Mapping Change, Preserving Continuity

By Karl Brooks

We, here at Region 7, have just completed a huge undertaking that changes the Agency’s “internal organizational map”: we relocated nearly 600 agency employees and contractors into a new Regional Office. Agency maps of regional headquarters will now reflect Region 7’s new hometown: Lenexa, Kansas.  The Regional Office has moved, but maps will show Region 7 still maintains a substantial presence in Kansas City, Kansas: our Science and Technology Center (“the lab”).  Our move went really well, thanks to lots of capable people putting in huge amounts of time to prepare and execute excellent plans.  Part of their effort consisted of drawing a multitude of maps: to guide movers, building contractors, security guards, and our own employees.

As you might expect, a physical relocation of that magnitude literally redrew Region 7’s own “internal map”: everyone now works in a new building, in a new city, and in a new workstation surrounded, in most cases, by new neighbors.  Even my agency colleagues who didn’t move to Lenexa, but still had to vacate the former Regional Office, relocated to places new to them: our Science and Technology Center, just down the street from our former Regional Office, and our Training and Logistics Center (“the cave”), across the Missouri River in North Kansas City.

All this shifting is making us remap our workplace.  Large paper maps hang on prominent walls throughout our new Regional Office.  Each map shows, with fine granularity (down to the individual workstation) everyone’s new location.  The maps show the new location for what were familiar common areas (cafeteria, record center, library, and the all important restrooms).  I consult these big maps frequently both because, as Regional Administrator, I should know where my colleagues work, and because I’m also trying to get my bearings. I’m not alone: the big wall maps have become popular places to chat about our new building, find out where to get coffee, and maybe even meet a colleague who will become a new friend.

I have always been a fan of maps.  I treasure old backpacking maps, city maps, college town guides, and historical reference pamphlets.  I love how they synthesize fact and imagination, negotiating an understanding between the “world as it is” and the “world as I have to imagine it on a two-dimensional surface.”

So much do I value maps that I rescued four of my favorite from the mass of outdated paper material that I had to recycle when leaving my old KCK office and moving into my new, much smaller, work space in Lenexa.  Those survivors of the “Great Recycle” tell a story, on paper, about Region 7 that I really can’t read as well anywhere else.  I saved them because they remind me why I often describe Region 7 as the “Guardian of America’s Great Rivers.”  They illustrate how our physical landscape still reflects fundamental natural realities despite the massive transformations we have made across the Heartland’s prairies and plains during the past 195 years.

Four big paper maps show all the principal waterways in Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas.  They came from an old “water atlas” bequeathed me when our long-time Deputy Regional Administrator retired in spring 2011.  They show major cities and towns, and county lines (all-important here in the Midwest, where most residents – rural and urban — still consider county government their most accessible level of public decision-making).

These watershed maps breathe the magic of Midwestern place names: the Maquoketa (in Iowa), the Verdigris (in Kansas), the Niobrara (in Nebraska), and the Jacks Fork (in Missouri).  They don’t just orient a user to today’s water-quality challenges, they invite consideration of how past settlement patterns and agricultural cropping strategies now shape states’ present politics and economics.  In addition, they encourage a user to think about connections and continuities across broad landscapes.  For example, the Missouri River – North America’s longest – ties St. Louis, at its mouth, to Kansas City, where it bends straight north.  The “Mighty Mo” also links the Heartland in Region 7 to the northern Plains and Rockies encompassed by Region 8.  We Heartlanders should always recall that the Missouri ties into the Mississippi, America’s principal commercial waterway.  This great shining highway, which Lincoln respectfully dubbed “Father of the Waters,” functions still as a cord of liquid steel binding America’s entire mid-section – from Region 5 in the Great Lakes through Regions 4 and 6 on both sides of the Delta.

I like my road maps.  In fact, I directed that every Region 7 GOV contain a full, current set of our states’ highway maps because, despite GPS’ wonders, a good road map still gives you precision and context.  Yes, I treasure my big, old watershed maps: they convey information, encourage reflection, and promote understanding.

Dr. Karl Brooks is the Regional Administrator for USEPA Region 7.  Brooks earned a Ph.D in History and Environmental Studies from the University of Kansas, and served as Associate Professor at KU until joining EPA in 2010.  For his full bio visit EPA Region 7.

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