 - Zoning and Watershed Maps

In this case, the corridor was small enough that pre-existing watershed and flooding maps were not quite granular enough. Instead, the team relied upon community members get a sense of which areas were most likely to flood.

Step 5 - Finalize the Project Map

After mapping potential project sites, the project team did another walk through with a community leader. The finalized project map (below) included the sites identified through the local agency list (orange), sites identified on the walk through (brown), as well as possible community partners (blue).

A screenshot of a map of Ward 7 in Washington, DC. A project area is marked off in light grey. Potential project sites are outlined in brown while possible community partners are labeled in light blue.

St. Louis Case Study

Additional Resources

St. Louis Case Study

Step 1 - Identify the Corridor

The first step we undertook in this mapping process was adding the area encompassed in Ward 4. We used this map, and added the ward borders using the “draw a line tool” on Google Maps. 

Step 2 - Inventory Sites of Interest

We then went through the process of identifying blighted, vacant, and brownfield properties. For Ward 4, this was as easy as googling “vacant properties in Ward 4 St. Louis”. Luckily, a list of properties, both vacant and blighted, were found on a government website. These are properties owned by the local government that have yet to be sold to private owners or converted into leasable properties.

This list however, did not specifically provide for “brownfields” properties as we know them. In order to determine which of these vacant properties would probably be considered brownfields, we used google earth to identify properties like this one below.

Step 3 - Map the Properties

Using the list from the LRA website, because there were over 2000 blighted and vacant properties, we added only those in specific areas, which we identified as vacant lots, derelict buildings, and brownfields using different icons. An example of one of those corridors is below. 

In listing these properties, we were sure to also add the exact address as well as a street view picture of the lot, so that it would be easier to directly identify these properties after the mapping process was complete.

Step 4 - Watershed and Zoning Maps

Within this specific area, the main watershed was the Mississippi River Basin. However, this was broken down into separate, secondary water basins, which we needed to identify as well. We accomplished this by looking to online maps, as well as contacting Ward 4 municipalities for their watershed maps. In order to add these watershed to the map, we used the “draw a line tool”. 

In regards to flooding zones, fortunately in Ward 4, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has determined that there are no risks, so there was nothing to add to the map. However, in regards to your area specifically, we suggest adding the areas at risk for flooding, so that those using the map in the future will know which areas to avoid building a new residential complex in a floodplain area. 

Step 5 - Finalizing the Project Map

Lastly we composed a list of nonprofits within Ward 4, as well as those outside of the Ward, that we believed may be helpful to our community outreach and rebuilding process. 

NOTE: It is important that throughout this process, we put each of these steps under a different “layer” on the map. As a result, we are able to view each step separately in terms of the map. For example, if we just want to see the Ward area, we can select “Ward 4” to view the shaded area. 

Additional Resources