Where in Charlottesville do people feel happiest? Where do they go to be alone? Where are the city’s best fruit trees, biggest potholes and strongest smells?

These are a few of the questions The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative hopes residents will answer — and visually document — in a community mapping project that begins today.

“We’re going to take a snapshot of the city,” said Matthew Slaats, director of The Bridge PAI. “The census is a top-down, federal approach to mapping a place. This is about the individual perspective — what someone sees, smells and feels as they’re walking down their neighborhood street.”

Slaats is collaborating with Madeleine Hawks and Marie Schacht to organize the project, which is called MapLab. Running throughout July and August, it will feature talks at The Bridge, walking tours around Charlottesville and, today, a balloon mapping reception.

“We’ll take a big, 5-foot-diameter balloon, fill it with helium and attach a camera. It will go up 500 to 1,000 feet in the air and snap pictures to document the city,” Slaats said.

Gulf Coast residents used a similar approach to monitor the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. They captured images of the environmental devastation in a way no one else was doing.

“It’s not perfect, but that’s why it’s cool,” Slaats added. “When they see the balloon, people will ask, what is that? The photography is one piece, but the conversations it starts is another.”

MapLab is all about provoking a conversation. During the next two months, The Bridge will post a new question on the façade of its gallery in the Belmont-Carlton neighborhood every day. Passers-by will have the chance to answer in chalk.

Artists, city councilors, urban planners and architects have been invited to help lead the conversation. One speaker, a cartographer, will reflect on the way maps not only record, but influence, what we perceive.

“A map takes a position, even if it’s just by having the North at the top and the South at the bottom. What if it were flipped? If you change the map, you change the way we see the world,” Slaats said.

MapLab also will involve at least four walks around the city. One of these may be a foraging expedition to map edible urban plants. Another could be a tour from the perspective of a trash collector. A third might focus on emotional mapping — locating which spaces make people feel happy, sad, nostalgic, or anything in between.

Ultimately, the project will result in a visual report — a kind of city atlas — representing all the information gathered. This is the first year that MapLab has ever been attempted, but Slaats said he hopes that it will become an annual exercise for Charlottesville.

“The Bridge is a community center for creative expression,” Slaats said. “This project is meant to give people a piece of ownership in their community. People aren’t often asked how they see the city.”

He said he hopes that it will be a starting point for future projects at The Bridge.

“My idea is to start an artist residency,” Slaats said.

The program would allow a Charlottesville neighborhood to select a resident artist. That artist would spend a month living in a camper, collaborating with locals to produce a piece of community art such as a garden, a sign, or even a recipe book.

Friday’s balloon mapping event begins at 5 p.m. at The Bridge, 209 Monticello Road.  More information is available at www.thebridgepai.com.