Participatory methods: Ground mapping

As a part of my blog, I would like to describe some basic participatory mapping methods. I will start with the technically easier ones and continue to the technically more demanding. Ground mapping (sometimes also called Ephemeral mapping) is a straightforward mapping method that involves community members drawing maps on the ground from memory using any available materials, such as plants, rocks or household tools. This method is inexpensive and easy to facilitate. The resulting product, however, is unstable in time. In most cases it is a preparatory stage for other mapping methods, in which the community is familiar with the concept of understanding space and location in which they work.

Difficulty: Easy

Group size: medium to large – up to 50 participants (otherwise split into several smaller groups)

Time required: 2-3 hours (including discussion)

Links to other methods: Mostly it is used as introductory method for more technically demanding methods – eg. Scale Mapping  or Photomapping.

The aim of this method is to gather information and spatial knowledge of the individual group members with regard to their personal perception of space and use them on the site. This is a group work, where interaction between individual stakeholders/sub-groups within the whole is often more important than the result itself – a map.

History and Present

This method is also suitable for the introduction of other activities that will come later during the process of community mapping. The method is based on the principle of mental mapping, but unlike Sketch mapping method does not use as a medium paper, but the surface. (Mucha & ERMIS-Africa, 2010)

This is probably one of the oldest methods, it is also the most participatory. Virtually everyone can participate in this process, which is not selective and is very creative. The first experiments with the Ground mapping dates back to the PRA (Participatory Rural Appraisal)  1980´s and 1990´s.

The advantages of this method are its simplicity, the ability to actively engage a broad spectrum of community members, it is not required to have an technical knowledge or even basic literacy of the participants.

The main disadvantage of this method is the lack of precision in the resulting product and poor portability (this can be achieved by recording the maps such as digital camera).


  1. Clearly define the scope of the area, i.e. the area which will be mapped.
  2. Present the objectives of the project and the mapping method – explain why it is the most appropriate method chosen.
  3. Invite the selected group to the meeting place or public meeting.
  4. Select a suitable place with adequate space and materials, select participants – a group of no more than 50 people. The group should equally represent both men and women, all ages and interest groups.
  5. Facilitate the participants in the process of making maps, answering any questions.
  6. Facilitate a group discussion about the creation of maps, but do not interfere with the process of creation itself.
  7. Process/record information arising from maps, observations and suggestions arising during the mapping and/or group discussions. For example, in the form of photographs or writings.

Resources and tools

  • The area in which it will be possible to create a map.
  • Sufficient material for the production of maps – stones, chalk, leaves, natural materials, etc.
  • Paper for notes – refers to the facilitator.


Given that the resulting map is not in any scale, it is not possible to read the exact values​​, on the other hand it is possible to work with the size and position of the individual elements. Applies here Tobler´s first rule of geography that “everything is related to everything, but close phenomena have greater importance than distant phenomena …” (Tobler, 1970). Also, the larger objects on the map, are more important to the community than the smaller ones (Panek & Vlok, 2013). This allows us to trace the elements that are important for the community and continue discussions of why this is so.

Examples experiences, literature, etc. 

IFAD. (2009). Good practices in participatory mapping (p. 59). Rome: International Fund for Agriculture Development.

MKEPP. (2011). Mt Kenya East Pilot Project for Natural Resource Management.

Mucha, J., & ERMIS-Africa. (2010). Introduction to Ground and Sketch Mapping. CTA, The Netherlands and IFAD, Italy.

Muchoki, J., Mucha, J., & Wessel, G. (2003). Participatory Integrated Community Development Process. In An experience-sharing meeting, Nairobi, with GAA, DRC, and CEFA (Somalia EC-Funded projects). Nairobi.

Panek, J., & Vlok, C. (2013). Participatory mapping as a tool for community empowerment – a case study of community engagement in Koffiekraal, South Africa. In MF Buchroithner (Ed.), 26th International Cartographic Conference (p. 26). Dresden.

Taylor, J., Murphy, C. Mayes, S. Mwilima, E., Nuulimba, N., & Slater-Jones, S. (2006). Land and natural resource mapping by San communities and NGOs: experiences from Namibia. Participatory Learning and Action, 54, 79-84.

Tobler, W. (1970). A computer movie simulating urban growth in the Detroit region. Economic Geography, 46, 234-240.

World Bank. (2011). Karnataka Watershed Development Project.


4 thoughts on “Participatory methods: Ground mapping

  1. Pingback: Participatory methods: Sketch Mapping | geoparticipation

  2. Pingback: Participatory methods: Transect Walk | geoparticipation

  3. Pingback: Participatory methods: Scale Mapping | geoparticipation

  4. Pingback: Participatory methods: GPS Mapping | geoparticipation

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