Emotional Mapping – Towards a geographical explanation of drug use

Luise Klaus & Mélina Germes
“Emotional Mapping. Towards a geographical explanation of drug use”

In: Kaló, Zsuzsa; Tieberghien, Julie, Korf, Dirk J. (Eds.), Why? Explanations for drug use and drug dealing in social drug research. Pabst Science Publishers, 2019.


In Europe, most open drug scenes have similar spatial and social characteristics, especially in the growing dynamic of gentrification. This may potentially marginalise more drug users in public spaces. The cities face the same challenges in terms of governance. Within a perspective rooted in critical cartography and social geography, we propose emotional mapping as a method of conceiving urban lived spaces of drug users in European cities, with the aim of considering marginalised drug users as the subjects of their narratives and spatial representations. The method allows a complex analysis of the spatial experiences of urban space. It shows how the emotional appropriation of space by drug users is embedded in the structural socio-spatial exclusion phenomenon in Europe.


In Europe, most open drug scenes have similar spatial and social characteristics. European cities are structured around historically dense inner cities with a high intensity of activities and a wide diversity of social groups. Inner-city areas, e.g. main stations, are the places where inhabitants, tourists, partygoers and homeless drug users cohabit. Inner city places are flashpoints for conflict, which – especially in the growing dynamic of gentrification – potentially marginalise more drug users in public spaces. These cities face identical challenges in terms of governance.

Today, drug use is widely understood as a socially-embedded phenomenon that is constructed and determined through social environment. The specificity of the urban geographical approach is to consider the relation between places, spaces and drug use and to understand the spatial embeddedness of drug use (Duff, 2007; Moreno & Wilton, 2014; Parkin, 2013). As Potter (2018, p.13) points out, the taking of drugs “are physical events that happen in specific locations”: consumption settings, so place and context do matter. Our aim is to provide geographical answers to the question why do marginalised drug users do drugs in the public places of the city? Thus, we don’t aim merely to localise consumption places, but to ask where do the lives of marginalised drug users take place?

Inspired by social geography and critical cartography, we chose a theoretical and methodological framework able to consider marginalised drug users as the subjects of their narratives and spatial representations. We consider their everyday lives as a whole and their complex – and emotional – relationships with the urban spaces. We developed a mapping interview methodology called “emotional mapping” in order to consider the users’ knowledge, which is beyond the cartographic practices of official (police) statistics, media representations and other institutional instruments of knowledge production.

The development and first results of the emotional mapping interviews presented in this article are part of an ongoing Franco-German research consortium that focuses on drug use in public settings and urban security (DRUSEC). The interviews we rely on in this paper took place in Nuremberg and Munich (cities without Drug Consumption Rooms, to which we will refer from now on DCRs) as well as in Berlin and Frankfurt (cities with DCRs).

From “maps in minds”[1] to a map on paper

As geographers, we highlight the spatiality of social practices. Space is not only location, background or context, but also a meaningful dimension of social practices. In this sense, drug consumption has its own geographies – on a world scale, regional scale or on the scale of places – which are embedded in economic, political and social practices (Potter, 2018). In this paper, we focus on the scale of urban places within the city. Emotional mapping is a qualitative methodology, aimed at focussing on urban subjects and as such it differentiates itself strongly from other drug mapping practices. Our aim is to find a method able to portray how marginalised drug users – the particular group on which we focus in this paper – have specific routines and emotions regarding the places of their everyday lives. The interpretation of interviews and maps enables us to provide an overview on the drug geographies of cities from the position of marginalised users.

Mapping drugs in the city: positivist approaches and fear maps

There is increasing research interest in spatial approaches to understanding drug issues, including mapping drugs on an urban scale. Spatial approaches understand space mostly as a physical phenomenon, which enables quantitative and spatial modelling based on geocriminological theories (Gruenewald, 2013; Gorman et al., 2013). Such projects raise questions about the data they rely on. Available data for mapping drug practices generally derives from the work of different institutions, such as police, harm reduction and social workers, and pharmacists. The maps based on this data reflect not drug practices but the respective work of these institutions (Germes, 2014).  Such positivist approaches reduce the complexity of the social (Belina, 2009), taking neither the everyday lives of marginalised drug users, nor broader urban structures into account. Therefore, geocriminological theories fail to understand drug use practices.

Other drug mapping practices focus on perceived safety, perceived risk or fear as immediate emotion, often conflating them (Hinkle, 2015). In neoliberal times of securitisation, local residents’ fear and insecurities are often used to legitimise public policies (Shirlow & Pain, 2003) in order to repress, displace, and erase non-conforming marginalised drug users from particular neighbourhoods. We refrain from such an approach. Instead, we prefer a subject-related approach of positive as well as negative emotions – because drug use is about both pleasure and risk – and we prioritise questioning the emotions of drug users, as shown by the panel of interviewees in this paper.

Qualitative mapping with social geography and critical cartography

Contrary to a positivist understanding of maps representing an objective space mostly with quantitative data, our approach to mapping is based on social geography and critical cartography.

In our understanding, space is not a mere objective physical dimension, but produced (Lefebvre, 2000), through the time and histories of individuals, through scales and interdependencies. Space also materialises power relationships, structures everyday lives and destinies, yet is inhabited and transformed by subjectivities. Spaces are complex social constructions often involved in conflicts between social groups and their different uses of these spaces. That is why the presence of drug users in public spaces, their access to places and resources, as well as the autonomy or control of every person in public are central questions for public debate and research. These questions are fundamental to understand the where and why of drug use, and we will address them through the lenses of individual lives of marginalised drug users. In order not to objectify their lives in the city, we refer to the distinction made by social geography between living and lived spaces[2]: The living space is the area of our everyday lives, a mere list of places (such as home, friends’ homes, frequently visited public places, routes). The lived space designates the way we inhabit these places and interact with others, the relationships we establish with them, the representations we have from them. With the concept of lived spaces, the research focuses on the ways in which our participants inhabit spaces, their everyday practices and the emotions they associate with these spaces.

How to map subjective lived spaces? We follow the critical cartography perspective (Harley, 1989; Crampton & Krygier, 2005; Kindynis, 2014; Belina & Germes, 2016) – which not only criticises the abstractions and objectifications of positivist maps, but also proposes methods to create, produce and work with maps, in a qualitative way, enhancing the complexities of the production of urban spaces. Qualitative drawn maps have for a long time been developed as a research method in different disciplines such as urban planning, psychology or geography among others (Lynch, 1960; Downs & Stea, 1977; Ziervogel, 2011). The process of mental mapping is often a semi-directed interview during which interviewees draw the places of their everyday lives and their representation of these spaces. We enhanced this process in developing our own method of emotional mapping, one contribution to the lasting interest of researchers in mapping emotions (Nold, 2009; Olmedo & Roux, 2014; Mekdjian & Olmedo, 2016; Rekacewicz, 2016; Muis, 2016; Dernat et al, 2018).

Mapping emotions

In order to obtain maps and narratives about lived spaces (and not only living spaces), and in order not to fall back into the traps of neoliberal use of fear maps, we decided to include emotions as a major part of the mapping process. Recently there has been growing interest in the role of emotions, especially the role of pleasure within the context of drug use (Duncan et al., 2017). Emotions are increasingly recognised as an important factor that influences how and why people do drugs. We consider emotions as constructed and individual lived expressions of social conditions. For the mapping interviews, our first aim was to integrate a diverse but uniform spectrum of emotions, which enables an understanding of them in relation to both drugs and space, and enables the comparability of drawn maps and transcribed texts. We developed a colour wheel of chosen emotions with a range of positive feelings such as relaxation (green), happiness and pleasure (yellow) or bliss and desire (orange), along with a range of negative emotions such as blue (worry and insecurity), violet (disgust) and red (hostility and aggression)[3]. As in figure 1[4], the colours are arranged on a continuous wheel for hue gradations between positive and negative, as well as more or less intense emotions. (Insert Fig. 1 about here).

Procedure of emotional mapping

We conduct qualitative semi-directive interviews, first asking our interviewees about their living spaces – from housing to visiting friends – or working places. We explain the process of mapping, and step by step they draw each space and place in black on a blank big sheet of paper. There is no need for accurate localisations. Later, the interviewees talk about their everyday life experiences in relation to drugs and places: they choose colours out of the colour wheel and circle or colour particular places according to their different emotions (see figure 2). (Insert Fig. 2 about here).  

The drawn maps are representations of individual geographies and enable us to gain a deeper understanding of specific drug users’ geographies (Behnken & Zinnecker, 2013). The entanglement of visual and textual material, the emotional map and the interview transcript represent the lived space and are therefore a lens into the way drug users experience urban space, producing further knowledge about pleasures and insecurities of a potentially vulnerable population group, as well as about cities as complex landscapes of drug consumption.

Experiences and practices from the field of research

After 26 interviews conducted by the authors of this article, our experience of emotional mapping had proven enriching. First, we noted that the paper, colour pens, and map were mediating objects between interviewee and interviewer, helping to structure the dialogue. The interviewees appreciated the recognition of the importance of their knowledge. Some noted enhancement of feelings at being heard, the possibility of expressing themselves in a creative way. Thus, the mapping enhanced the quality of the interview itself as the map mitigated the “typical” researcher-subject situation and enabled the interviewees to be experts of their own maps. Nevertheless, there were huge variations in the mapping results. Despite our efforts to standardise the interview process with common guidelines and emotion legends, each of the interviewees approached the method in their own way; this also depended on their fitness. Individuals’ representation of space sets limits in the drawing of the maps: some maps do not show more than a few signs (see figure 3). Furthermore, as in other social research methods, the results depend on the willingness of the interviewees, especially if they are asked to draw criminalised acts like drug use (insert Fig. 3 about here).

In this article, we use two different citation methods: interviewee statements and pictures taken from the maps. In order to anonymise the data, only some details of the maps are quoted, or the map was re-drawn by the authors without any personal data from the original drawing; everything was then translated into English. All names of interviewees quoted here are pseudonyms.

Urban lived spaces of drug users

Marginalised drug users in urban drug scenes face many challenges in their everyday lives. Mapping interviews with drug users from open drug scenes in Munich, Nuremberg, and Berlin give a unique view of the drug users’ perspectives on, and their experiences of, these cities. From housing to encounters with institutions, these urban experiences are associated mainly with negative feelings. The visual and text material collected during the interviews confirms how emotions are the results of the encounter between subjectivity and social structures, thereby drawing a social geography of the city. (Insert fig. 4 about here).

The anxieties of precarious housing situations

The people we interviewed are part of a heterogeneous group. Their diversity was shown in their age, gender and housing conditions. Some have a home, sometimes shared with a non-consuming family. The “home”  living space may lead to very positive or negative emotions – and as such, is lived in different ways, if the person is autonomous or lives with family or a partner (see figure 4). But the majority of our interviewees do not have a permanent home. Most of them live in uncertain housing conditions for years: staying at homeless shelters, friends’ places, squat cellars and attics, using the sleeping accommodation of drug services or sleeping on the street.

(Insert Fig. 5 about here).

In the maps, the participants sketch sleeping accommodation which is often decentralised and at the edges of the paper, indicating a peripheral location in the city, but also a minor role in the lived spaces (see figure 5 and 6) They use these places mainly to sleep and are not willing or allowed to stay there during the day. The housing situation is very stressful for most of the drug users and influences their drug use habits. The interviewees describe an increase in drug consumption with each step towards precarity. Martin, a 36-year-old drug user from Munich, outlines the situation in the homeless shelter where he is staying as “unbearable” and links this situation to his (increasing) drug use:

“So it’s… you won‘t make it without being high. I don‘t know anyone who doesn’t drink or blaze or take other stuff.” (Martin, 30, Munich)

In his experience, one’s mere presence in the shelters leads to an increased drug use. Nevertheless, the pressure to consume drugs in the sleeping accommodation must be understood as socially constructed. Consuming in safe spaces, such as homes or shelters, generates mixed feelings due to the transgression and the perceived risk of eviction.

(Insert Fig 6 about here).

Ambivalent joys and worries of urban routines

Our interviewees spend most of their time outside, going through their principal routine: making money, buying, and using drugs. Here, public space plays a major role as a lived space and particularly as a social meeting space. The term “open drug scene” is often negatively connoted and used as a catchphrase by politicians, journalist, and other actors. “Open drug scenes” are heterogeneous group of drug users, depending on earnings, housing, etc. Beside drug-related issues, these social meeting places have an important function for coping in everyday life (Weber, 2011).

The people who meet at these places can be friends, acquaintances or strangers, while many highlight that their “street buddies” are in no way “real friends” (sic). Social meeting places can be in public spaces such as the edge of a square, the bench of a train station or alleys or other interstices between buildings, which permit them to linger. These places are often located next to dealing places, substitution doctors or harm reduction facilities. Alternatively, the facilities of drug services also have an important function as social meeting places. The wide range of emotions visually represents the important role of social meeting places in the maps. In some maps these places  are covered by most of the colours in the emotion wheel, appearing as a rainbow (see figure 7).(Insert Fig. 7 about here).

The emotions associated with these everyday places may be described as “inconsistent” or “conflicting”. On the one hand, these are the places where one can meet one’s friends and experience a social life or get what one needs. On the other hand, one’s mere presence at these places is often connoted with drug use and the continuation of daily habits. Therefore, many want to change the everyday routine of drug consumption and subsequently, their marginalisation by changing the spatial environment:

“I just want to leave. I have to change my social contacts somehow. (…) I just need a new and stable environment around me. (…) Again, and again, you go back to the places you know. And again, and again, you meet the people you know. That’s very difficult.” (Miriam, 39, Nuremberg)

Miriam sees changing her lived space as the only possibility for changing her drug habits. Nevertheless, she struggles to do so.

 Avoiding the risks of repression and conflict

Within the autonomous routine, encounters with particular institutions – such as police, traffic controllers, emergency services, hospital personal – make up the lived spaces of marginalised drug users. Places known as hotspots of police surveillance and repression are avoided as much as possible. As Alf (27, Berlin) puts it:

“From my point of view, they [the police] bother… Then comes the whole confiscation stuff… that’s, off again, collecting bottles, working… Evictions… when they see you again in the next 48 hours, they take you with them… From my point of view, it is harassment”.

Here again, as an answer to the question “Are there places where you never go?”

“Mainly where there is the police! I don’t want to have to do anything with them… There are places where they always go through and drive through, such as Kotti, Hermannplatz, Ku’damm, etc….”

Our interviewees report experiencing hostility from institutions, mainly because of repeated experiences of humiliation and violence. Users also experience hostility (such as threats and assault) from residents while trying to consume in staircases, cellars and attics. The avoidance of such public and private places influences their mobility in their own neighbourhoods and shapes their representation of a city that is made up of hostile public or private places.

Police checks significantly structure the movements and mobility of drug users in the lived space. E.g. with “junky jogging”, drug users describe the daily routine of getting evicted from one public place and moving collectively to another, until checks and banishment start over again. It reinforces the experience of being not a proper part of civil society, as several interviewees from Munich pointed out.

The emotional geographies of drug use

The lived spaces of marginalised drug users are characterised by a high spatial precariousness and vulnerability. Their emotional geography stresses unrest, hostility and aggression. Therefore, we should focus on the emotional geographies of their consumption places.  

For the few interviewees who have a home, it would be their preferred place for drug use. In case of cohabitation with sober partners or parents, consuming at home would often be a transgression – so it happens only in secret. Homes, shelters and assisted housing are mostly peripheral and far away from the city centre, where the routine and harm reduction take place. Therefore, drug consumption in a personal or private space happens only in the evening, for the last shot, and once the day is over. Thus, it can be said that drug use is driving consumers into the city.

 Drug consumption rooms as anchors of daily life

In Berlin, all interviewees were clients of the same DCR. Some come there almost every day, others occasionally; most of them do not go to any of the other three DCRs in Berlin.

All emotional maps highlighted the DCR with positive emotions of safety, quiet and happiness: it was the place with the most positive and safe feelings around it. The possibility of drug consumption in a safe context responds to a need for quiet, hygiene, and overall safety; facilities including sterile equipment, meals, showers, and laundry are a significant relief for most of the homeless clients; the availability of information and support from the health and social workers also makes DCRs a helpful resource. Most interviewees were regular users reporting how important this place had become to their everyday lives, particularly because they feel accepted and welcomed there, not having to face moral prompting to quit drugs and spared from the discrimination of police and health workers. In this place, marginalised drug users find acceptance and relief (see figure 8). For many of them, it is the only room or closed space available to them. This one place is an anchor of their precarious routines spent traversing adverse and dangerous public spaces. (insert Fig. 8 about here)

The DCRs are essential for drug users, because there drug consumption is possible and support is available. These are the places where one can autonomously conform to addiction. Nevertheless, most of the time, our interviewees consume outside of the DCR. Neither the schedule of DCRs, nor their restricted number in each city could respond to the needs of the interviewees. Their opening times are limited to the afternoons of certain days, meaning that they are closed over whole weekends, as well as every evening and morning. Even within opening hours, the distance between the places where drugs are retrieved and the DCR for a person experiencing withdrawal symptoms is significant. In such circumstances, only a small proportion of consumption practices might take place in a DCR. Nevertheless, DCRs still play a crucial role for drug users.

 Fragile existences of drug users in public

Marginalised drug users, homeless or not, even in cities with DCRs, are banned from finding places for drug use within public spaces and their interstices. Regularly, withdrawal symptoms lead interviewees to use the drug immediately after buying it, in the very first, half-hidden interstice one can find. Drug users have to find places for drug injecting and smoking; these must be places within their reach, among the spaces they are allowed to be present while affording some privacy. Indeed, the places of drug use are not adequate drug consumption places and the injecting process at these places is characterised by hurrying and worries for the user. Public consumption places are almost exclusively connoted with negative emotions such as insecurity, worry or disgust (see figure 9) (insert Fig. 9 about here).

Charlie, a 28-year old from Munich, describes this process below:

“In underground car parks as well as on the stairs. Just between the cars, kneel down, boil it up, get ready.” (Charlie, Munich)

The hurry, however, stems from the risk of getting caught, as well as the craving to consume drugs as soon as one gets them:

“If you don‘t feel well, you have the seal (consumption unit of heroin) in your mouth, you buy yourself a syringe and then you want to absorb the stuff as soon as possible. And then you just go in the next best backyard.” (Charlie, Munich)

Most of the drug users would prefer a DRC instead of the the next best backyard. Most of them reported aggressive encounters while consuming. A proportion of the respondents named non-specific places for drug use or refused to draw places of consumption. This leads us to interpret that these places of drug use are part of an unavoidable situation that these people have to confront in their daily life, rather than a choice for the lived space. Public drug consumption places are neither stable nor secure, but situations of frailty that change due to factors such as (police) checks, public construction work or other measures that influence the urban environment for drug users. In consequence, the emotional geography of drug use itself is polarised between DCRs and public spaces – that is, in those cities where DCRs exist.

Geographical explanations: between emotional appropriation and socio-spatial exclusion

Social drug research has shown how the question of why people do drugs has to take into account many factors, such as biographical or medical issues, drug-taking as an act of reward-seeking, as a strategy to avoid distress, or as a cultural practice of late capitalism. All these factors are materialised in urban spaces. The provisional results of emotional mapping show how place plays a huge role in explaining drug consumption. Marginalised drug users do drugs in the public places of the city obviously because there remains no other place where they could do so – but also: it is precisely because they are excluded from private spaces and institutional support and evicted from public spaces that they do more drugs than they would otherwise. This operates on two scales. On an (inter-)individual scale, the emotional appropriation of spaces explains drug use in the moment. On a broader urban and social scale, socio-spatial exclusion processes explain how marginalised drug users are easily trapped in a day-to-day drug consumption routine.

 Emotional appropriation of spaces

Aside from urban (drug) policies, which affect the lived spaces of drug users – by creating, suppressing or criminalising drug practices – the users themselves have constructed their lived space and influences on cities’ geographies, as well as their internalised drug habits. Due to what we call “emotional appropriation”, drug users experience different places within the city and overlay them with subjective emotions and spatial knowledge. The emotional mapping interviews illustrate that places related to drugs are highly intertwined with specific and inconsistent emotions. Experiences stabilise in the “all-day” places where they are experienced. During this process, drug users appropriate specific places emotionally. The emotional appropriation of drug places becomes the individual justification of behaviour such as drug use. Indeed, the desire for drugs can be understood as an emotion regarding drug use. As a result, drug users themselves find answers to the question why use drugs in the place itself. Through the emotional appropriation of a specific place, this space becomes the emotional cause for drug use.

From our perspective, these drug places are constructed not only through the lived experiences and appropriation of drug users, but also through urban (drug) policies, which influence the geographies of drug consumption within the urban space. The way drug users experience public places is determined through political (il)legalisations and harm-reduction policies as well as through measures of repression and displacement effects. The reasons for using drugs in public places are few and are rather individual preferences, even among a lack of alternative possibilities. Drug users with neither a permanent home nor immediate access to a DCR have to remain in public places in order to consume drugs out of necessity.

 Socio-spatial exclusion and day-to-day drug use routines

From our perspective, the illegalisation, tabooing, and moralising of some substances and their consumption foster social exclusion for some drug user groups. The individualisation of personal vulnerabilities – such as social isolation or psychological issues – fails to point out the production of both isolation and interpersonal violence in neoliberal times and records the failure of the social and medical system to address these issues. In this theoretical perspective, drug use leads to social exclusion (Becker, 1973), exclusion from social relationships, the work market, sufficient healthcare, and stable housing. Exclusion is expressed spatially, as more places become inaccessible to certain individuals due to a lack of financial resources, economic capital, poor health and physical appearance. The near-impossibility of access to private or semi-private spaces, permanent eviction back to public spaces and subsequent eviction from these public spaces are also examples of socio-spatial exclusion. Evelyn (28, Berlin), now living in a shelter, refers to her eviction from supported housing.

“I didn’t really inject for three years, and I’ve been doing it again for six weeks. Probably because of all the things that come together”

In turn, spatial exclusion deprives marginalised drug users of access to determinant resources. The public spaces appropriated by marginalised drug users are the last ones in which they can stay alive despite all this hostility. The interviews showed clearly how each step toward more socio-spatial exclusion was a step towards greater consumption. Exclusion fosters subjective and objective vulnerability, and thus explains consumption.


Within an original perspective rooted in critical cartography and social geography, we proposed emotional mapping as a new method of describing and conceiving urban lived spaces of drug users in European cities. Suitable for researchers, stakeholders and harm reduction institutions, this method is not only helpful for understanding marginalised urban drug users, but is also suitable for understanding the lived spaces of other social groups – whether marginalised or not, occasional or regular users, or non-consumers frequenting public places used for drug consumption and dealing.

With our method of emotional mapping, we highlighted the manner in which places play an important role in explaining drug consumption. On a micro scale, personal emotional appropriation explains individual patterns of drug use. Emotions are intertwined with  personal experiences as well as with structural power relationships and their spatialisation reflects both.  On a macro scale, the structural phenomenon of socio-spatial exclusion in European metropolises explains how neoliberal, social, economic, and health policies produce massive anomie. Spatial eviction can lead to a feeling of helplessness, abandonment by institutions and social loneliness, thereby fostering drug use.

Emotional Mapping is still in the explorative phase within the broader DRUSEC-Project. Our aim is to extend emotional mapping by individuals from different social groups within the city as a way to better understand urban space and the contentious geographies of the city as a complex production. We applied emotional mapping to cities in Germany and are also applying it to cities France. Furthermore, we suggest that this method may be applied to other European cities which present similar mixed inner-city neighbourhoods known for being drug places, similar intricate living spaces for many different groups and similar patterns of urban policies.


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[1] Downs and Stea (1977)

[2] These terms are derived from the French social geographical concepts “espace de vie” and “espace vécu” (Pichon, 2015).

[3] We didn’t choose the colours of emotions according to any particular theory, since we don’t build this research on an underlying theory of emotions. The relationship between colour and signification (emotion) is the one of a legend: a contingent code for a specific purpose.

Cite this blog post
Mélina Germes (2019, October 30). Emotional Mapping – Towards a geographical explanation of drug use. Drugs, Securities, Urban Policies. Retrieved June 25, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/nx0l

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