Monthly Archives: April 2013

Mapping Nations as Birds of Peace (or Prey)

The “Rudiments of National Knowledge” engraved in 1833 from a form attributed to Joseph and James Churchman, presented itself both to “the youth of the United States” as well as “enquiring foreigners” was represented as if it embodied a dove of peace.  The original 13 colonies were expanded to an eagle posed in flight, facing Europe, as if they provided a model that responded to the period of continued war of Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic Europe, and a new exemplary model of a national space:  embodying the United States not as the first bird that Noah saw after the deluge, or a lasting image of peace if not a reminder of our better natures, but as a sign of liberty whose connotations weren’t lost on Churchman brothers.

In naming the “Eagle Map” as the region that extended over the Missouri Territory until Mexico, the current mid-West regions cast as the expanses of its avian wings, posed in flight, its talons filling the wild and scraggly expanses of Florida, the brown-ink tracery that seems executed on the surface of the map itself seems a far cry from the militaristic eagle of the twentieth century.  Although the map was colored by its owner, the delicate feathers engraved on its surface reveal the engravers’ intention to embody the region by its avian form.  Despite the statement of the intent of its authors–presumed brothers–to publish a further map to be sold by subscription, no other copies of it survive.

bird map united states known

An image that is newly accessible to all through the DPLA, a platform that exists in purely digital form, and is in part the brainchild of Robert Darnton and a group of Harvard  librarians, provides a digital archive of national memory as it’s been set up–although one might quibble whether to showcase exhibitions of the history of Fenway park (now expanded to “Boston Sports Temples“) or the Indy 500 at the same level as, say, the experience of women before 1900 or the place of African Americans in WWI, but the arrival of up to 38,000 maps and other items within the DPLA is a cause for true celebration, and not only among map freaks:  the repository dignifies a critical historical resource that has been underused and too often left in the hands of antiquarians–to whom we are all now deeply indebted to having preserved.  This is a magnificent opportunity, after all, to reflect collectively on what maps mean as documents, paying special attention to what sorts of arguments they present–as well as “what stories they tell.”  The national atlas collection alone that Rumsey has assembled provides an inventory not only for 38,000 places you’ll never go, but 38,000 ways of looking at the world.  The eagle of the United States is one of these.

Embodying the United States was a tricky proposition in 1833 because there was limited national iconography to draw upon.  Instead, say, of an imperial German eagle, recuperated a familiar emblem by putting it to new use for a democratic union. Printed in Philadelphia just after 1830, and engraved for the “Rudiments of National Knowledge,” the eagle was a starting point for national self-understanding and attempt to develop interest in geography, superimposing ornithological detail on the mapped nation as if to make the observation of its contents more interesting, or draw attention to its detail.

eagle of United States

One reader seems to have drawn the shape of the bird around it, as a sort of afterthought and an embellishment, to unite the region as a coherent whole.  Perhaps not much is to be made of the fact that its beak was located at Boston, or nearby, and its heart somewhere near Washington, D.C.–or its eye somewhere in Vermont.  These seem somewhat happenstance or by default.  The eagle was to a counter-map to the Hapsburg eagle, but also an icon of liberty, and a new symbol of national unity.

Unlike the first Tannen map of the United States, for example, also engraved in Philadelphia and in 1811, which oddly divided the coastal states from the interior by a series of striated imagined ranges of mountains,

striated states

the map presented a detailed interior hydrography, bound by the eagle’s form, and even foregrounded its natural riches, as did the book of the same title, Rudiments of Knowledge, that it seems to have accompanied of 1833, also printed by Carey & Hart.  Nor did mountain ranges stretch across the inland expanse, as a “New and Correct” map for travelers of the United States, Upper and Lower Canada, the Missouri Territory, and Floridas of 1817, by Samuel Lewis whose four colored depiction of the United States set it against a considerable expanse, mapped and unmapped alike:


Lewis is known as one of the first enterprising commercial mappers.  And while giving important details of the Lewis and Clark expedition up to the Missouri River, his large wall map took that river as a new frontier, as if to beckon readers to explore its unknown areas, even as it accorded considerable attention to the roads travelers might explore to a greater extent than earlier maps.  In giving coherence to the country in the form of the bird, or of the eagle poised and about to fly, the map depicted the country as a young country, whose integrity was hardly mapped.  The status of the Rudiments as a smaller map–accompanied by a book–without the temptation for readers to explore the areas “formerly Louisiana” and the mysterious mountain ranges that extend like fingers in the detailed topography extending beyond the red-lined border at the Missouri River that seem to demarcate legal bounds of the United States:

Formerly Louisiana--large

The contained country whose continuity the eagle elegantly bound encompassed all these states and turned its back on Mexico, looking out over the Atlantic with the western states confidently assumed into its form, as if to suggest a new stage in nation-building that was also one of national map-making.


Leave a comment

Filed under "Rudiments of National Knowledge", DPLA, Eagle Map of United States, Joseph and James Churchman, Lewis and Clark, Rumsey, Tannen Maps

Mapping Each and Every Tree

When the poet Gary Snyder arrived in New York City, he evoked an ecosystem blending nature and culture that began form the trees that settle throughout the island’s streets and cling to the edges of its shores:  “Maple, oak, poplar, gingko,” the poet Gary Snyder began “Walking the New York Bedrock in the Sea of Information” (1987).   The list of trees introduces a seamless blending of nature and culture in New York–“New leaves, “new green” on a rock ledge/ of steep uplift,” lead to”Glass, aluminum, aggregate gravel,/ Iron.  Stainless steel,” in a metaphorical map blurring canyons of skyscrapers, plate glass, and electric lights buzzing in an ecosystem driven by big finance that might be submarine.  Amidst streams of subways, cars, taxis, rolling carts, people and birds, trees peak out–as “white birch leaves shiver in the breeze” and gingko trees.  Snyder returns to trees that resiliently populate its artificial built environment, as an environment partly forest, but hybrid, neither natural or artificial.  The detailed catalogue of trees and plants in New York’s Central Park displays virtuosity in evoking the variety, range, and density of trees in the city’s largest greenspace, rendering in detail an ecosystem often vaguely mapped.

In the heart of the city lies the park.  Its odd combination of nature and culture is central to most city maps.  When you look at most public maps of New York City that grace public transit, tourist kiosks, or other venues of spatial orientation, the area of Central Park is a monolithic green, less rooted in a survey or in a source of public data, but a light green box, set apart form the city’s streets–a block of greenspace located framed by the overbuilt grey of residences that crowd Manhattan island–which a recent survey of individual trees lovingly unpacks, as if to naturalize the blurring of nature and culture in the planted trees and volunteers that fill the landscapes of Central Park to catalogue its biodiversity, from the great American elms that line the Mall, planted in 1870, to the tuliptrees or elms.  Bound by walls, the map of all the trees in Central Park recently published in Central Park Entire (2011) seems to provide something like a time capsule of the arboreal density of the over 115,000 trees in the greenspace of 843 square meters, as if discovering a camera of curiosity in the dense vegetative habitat of a hyper urbanized city.

Snyder describes New York as a pepetuum mobile moved by wind that “shakes the limbs on the planted/ trees growing new green” beside the “gridlock of structures” of soaring buildings and socially stratified condominiums, unfolding “New York like a sea anemone/ wide and waving  in the Sea of Economy,” where trees are attached to its living mobile surface.  To drill down into the range of trees that cluster on the bedrock of Central Park, Ed Barnard and Ken Chaya focus a snapshot of the Park’s arboreal population in Central Park Entire (2011), cataloguing individual trees by isolating each and every tree that settled in this matte sea of green, as if to reveal the complex ecosystem that developed in the park hemmed in by skyscrapers, and that bears evidence of the porous nature of its boundaries of buildings and rushing traffic that courses noisily beneath traffic lights along storied city blocks.


Central Park.Green routes.png


The attention to its arboreal detail is supported and in a sense animated by the Central Park Conservancy, dedicated to preserving the park’s landscape, cares for the vestiges of the natural that are carefully curated in the park, which it treats as something close to the cultural patrimony of the city, on a level parallel to the works of art in the museums that flank its greenspace from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Guggenheim to the Museum of Natural History.  By embracing the combination of old planted trees and more recent arrivals, or volunteers, the map charts the rich contents of a greenspace that attracts some 3.5 million visitors annually, focussing attention on each of its plants, even as most maps of the city treat it as a block of green that the underground rivers of transportation of subway routes coast beside.




The wealth of the trees in the Park grew grew over time, as the park provides something of a fragment of the green that once covered Manhattan island–although, as Barnard and Chaya show, a hybrid space whose trees come now from a wide range of nearby regions and unexpected vectors.  The green of the island is however lost, and the concentration of green space in the park is definitely the prime reason for each tree’s increased value.  In a 1865 topographical map detailing the entire island–created just years before the park was completed, as it was planned–whose generous expansive shades of rich green–arboreal density reaches across the island from its shores, stretching along the meander of creeks, if concentrated on its coastal perimeter–




–the density of trees are almost obsessively catalogued as rare treasures of nature in the map of the historical aggregation of tree cover that defines today’s Central Park.

The expansion of the park, and its values, reflects in some sense the degreening of Manhattan over the centuries.  For the confining of the arboreal in current maps of Manhattan that is the result of a new economy of greenspace after a century and a half of real estate development, asphalt, and concrete and the density of the expansion of urban real estate along its streets:  the current map is a space which blends nature and culture, but where nature is rare and green space diminished, each and every tree commands valuation as a scarce resource.  The isolaged open green space in the midst of a hyper-urbanized island documents the radical recession of where green once lay in mid-seventeenth Dutch maps of the region, which colors green the island beside the Noort (Hudson) River and gives surprising primacy of place to Staten Eylant (Staten Island) in Manatus, coloring the present Manhattan as a somewhat mountainous terrain–


1639-NYC-map.pngJohannes Vingboons, Manatus gelegen op de Noot Rivier (1639)  Library of Congress


The depletion of green space in an age of rapid real estate turnover has led many to ignore the green, or compartmentalize it in a blur.   Rather than chart the dispersal of a tree-by-tree census as that which MapZen created of San Francisco ‘s range of street-trees show their clustering as a sort of virtual green space along streets–and by which one can detect the matrix of streets, even once they are subtracted–as a dispersed greenspace, including acacia, martens, gingko biloba, cherry trees, red maples, ficus, olive trees, magnolia, loquats, stately Victorian box, and evergreen shrubs in its microclimates–all noted by individual green dots.  The export from a street trees dataset from SF OpenData, helps allow the range of 116,000 trees across the city better pop out to its viewer.


SF Trees map zen bj.pngLots of Dots: Trees in San Francisco




In contrast, the static drawn map of Barnard and Chaya values each and every tree in the rare block of green space of Manhattan.  The map’s very subject may call for a denser sort of tree-by-tree mapping, and not only better reflects deep observation of local variety by the cartographers, but the distinct value of the relative rarity of trees in New York City’s urban space–and the unique sense of open space that the park still offers visitors.  For in New York, the park trees are a precious resource–as well as a microcosm whose arboreal treasures one is able to unpack.   Barnard and Chaya’s Central Park Entire locates some 19,630 trees in the park’s stone gated boundaries byspecies, health, and relation to other plant life to unpack the greatest compression of green space in the city in full detail.  The dense microcosm of the park’s trees unpacks the hidden settlement of settlers, native plants, non-natives, and avian-born seeds that create a mosaic of green in the park that viewers can unpack with far more care, focussing on the species and provenance of each in a mirror of the social and cultural mosaic of the more inhabited regions of the city itself.

The project of mapping each tree, stone, lake, and bush in Central Park is a concrete exercise in the pastoral that animated the project of designing the park undertaken long ago by Olmstead and Vaux, bringing up to date the cornucopia of the ecosystem that evolved around the park and within its walls.  Indeed, the one-to-one map of each tree in the park creates the same bucolic preserve as a pastoral lists the presence of each plant, tree, river and lake for the reader.  If every map is an argument, even an imaginary map, Edward Sibley Barnard and Ken Chaya’s “Central Park Entire” (2011) is an argument about the preserve that the park perfectly constitutes from the city that surrounds, or, in a weird turn around, the nature that the city surrounds.  The ancient Virgil evoked a landscape where “Spring adorns the woods and groves with leaves,” when “birdsong is heard in every secluded thicket,” and Barnard and Chaya mapped the park as a truly green world, outside and beyond the city, and frozen in a permanent Spring in glorious color.  As much as Snyder saw a technological ecosystem of built, they offer a Virgilian catalogue of trees, flowers, and plants verged on a primer of ancient botany.  Chaya and Barnard link their observational passion with graphic design, in a self-funded project of mapping that is a testament to preserving arboreal variety, and a sort of time capsule of urban greenspace.

Indeed, the map provides a sort of analytic attention to detail that few existing maps made today approximate.  In registering floral variety in encyclopedic comprehensiveness, the map stakes a different sort of truth claim, indeed, than any of its predecessors, allowing one to view not only range of trees that exist but to depart from its icons to explore the variety of trees within the park itself, returning cartography to an age of exploration by tempting anyone to undertake their own self-designed survey.  “Entire” is a sort of cartographical response of painstaking draftsmanship to the new horizon of expectations generated by a computerized GIS, or the promise of the totalistic and comprehensive coverage of Google Earth:
central_park_map_poster exp


It may be that Virgilian topoi of variety and abundance that seem to shine through the maps’s loving detail.  Building on the tree censuses of the Central Park Conservancy, but taking them to the next degree by actual foot-by-foot comparison of the park, they have mapped almost 20,000 of the 23,000 that the park has itself identified.  As a recent article on its composition from the New York Times cited Chaya as saying, “This is an example of a map that’s never finished” and a snapshot of the evolving project of Central Park:  the map captures the microcosm of plant variety that unfolded over time of pin oaks, European Beech trees and Camperdown elms to London Plane Trees with the wonder of an avid birder; both Chaya and Sibley Barnard are self-described birders of urban space.

The utopic preserve of the park is recreated for readers in glorious detail in this stunningly detailed map.  For this post, an entry on Chaya’s map of the trees, landscape, and built structures of Central Park in New York, is an Arbor Day special–for in a sort of preserve of nature in the city, Chaya’s map offers an arboreal museum of wandering and a habitat for birds. This two-year-old map includes short of 20,000 trees of some 170 species–several of which are unique examples in the park and city as a whole–the map charts with new detail every path, rock, built structure, lake, waterway, and pond with a comprehensive updating of the space that was planned designed by Olmsted and Vaux as a preserve from metropolitan life.  The scale of this folding map allows inclusion each and every tree in the park, with an implicit promise of future updates.   While only some 150 trees from the “original” plantings in the park of the 1860’s, it presents the story of the expansion of vegetal life throughout the park’s confines over almost fifty years, mapping some 85% of its total vegetation with loving detail.

More a living document than schematic guide, the fruit in ways of the expansion of the Central Park Conservancy, which offers it on its website, and at, reveals each and every tree as Chaya saw and drew it over the two years he studied its terrain–a composite of drawings, photographs, and repeated consultations and revisions of existing cartographical records with the actual terrain, as if to present in detail every aspect of the park whose more regular visitors know its monuments and vegetation so well.

The Lake--Central Park

The project of mapping the known–the park’s walks and its pathways and each building–raises the stakes of the content of maps, because the bar is set considerably high:  it reveals what one might not notice, despite the huge collective knowledge of so many city-dwellers and park-walkers, of providing and compiling account of observations that extends beyond the notion of mapping the unknown, and indeed presents the sort of detailed accounting of vegetation and landmarks that perpetuate a complete cartographical fantasy.

To put this in some cartographic context, contrast it to the image of the Central Park Conservancy, in black-and-white, which is confined to the paths that traverse areas of the park which highlighted the dispersion of emergency call boxes:


Or the range of information designed for park users in this far more detailed colored, and more iconographically dense, image of the sort that probably provided one of the basic templates for Chaya’s “Central Park Entire,” but notes restrooms most clearly and elides arboreal variety in a uniform kelly green:
Visitor's Map Central Park


The above map, that similarly bound a green rectangle of nature by blocks of anonymous urban grey, provided a somewhat more detailed and text-rich colored surface, but  without the detail Chaya’s comprehensive map boasts of every square foot of the park’s terrain.  For the park-goer, this is a sort of mythical return to the Borgesian fable of a map of one-to-one size, in ways that encourages readers to navigate its copious vegetative variety:
central_park_map_poster exp


The map tells a story–and presents an argument–about the extent of the graphic techniques and representational conventions that Chaya adapted, drawing from pencils and sightings to software, to design the map from a set of basically abstract conventions and a standard palate to refine the image on which he worked during visits to the site he so intensely mapped. Indeed, the visits that he made over two years to the park allowed him to document some 85% of its entire vegetation over the 843 acres of the park with a patience that reveals a cultivated reverence for its land.



The careful iconography of the map goes far beyond a simple road map, in other words, to focus on the ‘true inhabitants’ that are growing in the park, the site of some of the sole representatives of entire plant species.  Speaking of Arbor Day, an excerpt from its legend reveals the fine distinctions by which the map orients readers to the park’s arboreal life:

TREES in CPE legend

An abbreviated story of the map and the two-year period of its planning and making is nicely told below by the mapmakers themselves:


Rather than allow the greenspace of the Park to recede into the unclear interface of transit diagrams–a light green space that stands apart form the destinations of travelers–the map is a condensation designed for park wandering, and virtual travel among its trees.



1 Comment

Filed under Google Earth, greenspace, Ken Chaya, New York City, Virgil

Cartography, Personification, Figuration

Personification was something of an early modern topos, and a device for how to preserve unity.  When that man of letters Desiderius Erasmus singled out personification as a trope worthy of imitation in De utraque verborum ac rerum copia (1517), a primer on how to vary and embellish writing in an elegant manner.   The use among literate classes and high social orders of forms for amplifying written expression emphasized inventive models of expression, valuing the versatility in inventing and experimenting with combining varied modes of rhetorical accomplishment as illustrations of virtuosic skill and ability.  Far removed from a techne, the art of deploying tropes or figures of speech provided a tool to please one’s audience, employing figures of speech from allegory to synecdoche in order to illustrate the abundance and fertility of forms of public expression and engage one’s audience.

The adoption of standards of amplifying abundance in speech as a form of rhetorical virtuosity was not limited to oratory, but was readily transferred in interesting ways to how nations were embodied in early printed maps, whose formulaic construction lent them to the sort of combinatorial arts by which rhetorical practice had been increasingly understood, both as a form of technical writing by state secretaries and personal scribes described and provided models by which to organize formal written as well as verbal expression by virtue of their plenitude.  Indeed, if the proliferation of early modern maps is often tied purely to printing to meet cartographical demand or a taste for maps, the embellishment of chorographical city-views as well as national maps provided a canvas on which to express settlement as a form of unending abundance to provide confirmation of the nation’s actual and symbolic wealth for readers.  Maps provided particularly apt vehicles for copia, especially through the allegorical personification and amplification of the inhabited land, in ways that merged the purely quantitative tools of mapmaking with elegantly qualitative detail.

Erasmus lent currency to the figure of speech as an exemplary method of expression.  In a book often cobbled together from model passages of classical works of writing and rhetoric that served audiences as a guide throughout the sixteenth century as a model of written communication, Erasmus personified the abstract virtues of a number of ancient writers from Aristophanes to Chrysippus and Horace with attention to how the trope of personification could encompass the virtues of mythical beings–the trope served to make vividly present for the eyes of readers something absent through varied forms of expression.  The evocation of a personified form  seems to have encouraged cartographers to attribute a similar poetics of embodiment to mapped expanse, and indeed helped make such figurations of bodily unity more easily recognized by their audiences as expressions not only of virtues, but as a deeply symbolic measn to mediate surveys that augmented their coherence and power, and convert them to texts that better engaged audinces.

The trope or topos of visual personification informed terrestrial maps’ coherence and continuity has been neglected, in some unintentionally or unwittingly intentional way, however, in a story that privileged the mathematics of cartographical accuracy, and tended to marginalize more clearly allegorical maps as curiosities.  The striking popularity of these device-like images both as forms that encoded information and processed it in a recognizable graphic form was particularly popular in mid- to late-sixteenth century Europe, intersecting with emblematics as well as the quantitative sciences or mathematical learning.  These images reflected the broader currency maps had gained as sophisticated tools to process a cognitive relation to expanse that readers could readily–and almost intuitively–grasp.  Figuration augmented the power of the map as well as its coherence, and indeed served to render maps in a readily recognizable format for their viewers–even if those viewers were not practiced in the arts of surveying or intuitively able to graps the mathematics of terrestrial projection.  For personification helped cartographers use the formats of mapping to bridge the tools of transcription of place and the assertion of their cultural unity.

The corpus of regional maps of France and England alone by practices of surveying and triangulation acquired virtues of embodying national identity for cartographers who presented their maps as images of the nation that analogously rendered the abstraction of royal rule concrete:  the royal mathematician Oronce Finé’s deep pride at the national map of France he went to considerable difficulties to create in the late 1530s, studied by Lucien Gallois and more recently in a collective volume edited by Alexander Marr, extended the poetics of embodiment achieved in his cordiform (or heart-shaped) world-projections–a creative mathematical innovation of global projection departing from Ptolemaic schema, using a model first rendered in diagrammatic form by the Austrian imperial astronomer Johannes Stabius.  But the design that Fine engraved invested the form of the globe–or the surface of the heart-shaped globe–with a joint physical and symbolic presence, using a form had wide significance as a form of Christian devotion among religious reformers as a symbol of devotion and sincerity, as Giorgio Mangani suggested, imbuing the world’s map with deeply spiritual association, even as its design also served to foreground the proximity of France to the New World in an age of global discovery in ways that would delight royal audiences.   The international appeal of the embodiment of the world as a heart-shaped form rendered it an engaging site of contemplation, if not encoded the map with deep significance as a meditative form.

Finé’s elegantly harmonious cordiform projection offers a strikingly material symbolic form of terrestrial unity, organizing words as if on a plastic surface that not only foregrounded the proximity of France to the New World that would be pleasing to a French monarch at a time of global discoveries–but communicating the concrete presence of the legible surface of the globe, as if to render it by a new portrait rich with emblematic significance, framed both by an elegant cornice and armature and against a dark red field:




The map’s harmony intersected with Christian imagery of devotion–undoubtedly also underscored by the deep red field of its background–as if to treat mapping as a form of piety, as well as provide a satisfying variation of the format for ordering the map’s surface.  The organization of place-names on the curved meridians and parallels of its surface preserve a sense of its perfect smoothness, distorting Antarctica as a ˆTerra Australis” but doing so to lend the organization of what seem four large landmasses or continents far more harmonious symmetry and structural balance.

The 1538 map of France, if far less famous as a symbolization of unity, accorded embodiment to France as a nation that is particularly striking in its attention to record only the sites of population or topography within its national frontiers, which not only received a royal privilege, but was enabled by his charge to take surveying measurements by an instrument of triangulation he claimed was his own device, and which he invited each inhabitant in the nation to submit any reading that deviated from the “portrait” he set forth–adopting a language of personification for the jurisdictional boundaries of its expanse, here including part of current Switzerland:



This stunning woodcut from the Bibliothèque nationale‘s online collection presented something of an icon of national unity.  As much as providing accurate records based on new instruments, the comprehensive coverage of local detail in maps as that of Fine responded to political exigencies:  even if we can associate the determination of accurate base-lines with Cassini and Turgot, the uses of maps to refigure national unity or to imagine the nation-state that a monarch ruled was actually more of a purely Renaissance affair.  For the French mathematician sought “depingere Galliam insignorem nostrae melioris Europae regionem . . . ad vivum quantum fieri potuit figurate” in an image that knitted the  Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul into one life-like image, “pour ample et facile intelligence”–and in doing so would bridge the historical divisions in France that Caesar had described in his Gallic Wars.  While this boast was sure to attract erudites and illustrates his intended audience, the life-like notion that he sought to attribute to the map, I would argue, revealed its deeply figural properties, much as does its adoption of a language of cartographical portraiture.

The royal portrait of Elizabeth I by Maurice Gheeraerts the Younger gestured to the role of maps in providing a concrete figuration of national unity in the counterpoint that he drew between the nation as embodied by map and by monarch–the opposition of the body of the nation and the body of the king (or, as it were, queen)–in the 1592 Ditchley portrait standing astride a map of her land recently mapped in detail in Saxton’s 1579 atlas:


The Saxton atlas was crafted with royal permission to visit private lands, and is not to be opposed to narrowly to a figuration of monarchical authority.  In the portrait painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger of the queen in her sixty-second year, showing Elizabeth as leading her country into the future after a storm, the map re-figured her relation to the nation in vital ways.  The material precedent of the thirty-four highly ornamented maps that Saxton printed of the realm’s counties, issued as an atlas of 1579, afforded a model for this multi-colored map, and presented each county in differing colors, much in the Saxton’s popular county maps, in ways worth viewing in close-up detail:

England's Land


Take, for example, Saxton’s mapping of Kent in his highly ornamental, if also in part practical, colored atlas, for which he had received special royal privileges to enter villages and private properties for the purpose of conducting his surveys:




The topos of the map provided a powerful symbolic model for the figuration of monarchical identity, and for a new poetics of embodiment, less invested in the trappings of monarchical authority alone, and recognizing the extent to which national identity had become increasingly mediated in maps by the late sixteenth century.

Indeed, the master-engraver and cartographer Abraham Ortelius himself had personified the continents in the frontispiece of his authoritative collation of maps in his 1570 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, a massively ambitious comprehensive compendium of maps of the known world which became known as the first modern “atlas”:


Ortelius' Continents-Ftspiece


–and gave pride of place to the figure of a crowned female Europe, surrounded by the artifacts of cartographical practice and knowledge distinguishing practitioners as himself, and fabricated European knowledge of non-European peoples–here represented by less regally clothed figures of Asia and Africa that theatrically gesture on both sides of the monumental classical architectural frame on its title-page.


Europe with Globes


In this context, the use of “Europa Regina” provided a new figuration of Europe’s identity when it was reprinted in Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia in 1586, and enjoyed considerable success in the reprintings of later years.  Similarly, in the cycle of maps of the Italian peninsula that was composed from surveys that the mathematician-catographer Egnazio Danti specially took of papal possessions in six regions of the peninsula that were formally included in papal lands.  The surveys provided a starting point for which the cartographer worked with a team of painters in the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Palace whcih  refigured the peninsula’s identity as a region embodied by the church, rather than a series of constituent states–and indeed cast the unification of the state by the Reform church as a historical conclusion to the conclusion of the violent civil wars by Augustus, in a symbolic analogy that was potentially fraught if powerful in the authoritative model of peninsular unity:  Augstus’ ascension to his rule was by no means peaceful, but his shoring up of state authority after the Civil Wars was a historical touchstone.

Such maps stake visual arguments about national unity.  They do so by inviting their audiences to linger on the coherence with which cartographical tools embody a coherent record of territorial extent.  The maps mediate a carefully worked record of territorial surveys to present a united field for viewers to scan in particularly pleasurable terms.   The cartographers of each employhd mathematical expertise to express political unity in particularly useful ways:  for they blur nature and culture to mediate images of nations invested with symbolic values of unity and coherence, often doing so by gesturing to the organic unity of the body.   Each map advertised its own  pictorial coherence by taking advantage of the formal unity of mapmaking.  Gheeraerts seems to have adopted this language of personification much as Saxton was engaged in refiguring English identity from the country earlier best known  from the 1564 Mercator’s maps of the country.  The national mapping of France later took on new urgency in an age of confessional divides, for example, as a generation of cartographers sought to knit its divides, and in an age of religious wars create a literal metonym for religious concord and confessional uniformity, rendered as legible in flourishing rivers, forests, and fertile plains, and praising, as Bougereau’s map of France, the many rivers that gave it nourishment.  And Claes Jansz. Visscher’s “Leo Belgicus” (1611)–or “Leo Hollandicus“–


Leo Belgicus.jpgDavid Rumsey Map Center, Stanford University Libraries


The map elegantly embodied the Netherlands as a rearing lion, restored to its symbolic unity, to mark the restoration of integrity and peace region’s liberation from Spain and the truce that brought tranquility to the region–and restored local commerce.  Is it only a coincidence that the “brain” or mind of the lion is effectively occupied by the sea, the site of the compass-rose that remained an iconic tool of orientation in nautical cartography?


HEAD of LION.png


The figuration of the region in the form of a rearing lion celebrated the region’s regained autonomy in a chorographic format of a regional map, ringed by a series of individual city-views of startling detail; situated beside the hirsute lion’s mane and legs, paired views of the peaceful countryside and of the active shipping commerce, to celebrate the benefits of the new age of peace that the treaty inaugurated.





Bucolic NL.pngDavid Rumsey Map Center, Stanford University Libraries


Indeed, if the colored 1648 Fischer map of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg is better known from postcards, the image derived from a 1583 map that stunningly figured the Netherlands in the form of a lion that the Austrian diplomat and geneologist Michael Eytzinger published in the Civitates orbis terrarium compiled by Ortelius’ friend and colleague Michael Hogenberg:




In a strikingly dense period of designing and printing maps, cartographical refiguration provided a persuasive graphic form of material personification, and something of a learned figuration of a fabricated regional identity.  As a figural image, the map became a basis to imagine the future of the region as a nation, but more compellingly to render its history and prefigure its future in vividly persuasive form.

1 Comment

Filed under allegorical maps, cartographic design, copia, engraved maps

Europa Regina

The cartographical personification of Europe as a regal woman is tied to the Hapsburg court and the engraver Johannes Putsch, or, as he latinized his name for humanist readers, Johannes Bucius.  Bucius’ map was reproduced in a  widely popular Cosmographia assembled by Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia  from its 1570 edition, reprinted below, which provided one of the first–if not the first–personifications of the continent.   The history of the reception of this cartographical form provided a popular image of european identity, even if it originated in the Hapsburg court.  The embodying of Europe was a particularly powerful metaphor to link to a crowned figrue for the Spanish Hapbsburgs, so that they could convert the edges of the Iberian peninsula to a regal tiara or crown, as if to symbolically map the imperial network of an empire whose symbolical center had migrated, if the place of Bohemia as a pendant, and Vienna as a principal city, long remained, and Sicily became an orb, and Rome perhaps an extravagant adornment on her wrist.  Indeed, the adornment of the queen-continent seemed an occasion to map Europe’s abundance.

The repetition of an identical motif of mapping from the first third of the sixteenth century, when it was first engraved as a woodcut, to a more iconic representation of imperial identity constituted an early modern imperial icon of European unity:  “Yurp,” much as Peter Sellars put it in the first days of the EU, emerged as a regal figure, imperial orb in Sicily, head in Spain (Hispania) and Hispanic in character, but heart in Bohemia–and (no doubt to the chagrin of the English), the islands reduced to a flying banner of the scepter that she holds, lending it regal attributes in its dress and crown.  This allegorical personification of the continent is both a protection against otherness, and an image of the imperial identity of the continent.

The map suggests not only a medieval tradition of figurative geography or symbolic mapping, but a deeply allegorical reading of how Ptolemaic cartography used the correspondence of place in a uniformly continuous distribution to fashion a “community” in chorographic maps.  Despite the proliferation of various ‘chorographical’ maps of regions, often nation-states such as France, England, Switzerland, or the Netherlands by the early 16th century, the image of Europe’s imperial identity foregrounded the specific role of each place within that unity–from Iberia at its head to Bohemia at its heart to Italy as the arm holding an imperial orb.  It served as something of a hierarchical relationship of the individual European regions, and something like a memory-emblem to record the relationship within the Holy Roman Empire of varied European states.  As such, it was often re-written–or re-mapped–as a symbol of authority, the primacy alternating between European cities and counties that were centers of imperial residence.

The image is often described as “map-like,” but provides a map, if one less concerned with spatial orientation of its observer or individual reader than the coherence and unity of one specific region in an expanding ecumene.  Johannes Putsch (or Bucius) designed the original map that he entitled “Europa in forma virginis” (in the form of a maiden) have often been argued to represent an embodied leader, such as Charles V’s wife Isabella, whose progeny would unite the region that the Hapsburgs tried to effect the notion of unity with considerable popularity, but dedicated to the brother of Charles V, Ferdinand I, as a sort of allegorical land map of strikingly more schematic nature when compared to later, more life-like images.  This 1537 woodcut of two plates created an early prototype for the mapping of imperial identity, printed in Paris, and includes the elements of crown, scepter and imperial orb, all of which are presented with more detail than the quite schematic linear map, suggesting only a notional image of England or the African continent and coast.


Europe as a Queen--Bucius


The point was less to map terrestrial borders or shorelines with any accuracy than to provide a figuration of European unity that addressed audiences skilled in map-reading, or with reading the distribution of a land-map.

The popularity of its figuration of Europe lead to re-engravings and reproductions, often colored in the form of many manuscript maps–leading to their elaborations within later reproductions, as in this image at the Comenius crypt in Narden, a 17th century mausoleum, that attests to its particular staying power as a representation of Bohemian identity, as much as European unity.


Europa Regina 2


Europe is shown in the map as a continent, opposed to Asia and Africa, as a new rendering of the T-in-O map, now centered not in Jerusalem, however, but based in the forest around Bohemia, stretching from Spain to Hungary, with Greece, Bulgaria, Scythia and Tartar lands at her skirt.  This image is not only far more ‘fleshed out,’ but reveals a clearer image of a landscape map, suggesting that its engraver emulated the Ortelian integration of landscape engraving and cartographical iconography with text:  prominent textual markers indeed distinguish the continent’s (or queen’s) bodily zones, even as the rectitude of the female figuration of the continent is reflected in her grave aspect and imperial regalia.

The essential dynamic of unity within and overcoming sovereign divisions is underscored in this map, which if previously an independent flysheet was re-used within the context of a popular printed book, together with multiple maps of varied provenance that were mostly characterized by their striking pictorial design.  Although broken into colored sectors of national zones, this anthropomorphization of space enobled the image of Europe, staring at Cadiz and the African coast, in ways that eerily prefigure a Europe gazing over an imaginary mountain range.


Eropa Regina


Mountains are a wonderful visual metaphor in the map:  the Pyrenees appear as a regal necklace, rather than a dividing line, decorating the worldly majesty.  After a 1587 reprinting of the image, by Matthias Quad, a cartographer of Köln who would later publish an atlas of Europe, and printed by Jan Bussemaker , now titled simply “Europae descriptio,” leading to another adaptation of the image included in the popular compilation of Münster.

The maping of European unity is often linked, as by Wiebke Franken, to the somewhat more mystical anthropomorphic mapping in 1337 of the relations of the continents of Africa and Europe by the monk Opicino de’ Canistris, who represented Africa by the figure of a monk–perhaps a self-portrait?–gazing with supreme confidence at the figure of Europe as a woman, which he  drafted while at the papal palace in Avignon.  The map suggested a mapping of Christian unity, and indeed perhaps a pictorial representation of the remove of two continental figures from one another–perhaps echoing the church’s remove from Rome.  The map of a supremely regal Hapsburg Europe occupying center-stage and surrounded by oceanic waters focussed attention on the instruments of imperial power–the orb; the crown; the scepter, in an alternative trinity–by mapping the ascendancy of imperial power even in an age of confessional divides.


Filed under Bohemia, chorographic maps, cosmography, Europa Regina, hand-colored maps, Hapsburgs, personifications, royal maps, woodcut maps

Mapping Exploding Shit

It’s interesting that not long after the fertilizer plant in West, Texas exploded in flames last Wednesday, the scene showed up for many viewers on Google Maps, as a sort of vicarious version of spectatorship:  the map noted sites of interest, while Reddit user OverR created a custom map in which he identified areas that had been evacuated of inhabitants and site of the original natural gas leak blamed for the explosion, noting its epicenter by a bright red pushpin:


Google Map West Texas

How can a tragedy that created fifteen deaths and many more wounded be mapped?  Why the rush of curiosity to map its occurrence, and debating where the explosion had occurred online:  “I believe the location of the video is actually on the south side of that chainlink-surrounded field,”  noted nelsonblaha.  “The west side, where streetview is available and where you have the video marked, does not have any fence matching that pattern of vertical poles.”

After someone vandalized the map by shifting markers and someone else deleted it from the server, he reposted, attentive to maintaining the map as if for public knowledge.  The phenomenon of mapping the plant and its storage tanks of fertilizer was a way to grapple with the airlifted wounded ferried to hospitals, after local hospitals in West reached capacity.  Beyond a tool of spatial orientation, the map was a way to process an event that was shattering in itself, and the question if residents even knew that the silos stored fertilizer, as they tried to remap the explosion to the sites they knew in their memory: “My mother said she was aware it was a fertilizer storage facility, though my father did not know, assuming grain,” Thalassicus1 noted.  “She was prepared to evacuate us if the place showed signs of danger. Anyone out of eyesight of the could be unaware it existed, especially if new in town. It’s in a somewhat remote corner of town which hopefully limited casualties.”  And then:  “It’s eerie because my brother and I used to play just a few dozen paces away from the blast site, literally across the street in the playground you can see on google maps.”

The map only started to orient viewers to the still unexplained tragedy of the explosion that occurred twenty miles north of Waco just before 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time, or during dinnertime in West, immediately wounding 160.  The icon for the explosion was a group of leaping flames:


Reddit R


We have heard many times over the past few years how fertilizer and ammonium nitrate plays a crucial role in home-made bombs.  It’s perhaps a surprise that since 1921 there are only records of some 17 accidental explosions at a fertilizer plant, and only four disastrous explosions of ammonium nitrate accidents caused over 100 deaths.  The  explosion in West, Texas is more confusing since the majority of these accidents occurred some time ago–just over sixty-six years ago, a ship containing fertilizer exploded at the port of the Texas City, a blast of some 2300 tons of ammonium killing 581; a 1921 explosion of a BASF plant in Oppau, Germany killed 561; the 1951 explosion of a plant of fertilizer in Belgium claimed 189 lives.  In 1924 in Nixon, NJ, an explosion killed 18 at the Nixon Nitration Works, and trucks of ammonium nitrate exploded in 1959 in Oregon (killing 14) and Kansas City in 1968 (killing 23); 1994 saw a huge explosion in Port Neal at a plant of some 5700 tons of ammonium that left 4 dead.  The Canadian Press has created the following interactive map of other ammonium nitrate explosions since 1921.

The current explosion killed 15, ten of whom were first responders and firemen, as well as destroying a nursing home, middle school, and some sixty-five homes.  It raises questions about how progressive deregulation of industry and attacks on the EPA encouraged–if unwittingly–the lack of oversight given that no monitors been present at the facility for some six years.  There were not any sprinklers in this facility, as well as no containing walls for the eventuality of fire:  nor did they report the 270 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the facility.  We might start to map the effects of deregulation on such accidents, if the space was not already destroyed.

What makes a fertilizer plant explode?  Lack of regulations would be a good place to start to look.  As a reminder of how present the presence of the fertilizer industry is in our country alone, and how many are nitrogen-based (noted by red points), creating the highly flammable ammonium nitrate:


Fertilizer Plants in the USA


It is striking that there is at least one per state; one disaster waiting to happen and to be seen on the map, and not hidden in the landscape.  Only if an explosion again happens will the sites of tragedy be mapped in greater detail.

Leave a comment

Filed under ammonium nitrate, Google Maps, mapping fertilizer plants, Texas

The Density and Habitability of Urban Space

How to map the compelling question of urban livability?

The journalist, blogger and economist Paul Krugman sought to qualify exactly which pressures drive the costs of urban housing recently in “Conscience of  a Liberal.”   Krugman qualified how population density effects urban housing prices, by noting the importance of mapping density in new ways.  Scarcity of space or land constraints might seem to shape prices from a point of view of supply and demand, but Krugman argued that we can attend to a new urban geography by looking at aggregate rather than standard population density alone:  in response to Noah Smith’s argument population density was less relevant than proximity to economic centers, he argued that the rise in the prices of extra-urban areas across America, and “hiving off” of exurban areas in such cities as Phoenix or Houston, where the relative scarcity of land does not determine prices and population density in cities’ centers can change independently from the prices on its peripheries.  Following  Richard Florida, the mapping of “population-weighted density” of census tracts that can capture the way that Americans tend to be moving toward less densely weighted areas of habitation, even if the population, nation-wide, is rising.  (While population rose 10% in the US 2000-2010, it also spread out across urban areas, which became less densely weighted over time.)

This new picture of the United States that has cultivated a “lifestyle” of a less dense mode of living seems to be based on the increased valorization of “inhabitability” as a metric for home ownership in ways that are for more widespread than the movement to the suburbs in the 1970s:  we are all moving toward less weighted centers of population.  The hiving off of new suburban regions on the map that Krugman describes have not only pumped-up real estate is a reaction, in part, of voting with one’s feet against the over-density of urban space.  To be sure, although New York City property values are high, if we all lived in at the amazing density of New York City, the entire 7 billion inhabitants of the globe could fit into a geographic space similar to Colorado–a state which currently has a low density in much of its expanse, but whose pockets of population density are interestingly clustered close to adjoining regions of medium density.


One thinks of the much-circulated infographic, repopulating the world within the United States at the density of global metropoles, that suggests the exceeding density that urban cities have come to acquire, and the continued density that a city such as New York or Paris holds, in comparison to San Fransisco or Houston:


The variation of cities suggests some reasons for, say, the greater “livability” of certain places, as well as the distinct nature of the urban experience in a broad selection of cities across the world.

So what does this “hiving off”–distinct from suburbanization, as it suggests an exurban experience even outside of cities with relatively low population density, entail?  The 1970s phenomenon of widespread suburbanization, allowed by the creation of major highways and arterials that fed by commutes to urban centers like New York or Los Angeles, which served as an endangering withdrawal from many public schools in cities and urban centers, reacted to the intense pace of urban growth and in-migration.  Rather than based on suburban homes, the hiving off of communities echoed a similar demand for “habitability,” but was now about creating new spaces where exurban communities could be created, and how we could use the concept of aggregate density to measure them.

Krugman offered a more specific updating of James Kunstler’s compelling critique of urban sprawl.  when it was launched in the 1993, Kunstler decried the unwarranted expansion of suburban housing and malls in a manifesto that responded to America of the late 1980s, The Geography of Nowhere, as “the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known”–what he called “dead spaces” that he saw as produced by the new attitudes to space that the automobile allowed, stripping vitality from urban centers, and creating the rise of quasi-spaces of strip malls as suburban heterotopia, displaced amusement parks of purchasing, lined with unproductive spaces of parking lots.  This partly architectural perversion of lived space, for Kunstler, led to an evacuation of vitality.  Krugman focusses rather on the place that “habitability” has gained among the economic forces that shape the prices of urban homes:  his argument begs to be mapped, or graphically modeled as well as understood by statistical indices.

Economic thought might be playing catch up with cartographical modeling here:  the critical mapping of density, after all, began right after the 1870 census, when Francis Amasa Walker, superintendent of the census, offered a new model for mapping the population density of the nation not according to county, or electoral districts, but according to the actual contours by which the citizenry inhabited space:  dividing each square mile into its relative density of inhabitants, Walker distinguished those zones with less than 5 inhabitants/sq. mile from those with 5-15, 15-40, 40-75, 75-125, and over 125 inhabitants/sq. mile in 1872, and from that year undertook a number of projects with congressional funding that mapped that distribution against wealth  per capita, to create the first map to record the distribution of wealth in the nation’s geographic space, revealing the dynamics of income distribution along spatial axes–in what Susan Schulten aptly described as the nation’s first example of an infographic.  (Never one to not consider the uses of mapping populations, he created similar maps for the US Congress that mapped population density against disease, illiteracy, public debt, ethnic groups, and the birthrate.)

Desnity of Population [of US]

Such a clear figuration of density does not correspond to actual urban areas, given the former density of rural populations–or have fine enough grain to distinguish property value in them.  But it roughly reflects property values in the nation.  But its generalization of density across each county provides a useful metric to understand variations in the generation of income, tax revenues, and birth rates.  While a model of density-independent population growth may be applicable to animals–plants, insects, mammals, and other seasonally reproducing species, population growth is rarely independent from density in human populations:  and with the increasing segregation of age cohorts in contemporary America–and the graying of some cities, and lower age-level of others, the metrics of growth are especially not uniform.

A more contemporary, but less statistically exacting, version of the infographic–stated in the bluntness of th modern infographic, might provide the following portrait of the relative density of individual states in the union:

sq kilometer

At a finer grain, we find a density map as the following, which provides far more refined detail:

specialreports_2edb.population density usa

And we can zoom in for density of regions, in ways that provide a clearer picture of the Southwestern states in terms of how they broke down by counties, over time, around metropoles:


To be fair, such a general level of density is not that relevant to the points that Krugman addresses in this specific issue, where he advocates the need for moving away from such generalizations of state-wide population densities, which are less meaningful for microeconomic questions, to examine the organization of the city as a unit in ways that will allow us to distinguish the changing character and economics of urban areas.  Krugman considers how changes in urban geography across the US reflect a new paradigm or model of population density, he asks us to consider new tools to map where ‘average’ Americans live by the “weighted” density of population distributions similar to the sort of maps Walker first innovated, and focus attention on the relative density of different zones not of the nation but individual urban areas.

He argued that overall ‘density’ means less today than ‘aggregate density‘ or the relative density of neighborhoods or sectors of new urban growth, and used this as a dynamic structure to  map population density according to weighted density to better  understand how the “average” American lives.   He does so to offer a critique or assessment of how his fellow-economist Bill McBride suggested attending to population density as they were correlated with housing costs his competing finance blog, Calculated Risk.  Does overall ‘density’ mean less as a measure of housing cost, Krugman wonders, than ‘aggregate density’ (or relative density) within selective regions of cities?

Like Paul Krugman, I would question the meaning of density as an index of value, but I would suggest we need to develop tools to understand the dynamics of density that involve a more fuzzy or less quantifiable variable of habitability, which I would argue if less easily quantifiable becomes more evident in maps.   And in the remainder of this post, I’d like to show how maps offer a measure of the fuzzy value of ‘habitability’ as well as its inverse, a perceptions of ‘uninhabitability,’ might be loosely understood as a way to map the increase or the radical diminishing of property values rather than density alone–or understandings of how density drives demand.

We might  use these maps to include other variables that shape density, and use maps  to do so.  The question of how we can try to map habitability, both in terms of access to open spaces, access to markets, and attractive environments, might create an even better index of value.  In San Francisco, for example, where property rates have risen dramatically in the past several years, and whose neighborhoods are confined to a small area of land:  Oakland is itself much less dense, if also confined by similar topographic limitations, notably the mountains:  but four of the ten most expensive housing markets in the country, including Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, and Marin, are in the Bay area, according to the recent March 2013 Report of the National Low Income Housing Coalition–and in the state that requires the greatest hourly wage to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

out of reach hourly wage per two bedroom

To be sure, the variations of real estate and population in a state like California are closely tied, given the huge variations of density across the state.


Yet the profound variations in the Bay Area, to take one example that is clotted with a red of high density, indicates profoundly striking differences in desirability:


And such dramatically differing variations across the region seem to be distorted by the demand for living near a not-densely populated area such as Silicon Valley, where real estate prices are suggested in this Kwelia map of 2012 which illustrates the relative geographic distribution according to median incomes–and suggests the very real distortions in real estate that can occur independently of actual or weighted density.

screen shot 2014-01-17 at 9-2.14.13 am.pngKwelia

Whereas the debate between the economists turned around the measure of density, it’s unclear why in an age of complex data visualization Krugman omits variables beyond density or to map determinants of urban spaces.  As an economist is wont, Krugman tends to confine himself to contrasting the relative value of alternative models of housing markets in urban space.  If we accept the model of scarcity as the motor of rapidly escalating real estate prices, it’s hard to explain the rise of attraction to less densely populated urban areas in urban areas, however, or the re-use of less inhabited areas as new areas of density.  If we might assume rising population means rising housing costs, as Smith has since noted in an update to his post, transit policy and presumably other public policy issues related to urban infrastructure can influence or shape housing costs–issues that introduce habitability as much as density as an influence on housing costs.

If we weigh models of density and populated-weighted density as models of urban environments, population-weighted density might help explain the social geography of urban spaces at a time when average American increasingly live in somewhat less dense neighborhood:  during the first decade of the century, population has broadly “spread out within metropolitan areas” and brought a “hiving off” from cities and led many cities to abandon the model of a vital urban core is often associated with  “quality of life.”   But the generic term does not reflect how urban space becomes mapped as habitable to different populations and demographics:  for just as cities are mapped in new ways by public projects of urban infrastructure, people map areas of settlement around the contours of urban space by preferring zones,  in turn attracting further interest in them.  An interesting liberal strain of response to Krugman’s post bemoans the end of Jane Jacob’s model of the city as constituted by local communities and the positive sense she gave density as causes of the community and vibrancy of individual neighborhoods, which she valued as the basis for urban life.  (Many also critiqued his argument as not acknowledging the economic models of different cities, from how the absence of economic vitality thins cities like Detroit to how hi-tech creates a new geography of work.)  But in mapping population-weighted density only in numeric terms, Krugman may ignore the appeal that the neighborhood–as much as geographic location–has on real estate, and the increasing flexibility with which a neighborhood–even of different but overlapping socioeconomic backgrounds among their residents–is redefined in particularly flexible ways.

Less attention is paid in both models  to the constraints by which people map their own living spaces, even when constrained by a city’s complex and often unfair geography.  Parts of urban environments are recast as more habitable based on different criteria, often in response to the made or ‘created’ geography of the city–or fail to be recast in habitable terms.  The growth of desirable land in Los Angeles responds to the constraints with which freeways have sculpted urban space, and indeed in ways bound by the 405 in a sort of deterministic way, and the creation of the former Cypress Freeway shaped–and in cases destroyed communities in Oakland, California.  Vice versa, patterns of urban settlement and housing prices helped the investment in an urban infrastructure as transportation in Boston or New York, because they led populations to map their lives in urban space.

Does density alone shape market prices?  In a sense, yes:  but density is a reflection of deeper indices that one might better term ‘habitability’ given their manifold causes and considerable variations.  Changes in workplace practices and locations encourage a shifting relation to the urban space, as more people work on-line, of course, and live and work in isolated archipelagos around cities:  the vitality of neighborhoods that Jacobs celebrated has become far less important as a unit of economic meaning with increased geographic mobility and more dispersive work environments, including telecommuting. As a result, the framing of a debate between population-weighted density or the availability of “space” as determining land value omits the notions of habitability shape urban space: rising land prices in LA, for example, reflect the shifting attitudes to space created by a system of freeways that shaped land values–rather than scarcity–and defined a map of urban settlement outside corridors of transport that, more than mountains, shape Los Angeles neighborhoods.

This reflects the desire for a way to maps how areas become understood as habitable:  and in Oakland, where property values have risen not only in response to the rising rents in SF, but as the city has been defining new notions of habitability by restaurants, urban gardens, and public spaces like farmers’ markets.  By trying to identify a model for urban settlement, geography of population density becomes a stick of measurement rather than the remaking of urban spaces:  multiple complex constraints on the habitability of urban environments limit the development of urban land values.  In  the recent recouping of housing prices in the Bay Area, for example, areas of recent price increases were mapped based on data from–and metadata from Google Maps–to find a considerable recuperation of costs in San Francisco and Fremont alike, despite their quite different density, and a mild recuperation in many of the low-density areas of Berkeley and Oakland, as is rendered evident in the regions of light rose coloration below.


Bay Area Property Map

Conversely, if much of Richmond, Brentwood, Antioch, Union City and Hayward remain selling at a far lower price than in the prior boom, many Oakland properties sell at a brisk price, and hi-tech areas like Mountain View–and some areas near Walnut Creek–are positively booming.  To some extent this has to do with access to economic centers:  the less populated but also less desired and more removed Daly City is nowhere near recovering its boom prices, while Mountain View has surpassed boom prices.  But the widespread recovery speaks to issues of habitability, as much as density.

As a counterfactual, let’s look at some actual urban environments where the question of habitability responded to a striking lack of investment in creating a habitable urban space with adequate infrastructure or access to green space–one crucial measure of habitability.  Consider, for example, the considerable distances at which less valuable property lie from green spaces or urban parks in Los Angeles, creating an endemic that led the “LA Streets” Blog Santa to bring the city more green spaces last Christmas.  (African American neighborhoods enjoy .8 acres per thousand people, in contrast to the recommended 10 acres per thousand inhabitants, or the median 6.8 in high density American cities.)  Pink regions here map a distance from park exceeding the LA average, most of which are concentrated away from the shoreline or surrounding national forest:

Access to Parks in Los Angeles


The value of land responds to how we map urban spaces as habitable often shapes property values, as much as the questions of the availability of space. Something like the new Stamen map that focusses on the readability of mapped space by watercolor tiles, pioneered by Zach Watson, provides a new resource to look at urban space to analyze questions of habitability without being distracted by data overload, in what was intended as a visually simpler and pleasurable alternative to the tedium of Google Maps, provides a manner to differentiate neighborhoods in San Francisco–albeit a region whose high real estate prices don’t need much explaining:


SF Greenspace Stamen


Krugman provoked an interesting comment that advances in GIS could provide new tools to include aggregate densities in urban spaces.  Indeed, working with the above Stamen map, or with a time-lapse model of aggregation might provide tools to show the shifts in how space became ‘habitable’ or worthy of inhabitation.  These tools offer the ability to map a new geography of work:  one could model of the shifts in economic redistribution of wealth in urban space, or relative distance of residents to workspace, that might map the relation of neighborhoods to space beyond their relative income or real estate costs.

Flexible GIS models might also help reveal the different maps people create within a city as an environment in powerful ways.  In juxtaposing the alternatives between two models of urban life–the metric of population growth, which  creates competition for limited resources of land in a somewhat Malthusian fashion, or population density, or urban settlement informed by how agglomerations understood in terms of population-weighted density shape demand in extra-urban spaces or urban peripheries for land that changes land prices–the mutable map of the urban fabric is either dramatically oversimplified or ignored.   When land is constrained, the first train of thought goes, rising populations increase the price of land faster than inflation; the questions of how people map land as habitable–and desirable–more informs the second proposition, pointing to the rise of “edge-cities” on extra-urban space that become desired centers of population.

That choice between population and weighted density seems a bit artificial,  because both are abstracted from how people make concepts of neighborhoods out of open space–by mapping it as their own, or by not being able to do so.  Today, New York has of course become the model of a high “population-weighted density” city, based on the average land density of its inhabitants, or the relative density of its populated areas.   But whereas in the 1970s suburbia gained value in the 1970s around greater New York, leading them to abandon a city that became defined as less “habitable,” and to define preserves away from commercial activity, we now value habitability as a relation to a neighborhood, or something like one.

The remapping of the urban core as economically vital paralleled a shift in the understanding of its “inhabitability”– mapping not only its density, but what makes it conducive to habitation or less appealing as a living space.  Could we map the shifts in aggregate population density to investigate patterns of land value, to examine the rise of prices in New York and in regions of uneven density of population spread out within large cities?  One point here would be to chart the spaces made and created in individual cities over time that informed property prices by creating new models of the habitability of the same spaces and of urban life.   To do so, I’ll use maps to illuminate shifting attitudes to space.

Before considering urban geographies, it’s interesting to map a distribution of the predominance of bars to grocery stores in a cute map that I can’t resist–with surprising concentration, the number of bars exceeded grocery stores in urban areas clustered in the Midwest and parts of New England, and areas of the plain states and spots of the Southwest.  It would be interesting to pursue this map into urban areas–does the prevalence of bars over grocery stores suggest a greater role in serving neighborhoods, or a preference for the social function that bars serve in specific urban or rural regions?

Grocery Stores v. Bars

The map may tell us about a culture of sociability–in the colder midwestern north, and New England, bars are important sites of aggregation.  The map speaks about how folks create habitability in urban space in response to different constraints.  We can use this model, more importantly, and this will be the end of the post, to expand the criteria by which we look at urban spaces beyond density that can help raise new questions about the relationships between property value and urban milieu.

Others might reveal the increased livability of different spaces within the city, as this map of the green spaces in New York City, perhaps the city that possesses the densest urban core, in ways that map urban resettlement outside the region of its greatest densities by the foundation of community gardens and urban agriculture, discussed in an earlier post, which notes those places that accept volunteers by blue dots:


Community Gardens NYC region


The map reveals not only an expanding urban green-space, but the re-envisioning of densely occupied areas as of more livable urban spaces, in ways that mapping population density or aggregate density alone don’t suggest.

Still other maps of urban environments reveal the constraints on the very maps we make of urban space that are so central to housing prices–a process perhaps missing from Krugman’s discussion of two attitudes to the analysis of land-value.    Maps are a central tools of real estate to attract attention to  property and shape urban space into neighborhoods, and fit notions of habitability into existing spaces.  Many structures define these spaces of habitability, not necessarily understood in terms of weighted density alone.  Los Angeles is not, as Krugman’s piece suggests,  “hemmed in” by mountains that constrain city’s sprawl; its low density seems to run out to the Valleys, as freeways define the urban space and create  anew map of property values and more habitable and valuable land.  It almost seems land properties rise in their remove from the freeway, where the relation of land to freeway is more easily mapped, much as much of the value of land in Santa Monica seems to recede in value from the Pacific. Freeways or overpasses divide urban space and help structure maps of habitability; freeways of easy commute may, conversely, increase the value of hived off aggregations of “edge” cities, by improving connectedness to other environments.

We can map moreover habitability in different ways.  Cities like Oakland CA offer a sort of counter-example of a space where habitability set off a rapid rise of real estate values and the price of land:  there is no clear confine to urban space, but the spread of restaurants, green spaces, farmers’ markets, urban farms, and open public spaces fashioned a new notion of the inhabitability of distinct areas of its urban space in successive districts, earlier shunned, even when considerable crime continues to plague nearby parts of the city and the city hears the screaming sirens of police racing to the victim or scene of a homicide.  (If some would say real estate prices derive from the flight from the property values of San Francisco, that only seems to be the icing on the cake.)

The value of land is not a simple calculus of limited supply, but of the mapping of urban space–first taken up by real estate agents who sculpted Oakland’s neighborhoods, but informed first by a shifting sense of the habitability of the land, whether in the middle of an old port-city or the more trendy area of the Temescal.  Demographics prefer different models of habitability; the age of the population of Oakland seems exceptionally low, for example, as they might first define the city as more habitable.  The shift of populations toward less densely settled urban areas reflects this shift in how we have come to map habitability, one might say, even if aggregates of population density reflect land value; without numerical data to show for it, I  offer that the value of land reflects the relative scarcity of habitable areas in urban space, but also shifts as notions of habitability emerge.  In New York, the premium on habitability drives the growth of new neighborhoods, from the allure of Soho or the East Village to Brooklyn Heights as more habitable than more crowded urban environments.  Imaginative ways to map public spaces create habitability in urban regions; the lack of parks in Los Angeles fuels a somewhat undifferentiated urban expansion and settlement.

But there are huge obstacles to mapping the habitability of space in the very regions and cities that habitability might be encouraged, as we find habitability to become, in much of California, the preserve of the wealthier few, and urban spaces constrained by barriers to their physical improvement.  Take a simple map of the distribution of parks in the state, and reveals radical differences between the parks/inhabitants: the polemic map ties park-poor areas to income, contrasting darker greens to show greater availability of acreage/thousand inhabitants in the San Francisco than Los Angeles areas:




Income variations allow the possibility of a flexible and inventive relation to maps of habitable space–as the clumping together in aggregates or scarcity of desired urban lands reveals.   As we become more movable in our work, and develop a more flexible notion to workspace, this shifts the relations of local routines of personal and work space, and there is considerable choice about the spaces where we live:  workspace is less dense in different cities, to be sure, as silicon valley or other IT belts like the Research Triangle around Durham NC, but the premium on the flexibility of defining one’s own model of habitability seems to determine the new urban geography Krugman describes.  Further anecdotal evidence, beyond the United States but in North America, might point to the shifting geography in urban Ottawa, where the residential Glebe was distinguished by rising residential real estate.   Within the shifting infrastructural map of the city, one maps one’s own personal space.  Indeed, the bizarre settling of San Francisco’s sky-rocketing real estate prices is partly driven by the arrival of highly paid executives working in Silicon Valley, shuttled to their work in select buses whose routes allow them to select an alternative to public transit, as discussed in an earlier post.  The paths of flights into San Diego, to use another example, skirt more select residential areas like Mission Bay, create a zone marred by the rumble and whine of overhead airplanes.  And the organization of urban space no longer reflects how we map and understand urban geographies as habitable–or come to dismiss them as simply uninhabitable and worth less.

Only by balancing what maps tell us about how an urban region gains value for its habitability can we effectively broaden the discussion and use maps to measure inhabitability against degrees of uninhabitability and will we be able to extend the critical evaluation of value beyond questions of supply and demand.

Leave a comment

Filed under human geography, infographic, mapping density, Mapping Park Poor Neighborhoods, Oakland CA, relative density, urban geography, urban growth, Urban Livability

Mapping Holes over Poles: Disappearing Stratospheric Ozone

Maps can make wonderful arguments to orient us to a variety of global processes whose scale could not otherwise by visualized or even adequately comprehended.  Maps of the relative size of the depletion of ozone over Antarctica over time, looking at the earth’s atmosphere from the South pole and mapping the threat of a monumental environmental shift to allow us to consider changes in the loss of stratospheric ozone that have recently occurred, in ways that are only adequately understood by few:  diachronic maps provide the best means to chart the emergence at the poles, due to the similar pocket of cold air, of the disappearance of the thin layer of ozone that encloses the earth’s atmosphere, and blocks 90% of UV rays of solar radiation:

Sept 2006-Sept 2012 ozone

These two maps centered on Antarctica highlight where weather conditions helped expand the largest ozone “hole” in the stratosphere–a region where ozone has been reduced from 300 to 100 Dobson units, or by two-thirds, and an unprecedented entrance way for UV radiation unveiled.  With the continent of Antarctica reduced to an exposed island in the bright green iris of a protective level of stratospheric ozone, they map provides both a visualization of the permanent gap through which UV radiation enters our atmosphere, and the stubborness with which a problem that first registered at the British Antarctic Research station in 1985, literally wasn’t accepted as genuine, so sudden and unthinkable was its appearance:  deep blue registers the diminution of high-level ozone to 220 Dobson Units, the lowest ever recorded up to 1979.

There’s a tension in using bright iridescent hues to represent a tenuous layer that, if not so widely dispersed, would be only just three cm. in width.  The fragility of this protective if thinly distributed layer may be impossible to visualize as a unit, and as difficult to map as the mechanics of its depletion is to grasp or predict.  The depletion of ozone in the “hole” –more of a relative absence of ozone that usually checks UV rays–lacks the sort of boundaries or objective parameters maps chart, and its gradations hard to ascertain from the ground:  the tenuousness of the dispersed level of ozone in other words challenges cartographical denotation; exactly how much radiation enters the earth’s atmosphere is harder to calculate or represent, so we are left with registering the diminution as an effective ‘hole,’ given the lack of objective criteria to map the diminution in spatial terms that narrate the scope of its effects.  Such obstacles or constraints in mapping has no doubt lead to well-warranted criticism of inadequate appreciation of its seriousness or persistence in media stories that champion its reduced relative size, as we try to grasp  a process we can’t control.  This seems tied to the difficulty of presenting an argument in recognizable graphic conventions, and the appropriation of the map above as an argument that the hole’s expansion reduced and is under control or no longer subject to further expansion.

The inability to map a relationship between the hole and the land in anything like a one-to-one fashion of meteorological maps creates a challenge in registering satellite readings of a thin layer spread across the upper reaches of the stratosphere as if it were an object or place.  The iridescent hues that render depletion of ozone map are both misleadingly and deceptively presented, Bruce Melton argues, as evidence of a “record low” ozone hole–since the reduction in size conceal the fragility of the tenuous ozone layer when increased stratospheric cooling will further deplete the failure of ozone, as Melton argues, and create an uphill struggle to ever block the entrance into our atmosphere of radioactive UV rays.  The map is in this case not the territory:  the territory is being irradiated, and is going to be irradiated for some time.  Climatologists predicted many narratives of the hole’s eventual shrinking in the early 1980s, or in 2006, when it was noted that “in Antarctica, we can say that the patient is not getting any sicker, either,” and 2006 led to the prediction tha reducing fluorocarbons would bring clear evidence of unambiguous improvement by 2016.

Yet the persistence of the hole is striking:  2011-12 saw the re-emergence of a similar ‘hole’ above the north pole, far closer to inhabited areas.

The evidence is difficult to interpret, and harder as a result to represent in maps.  Most maps effectively materialize or embody land and a relation to space, but the hole or gap records the depletion of a gas whose effects are far greater than its relative size, and not necessarily proportional to its size.  To be sure, after being warned of the eventual depletion of ozone, it does not seem so inevitable. Although naming a “hole” seems concrete–something is leaking or escaping from a delimited zone–the entrance of UV rays through this “hole” can’t be adequately mapped to reveal or represent what is happening climatically, and the scope of the dramatic increase of the ozone hole’s radius is difficult to imagine, for  it’s difficult to know what the size of the hole means.

The perspective above Antarctica shows an area about as large as the Antarctic continent itself to be entirely depleted of ozone.  This map of absence challenge us to chart something that resists most of the usual categories of maps.  Perhaps the process is better communicated by mapping the distribution of real-time ozone loss at an altitude of twenty kilometers, as the below visualization of the World Data Center for  Remote Sensing of the Atmosphere, using a vertically resolved distribution to  map variations in loss and depletion of ozone, showing a significant reduction above the north pole that becomes more urgent below the equator:




A similarly striking map of local variations from the normal density of 300 Dobson units, tells the difficult to grasp story of wide-ranging atmospheric shift over the southern hemisphere at a time of greatest ozone depletion, of which the hole over in the ozone layer over Antarctica is only a section:



Mapping the absence of ozone in the atmosphere is a difficult proposition as well as graphic, especially since most maps are static in nature. The first two visualizations of NASA’s Ozone Watch centered on the continent of Antarctica portray the region’s exposure to UV rays, as if one is somehow looking up the world’s skirts, in ways that work because they tweak or shake up the notion of a global map to show a vital or exposed place in the world’s atmosphere: the perspective from  from that of solar radiation entering our atmosphere suggests looking into something that one shouldn’t be able to see.

It’s a bit comforting that there was some contraction from the massively gaping hole of 2006,  but the slight apparent contraction doesn’t really offer any reassurances.  If purple and blue is where ozone is least present, and yellow toward the red end of the spectrum where it is most present, the hole is still gaping pretty large in April, 2013:  the ozone (O3) in the upper atmosphere is present in such trace amounts, that its absence from the stratospheric atmosphere allows ultraviolet radiation to seep in; while it can absorb the most dangerous and intense radiation before it reaches the earth’s surface, ozone depletion allows it to enter freely.

We can far more easily, of course, map the extent to which more and more ozone is itself trapped, as a greenhouse gas, in our atmosphere, but that is not where we want it–its benefits are nil and even adverse since it is a health hazard.  Its concentration as measured in our country roughly matches concentrations of smog:

National US Ozone Map

The above map registers ozone created from car and other industrial emissions lying below the stratosphere, and the rise of parts of ozone/billion from 10-15 in pre-industrial society to upwards of 80–a rise that has largely contributed to local smog or “ozone days,” and the “spare the air” days of the East Bay when folks are asked to take public transit.

The geographic centers of pollution documented from satellite photographs from 2006 to travel surprisingly wide distances, in ways that suggest we try to understand the local heights of ozone as a truly global crisis if it is also one of local creation:


This concentration of atmospheric ozone is a form of smog, that serves no protective function as a trapped greenhouse gas; the ozone layer in the stratosphere itself has little relation to global warming.  But we can perhaps develop a perspective of more global character to map or visualize the absence of ozone at stratospheric levels.

This was, after all, the primary effect when NASA compellingly created a map of the relative depletion of ozone concentration–and the potential disappearance of stratospheric ozone–from 1994 to 2060, should  further production of CFC’s not be banned.  This image of ecological disaster was not fleshed out, but is apparent in the deep blue hues that uniformly enveloped the familiar form of North America, as if to tell our future gone astray as a consequence of the increasing industrial production of fluorocarbons worldwide:



The mapping of more recent depletion of ozone over the pole is the consequence of its unique climate, mapped a sort of topography of ozone loss, in which blue and violet mark significant deviations in local ozone concentrations that were sensed in 2003, but were first detected as early as 1985:

And the resulting spottiness of the ‘ozone column’ prominent in this global map of 2006 suggest a broad depletion of ozone layers around the equatorial region, where the sunlight is also more unremitting and intense, outside of the polar regions:

Ozone Column 2006


What does this massive decline of a shield against radiation mean?  As of yesterday, the map was considerably expanded and not much more comforting, looking at online near real-time ozone maps:



NASA also continues to provide daily visualizations of the established gap in ozone over the Antarctic, based on satellite measurements, to register a daily changing picture of the hole that is not much more comforting:




Such snapshots tell half the story; stop-action photographic frames chart the hole’s growth form 1979 to 1991 shows the difficulty in pinpointing its size or shape, providing something of a narrative, as registered by satellite spectrometers:

The jerky seasonal variations seem to be always up for grabs! But a compilation of monthly averages in a suggestive sequence of time-lapse stills, also from Cambridge’s Centre for Atmospheric Science, reveals the expansion of the violet blotch almost appear from nowhere in about 1983, when it was first detected, in ways linked to how gasses emitted from CFC’s had dramatically depleted atmospheric ozone:


Cambridge Ozone Maps


These Cambridge Ozone Maps–a wonderful name–show an odd shifting of form, shifting due to polar meteorology, of how the gasses spewing out of factories, homes, and airplanes attach to stratospheric clouds that, in the polar vortex, introduce atomic chlorine over the pole which at such low temperatures, destroy ozone.

To map the loss of the layer over time, in animated form, is perhaps far more compelling than a static map is able to offer its viewer:

For the lack of better conventions to visualize the opening of ozone over the earth, its hard to remember the difficulty of turning back or reversing this depletion at all.  The challenges of mapping ozone are multiple, both because of the stories we impose on the maps and an inability to comprehend the costs of the opening hole hovering over the pole.  Is it that the map embodies a process that can be visually grasped, transforming a topic of debate into an entity that cannot be denied?  Indeed, there seems a relative poverty of words–what is a hole, actually?–that seems resolved when one looks at the maps of stratospheric ozone depletion over the poles, and sees where the ever-widening gap lies.

Leave a comment

Filed under Antarctica, Global Warming, Ozone Hole, Solar radiation, UV Radiation

Mapping Worldly Entrances to Hell

We often carry our very own hells with us, and know not only their maps but even the routes of access to them.   But if the location of Hell has been mapped and re-mapped as a personal experience since the Renaissance, defining fixed locations of Hell projects something of a state of mind to the world’s physical geography.  If, to quote Marlowe’s Mephistopheles, “Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib’d/ In one self place; but where we are is hell,/ And where hell is, there must we ever be,” the places Hell resides is almost a practice of mapping that reflects a culture’s cartographical imagination.  And, it’s perhaps not a surprise that every culture seems to have its own notion of Hell but of where the location of hell and its entrance is.  If one can pinpoint and map it in an image of the known world, perhaps one can escape its presence in one’s own mind.  Czeslaw Miłosz wondered, in a very late poem of 2003, “Have we really lost our faith in that other space?/ Have they vanished forever, Heaven and Hell?/ . . . And where will the damned find suitable quarters?” and bemoaned almost tearfully the unimaginable proportions of the “enormity of the loss,” but there is considerable existential comfort in being able to map Hell with security.

It’s also a good way of saying that you know the lay of the land, and the parts you want to avoid. One-upping Marlowe, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley imagined “Hell is a city much like London— A populous and a smoky city,” to comment on the transformation of England; his belief that “It is not necessary to consider Hell and the Devil as supernatural machinery” is uncannily similar to the many maps that pinpoint Hell’s multiple worldly entrances for those eager to read them.  It has long been far more satisfying if one can try to pinpoint the entrance points in informed fashion, using some sort of knowledge or evidence to buttress the choice.  The location of “Hell” or the underworld was, of course, pre-Christian, even if it is now colored by Christian sources; Hell is a pre-Christian mental geography that was mediated by Christianity and its own specific notions of suffering  and remorse, but also is a place that we all know exists, and are eager to find–although not to go there ourselves.

According scripture, Hell is located deep down in the earth, without either geographic specificity and far more figuratively evocative than precise.  Hell is  reality and state of mind for the Gospels and Apocalypse; it is not a precise location:  it is a place where in “outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30), whose inhabitants are “in agony in this fire” (Luke 16:24), surrounded by “the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).  The image of perpetual burning, self-consumed bodies has been embellished with extensive pictorial detail as a place of eternal punishment, and a site of the destruction of both body and soul and of unending separation from both; it was based on the Old Testament idea of  “Sheol” as an abode of the dead (Psalm 49:13-14)–or of those with no abode or place to be, but this place with no life was always seen as closely connected to our own.

Hell was deeply spiritual for Dante and in his age–the appeal that we had an informant who had in fact been their to survey its complex topography and descending rings of punishments bore the satisfying sense that we knew where we are in the moral compass of life.  The appeal of Dante’s map of hell is evident in the considerable care and detail which Sandro Botticelli and others used to delineate the space through which where Virgil led Dante and navigated among the inhabitants of hell’s circles–an image popular in the late fifteenth century–that could be examined with some recognition and even more amazement as a site of the afterlife.


Botticelli's Ms Map of Dante's Hell

When Dante’s Florentine editor Girolamo Benivieni’s prepared a printed edition including engraved maps, the portal to Hell was strikingly placed in explicitly modern geographic terms within the terraqueous sublunary world:

Benivieni 1506 Dante's Hell


The deep comfort of this clearly mapped ontology of the afterlife is to some extent preserved today.  Online, we can also navigate this image, thanks to digitization of manuscript images, on one’s very own, and explore the mind-blowing map that Sandro Botticelli drew as if confronting the page from inches away in all its gloriously imagined Dantesque details.  The mapping of Hell has taken off in ways that oddly reflects a pretty secular age; sites of anguish and suffering are, it turns out, still pretty compelling to map in a geographical lens.

Compelling woodcut maps described the topography of the realm of the Dantesque afterlife with exquisite geographic care:




Hell was long an individualized affair, and rightly so, the culmination to a balance of sins physical and of mind.  But the mapping of a public geography of hell–entrances to the underworld, now navigated not only but Virgil and Vulcan, or even Percy Jackson, but able to be pinpointed on a map.  There seems to be somewhat of a flourishing of the addition of “Hell”-sites on the web today, in fact, something of a response to the absence of this all-too-concrete state of mind from the reaches of Google Earth–not that some folks haven’t tried.  Perhaps the absence of hell’s location on Google Maps–or how Hell frustrates that portal promising ubiquitous coverage to any user–may have helped generate something like a proliferation  of on-line pseudo-erudition about Hell’s possible locations, and the curiosity that it could be in fact right around the corner in some pretty familiar sites.


The appeal of mapping hell–and at looking at the sites where others map hell–is a branch of the Googlish compulsion to provide a total mapping of humanity, as much as a religious ontology, and is reflected in the proliferation of models of Hell that circulate online and provide some sort of satisfaction that we known where we are.

Witness, for one, the popularity of the recent ‘discovery’ by Italian archeologists headed by Francesco d’Andria of the location of one “Gate to Hell” in the Phrygian city of Hieropolis, a place where few would have much interest.  D’Andria fond “Pluto’s Gate” marked the entrance to a cave whose abundant mephitic vapors and carbon dioxide fumes make it impossible to sustain life–which found some confirmation in the detailed description left by  the geographer Strabo of the place as “full of a vapour so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground” where “any animal that passes inside meets instant death,” adding “I threw in sparrows and they immediately breathed their last and fell.”

Italians acknowledge this specificity of one entrance to Hell since they are familiar–through the poems of Dante and Virgil–with the location of Hell in the field of active volcanic craters bubbling with outside  Naples in the Phlegraean Fields, which Dante  located it in the extinct volcanic crater of Lake Avernus, or the Lago d’Averno, where Aeneas met Charon to be ferried across the underworld, and Romans at the nearby bubbling at Solfatara, a dormant crater emitting sulfuric fumes, which ancient Romans considered  entrance to  the Underworld.  The region of the Phlegraean Fields, site of the Gods’ war against the Titans, some 25 km west of Vesuvius, a region of some 24 volcanic craters that was first settled by Greeks in 730 BC, who called it the “burning fields” and may have associated the seeping grey and white smoke billowing up from its rocky terrain with Vulcan’s land.

But if the site of the former prison in Robben Island in South Africa has its own entrance to Hell–a likely place for one– lists many more–more matrixes of caves from the Cave of the Chorreadero in Chiapas to the Sibun Caves of Belize, entrance to Xibalba according to the sacred Mayan Popul Vuh, were believed entrances to the underworld, or the bubbling Lake Begoria in Kenya, where sulphurous fumes similarly seep from a volcanic crater in central Kenya’s rift valley, as flamingos fly overhead.  Lake Naivasha, northwest of Nairobi in Kenya, land of the Massai, was named by explorers Fisher and Thompson “Hell’s Gate” in 1883, probably due to the heat of its rocks and release of geothermal steam near the Suswa volcanoes; the region’s hot springs and geysers not provide the first center for generating geothermal energy as well as a popular tourist destination.  My favorite portal to hell is in Feng Du, in the Chongqing municipality–an actual ghost city, built in a way modeled after the Buddhist notion of Diyu, as a sort of theme-park, built over 1800 years ago, modeled after Naraka and including a bridge to the underworld as well as dioramas, buildings, and statues, whose ghost city is soon to be in large part submerged by the Three Gorges Dam–the “Door of Hell” will remain.

In the United Kingdom, folks have been accumulating actual entrances to Hell since 2002, racking up some 120, all of great names (Tooky; Famras; Bammy; Banu; Quetty OrarnaBenidormoVowo mi; Wheatle; Oilyn; SlipknotCrizzleUnderlow; Trensilon; Abracadansler; or Braaashteeefunorvallishhtuuu) in a format that is easily viewable.  The progressive discovery of new entrances reflects a realization about this site–a “constantly updated catalogue to Hell in and around the UK,” a sort of epilogue to Thatcherism; “Wheatle is gentle, luxurious and oozing with street-cred. This is the entrance from which Satan dispatches millions of useless inanimate objects to the gift shops and furniture stores of the UK. Wheatle is closed all day Thursday and is acoustically connected to Mkpg.”  Some of these places are perhaps better to visit than others, all connected to an invisible topography of Hell that the site does well to trace based on crowd-sourced observations with compellingly diverting detail:  “Vowo mi is the delivery point for the devil’s honey supply. The beehives of England have for centuries organised thrice-monthly deposits of best honey here in return for being allowed to live without satanic interference. The connection to the core is a simple plastic tube, 12cm in diameter. Scientists working for the government of Harold Wilson released a tiny survey vehicle into Vowo mi in 1961 almost immediately losing radio contact with the probe’s passenger the spider-monkey Kiki. Kiki is now the devil’s osteopath and can speak fluent Karatakak. Vowo mi has a good vibe and a pleasing aspect.” (Each has, conveniently, its own streetmap, if one is patient enough to follow the fictional geographies to the rather drab streetmaps themselves.)

This sort of collective authorship of locations of potential entrances seem pretty ingenious, if somewhat reflecting  J.K. Rowling’s whimsy in its identification of several sites:  “Asananc connects, via a big brass pipe, to an enormous frozen lake, fifty seven miles directly below. The explorer Lady Louise Kenilbaker was last seen alive here in 1924 as she entered Asananc, against all advice, on a personal quest to make contact with deep level ice-children. Asananc is not recorded on any OS map, but there are pencil sketches by Rushmount in the British Museum.”

We can now obtain adequate warning signs to post with adequate visibility:


It’s not a surprise that in the past century, “the number of persons being chosen by God to witness the reality of Hell,” according to one website that compiles accounts of visitors to Hell’s “Reality, “is greater then all prior centuries combined.”  This site argues that it seems that “as our world moves further away from belief in sin and punishment for sin, God increases His Divine Mercy by granting us more and more confirmations of that reality.”  The horrors of the twentieth century has led, even for more secular surfers of the internet, to a greater interest in noting that Hell has some plausible location after all.

For Blanchot, Hell was more of a state of mind, which one entered easily without moving anywhere as one struggled with the act of writing itself and was surrounded by the shadows that it summoned.

Is there an interest in relocating Hell with the illusion of precision of Google Maps?  It at any rate seems that the location of Hell is being more vividly redefined online than it had in previous years, as the topic of Hell’s location has expanded to the History Channel and also to Huffington Posteven more vividly than previous years.  The recent hell-sightings on the internet are even more concrete.  Atlas Obscura notes the existence of a recently created “Gates of Hell,” located near the small village in Turkmenistan of Derweze, a gap of 328 feet in width which has been on fire that stands in the Karakum desert, casting an unearthly red illumination for some forty years–since a Soviet drilling rig collapsed into a cavern of natural gas in 1971, creating an unknown entrance to hell that attracts visitors on the Silk Road.  An unnatural natural glow that can be seen for miles around in a crater that gapes sixty meters wide and is some twenty deep–a sort of surrogate foot of Mt. Doom that Peter Jackson unfortunately missed when scouting film sights, but which has made its rounds on the internet.  (This was especially unfortunate for folks who felt the films went over budget; I’m sure the first elected president of Turkmenistan, who has made the extinction of the fire burning since 1971 a priority for his first term–but despite the mandate first voiced in 2010, it is still generating its golden glow in Derweze.)


The entire region sits on seeping natural gases, and many of the 350 or so local nomadic residents like to thrown their cigarettes on the ground to generate bursts of flame like small party-favors.  This photograph, which has made the rounds online with success, emanates otherworldly light that seems to migrate heavenward, inverting the origin of light from the sun, with an effect that is reverential or almost spiritual in tone.

But once we do locate hell on Google Earth, how can we plot its relation to ourselves?  or is locating the site only a moment of temporary relief from our daily grind?


1 Comment

Filed under "Hell's Gate", "Pluto's Gate", Aeneas, Apocalypse, Biblical Geography, Charon, Christopher Marlowe, Dante, Google Earth, Hell, Hieropylus, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Phlegraean Fields, Robben Island

Environmentally-Induced ADD

The disorientation of “environmentally-induced” Attention Deficit Disorder is not the result only of a piling up of diagnostic categories:  it is a piling up of detailed sensory stimulation, a lack of filters for hedonistic pleasures, an assault on the senses that defies information overload but approximates a disorientation of sensory overstimulation:  if ADD hyperactivity made it into DSM IV, entering a Whole Foods store and not knowing which aisle to walk down, even though you have entered the pleasure palace only in search of a tooth brush or some strawberries, is a bit of an induced disorganizational phenomenon in itself.  You find yourself under some sort of assault in a land of such overwhelming abundance where objects cry out as if you really need them, and sales assistants, who have the right to give away up to $20.00 of goods per day if it will boost sales, beckon with potentially enticing trays of moist carrot cake or fresh juices, all of them hard to ignore.  The attention to accumulating all of these goods under one rooftop and in such an attractive display makes it difficult for one to sustain attention to the task of shopping, or getting what one needs for the menu in your hand, as the culinary details with which one is assaulted or to which one is invited to be privy lead to repeated careless mistakes about putting things into your shopping cart.  Being “often needlessly distracted by external stimuli” (criteria number 8 in DSM IV) become a way of life when cruising that supermarket aisle, not to mention difficulty organizing things necessary for tasks (number 7), in this case leaving the store.  (Perhaps one also encounters a difficulty awaiting its turn to enter DSM V.)

This is an odd permutation of the cult of self-identifying as a locavore, or circumscribing the terrain from which cultivated food will be consumed to a restrictive radius.  As we discover the American terroir in our kitchens with Rowan Jacobsen, indulging in the locality of geographically specific flavors, we’re apt to wonder where we are even as we fantasize about the benefits of living off the land.  It’s no doubt in part that we need to remedy this sense of dislocation–of remove from the sources of our food–that we rush headlong into sourced tastes.  But there is something odd about being offered a geographic pedigree of locally farmed food and not being able to process whether you really need to relocate it into your refrigerator, or  single origin beans on whose origins you can’t place a value.  The collection in our high-end supermarkets of vegetables of excellence provenance, identified by agrarian footnotes beside their price tags, often seems intentionally and oddly disorienting in itself. so culturally removed is our own map of the origin of eggplants, apples, cranberries or kiwi from our sense of where we are and the reasons why we entered into this store, anyways.  Is the scholarly apparatus on those placards informative or a nagging distraction?  It is hard or at least a challenge to hold in one’s head the map to which objects of fixed provenance in the supermarket correspond.

But the cost is one of extreme disorientation as one enters the brightly-lit floor of the local supermarket that caters to such high-end locovoric tastes.  It is one thing to have a map of terroir on the wall in a wine shop for customers; the map is a tool of identification and situation of the grape or the vine, and demand a degree of expertise (or map-literacy) to be read.  There was a clear identification of provenance in an ice-cream store that boasted to use only the milk of family farms in Vermont for its super-premium blends (as did, at first, and to some extent still, Ben & Jerry’s) or the ice-cream pleasure palace in Bologna, Italy, that claims to use only milk from the Romagna (the local region surrounding the city in north-central Italy) to make its highly saturated super-rich gelato (la Sorbetteria Castiglione)–but locovoraciousness looses focus as it is staged in a setting of consummate marketing and, its counterpart, hedonistic consumption.

As if response to the criteria of sourcing vegetables from a ten-mile radius at some local farmers’ markets in the region, the folks at Whole Foods have offered to clear this up for customers in an on-line local foods map that allows us to look at what local goodies stores offer across the country–even though this can help us sort the information overload of the aisles, as we look scour the country for the locally produced goods that might be available at our own Whole Foods outlet–or develop the sort of eco-lust of a committed locovore at the foods available to other Whole Foods customers around the country, leaving one only to gaze at the mapquest image to dream of purchasing foods in other supermarkets of brighter  aisles.  The idea is to think local, but market nationally.

Whole Foods Local Foods Map

One kind of looks only at the geography of the sort of foods one wants to eat, in other words, as much as the folks that live there.  A similar problem of mapping goes on in the supermarket.  The question is how to map the abundance, and how to map the variety of distinctly sourced goods.  That there is little seasonal variation to inform the vegetal abundance in the aisles of supermarkets increased the disorientation; one finds year-round tomatoes from Mexico or plums and berries from Chile that have organic claims.  Flourescent lighting doesn’t help, and the nicely lit fruits and vegetables, often under their own miniaturized rain-showers, beckon with a take-me-home sheen as the mute locally farmed sirens of the produce aisle.  A simple aisle-map won’t suffice since the sensory stimulation of the store makes it hard to not enter its labyrinth.  Perhaps we’ll all be better encouraged to take Ritalin before going shopping in the future, or acquire better filters to screen out beckoning samples and signage that boasts fidelity to locally farmed goods, if one adopts a generously restrictive meaning for the term.

The disorientation is not only geographic, but sociological.  Of course, when we are looking with lust at those avocados, red cabbages, plums, and apples with a sort of existential desire, it’s tempting to forget the rest of the world and its social geography, so much is the origin of the apple the prime focus of our ecological concern.  Not many folks even enter into this flood-lit arena of healthy and tasty treats.  Matt Iglesias’ retweet of Jarret Barrios’ division of the geography of Whole Foods v. Wal-Mart stores in the Bay Area maps a nice geography of consumption patterns, even if one allows that Wal-Mart is interested in buying cheaper real estate, in terms of the markets that each chain store caters:



At least one can see who might go into all those Whole Foods to be disoriented by their variety, or speculate on what their disposable incomes are likely to be.  And one wonders at the elite charmed circle that those organic veggies seem destined to feed.

It is a far more focussing experience to focus attentiveness on the eating of sourced foods; food does belong on the plate.  Now, a locally sourced hamburger from Marin farms of the sort sold at Super-Duper is a great  example of “sourcing the previously unsourced,” as it were, and turning back the tide of intentional geographic anonymity.  And who could resist eating beef under a map of the regions of cuts of beef?  What better image for a burger joint that featured grass-fed beef from Marin county?

Photograph by David Paul Morris

Leave a comment

Filed under Attention Deficit Disorder, DSM IV, Walmart, Whole Foods

Mapping Approaches to Airports: on the Social Production of Air-Space

The medallions that map the routes taken by airplanes to the world’s metropoles on the first floor of San Francisco’s International airport offer curious artifacts of the first Jet Age, when air travel provided something of a miracle of linking the world’s cities in a vision of post-war harmony, even if they were only included in 2000.  For without imagining their exhaust, fumes, or the inevitable aural disturbances that are created by flight paths in the urban spaces that they boast to connect, the eloquent maps including weather isobars of inlaid brass in the terrazzo of the International arrivals terminal show the locations and arrival routes at international airports worldwide, spanning some  12,000 square feet of floor space.

They promote a triumphal vision of global interconnection, and an image of air-space that airline companies have defined, tracing the approaches to individual airports from the air.




Today, the density of airplane flights across the world is so fantastic that the collective inscription of routes that now carry an estimated 77 million passengers a day, or a billion and half a year, placing a sizable portion of folks in the air at any given time.  The range fo flight paths that serve an estimated 3.6 billion passengers in commercial flights is so dense that, an open source logging, tracking, and mapping commercial airplane flights, map online, displace the inhabited world with a curiously organic constellations of densely overlapping paths:  the repo for storing flight informaiton offer ways to render flights on multiple projections, in ways that knit together space in fundamentally new ways.  Does the constellation of flight paths create a new organic mode of modeling spatial relations?


openflights.pngOpen Flights


It is quite conceptually challenging to map actual overhead flight traffic–and even to visualize routes of national air-traffic, given their complexity and difference from most forms of travel, but reliance on similar needs to correlate flight paths, heights, and plans.  It is hard (and unfamiliar) to map sonic disturbances, even if it is familiar to map supersonic flight.  But it is fascinating to map how flight-paths impact the ground in the course of take-offs and descents: the zones where airplanes descend over cities have only recently begun to be charted.  Indeed, the multiple interests in charting airspace have only begun to be evident as airspace threatens to encroach urban space.  Indeed, if it is more accurate to map the paths of flight by the distance between global airports, the distorting crutch of a Mercator projection seems to be more recognizable–even if the density between airports so intense from Europe to America as of 2012, shown below, so as to render the contours of continents illegible, and almost erase Europe from the map–but seems so much more immediately satisfying as a way to show spatial linkages on formal grounds–if only since its curves suggest the terrestrial globe’s curvature–perhaps even more when the routes are rendered is drawn without satellite imagery of earth cover–or indeed any base layer, and focussing on airports locations alone.


Mercator Fligths.pngOpen Flights


air_routes-1.pngCartoSkill/Open Flights


Both suggest the increasing warping and shrinkage of space, but do so in ways that are oddly abstracted, given the range of data that they marshal, from the interests at stake in mapping flight paths–or in rendering the unique perspective that being in flight offers.

The very terminology we use to map flight patterns in the liminal landing areas around air strips reveal competing interests at stake in their definition, and might expose the lack of clear terminology to express the different interests of mapping flight from the position of the ground:   “fly-over” areas precede landing paths near airports; “overlay zones” around airports try to regulate the relation buildings near airports, establishing limits for building inhabited space; “noise contour maps” map impact and impingement of sound;  “overflight zones” animal sanctuaries’ exposure to flight-paths. The “fly over zone” oddly suggests the remove of the airplane to lived space, even as such maps map the impact that flight landings have on residential areas.  We used to refer to the “fly-over zone” in dismissive tones as the area between the coasts led them to hop between New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle or Boston with little contact with those areas between–but also to conceal some anxiety at the limits of this constrained geographic awareness–increased density of air-traffic that threatens to max out runways make overlay zones  into potentially contested areas in need of mapping.

The interests are at stake in the commercial expansion of airports and the determining the criteria for the limits of acceptable levels of environmental noise and pollution.  While maps locate specific sites of population in a universal matrix, the impact of the descent and take-off of airplanes on urban space suggest a troubling overlap of navigable airspace, a wooly and capacious category that conceals its overcrowded nature, and inhabitable land, focussing on the grey zone on the margins of the airport.  To get our heads around airspace, whose considerable scale is almost unfathomable, let’s try to examine the impact of its contours on urban space in this post. The sociologist Henri Lefebvre drew a distinction between the production of representations of space, of social spaces, and of individual mental representations of space in The Production of Space, when he sought to capture the diversity of spatial production within the city’s everyday life:  Lefebvre argued relations between the production of social, the representation of space, and the space individuals represent to themselves demanded attention as distinct tools or “spatializing practices” in urban space, if not the political character of the social production of urban space.

But Lefebvre didn’t consider airspace within this constellation–a space that exists outside but on the margins of social space–but it is a qualitatively different image of a commercial space that has been increasingly imposed upon lived space or inhabited space without much planning or regulation–particularly when it comes to take-offs and descents, the main focus of this post.  The mapping of the incursion of airspace on lived space It’s perhaps not only a coincidence that since Lefebvre’s book appeared in the early 1970s, inter-city airline travel has boomed as a social sphere, if not a space in and of its own right, often removed from urban space but on its margins.

And paths of flight have only begun to be mapped in their diversity.  The density of air-traffic indeed may have even changed our perception of space in complicated ways, with both the rise of faster planes and long-distance flights and the common nature of air travel and of plane arrivals as common ways of entering cities or departing from them.  And landings and departures, from commercial airline travel or air transit to air transport to unmanned flights, has begun to impinge in increasingly perceptible ways on lived space.  The lived space below the webs of air travel, take-offs, and landings suggests a persistence of place in a geography of flight, as in places that are crisscrossed with air routes, airplane flight is too often naturalized as white noise.  “[The noise] bothered me until I realized that, when I hear the planes, it’s always a reminder that there is life out there, and people are traveling, and traveling is a big part of me,” noted a Turkish immigrant living by the San Diego International Airport with some stoicism in 2005, trying to look at the upside of this rumbling that then punctuated her day in 15 second interruptions, coming roughly often every minute and a half.  “So even if I can’t go home to Turkey and visit my family,” she reasoned, “I know that there’s this possibility that one of them could get on a plane or that I could get on a plane and go back.” Most flight travel in the United States are primarily supervised not by localities, but the Federal Aviation Administration.  The legal status of restriction to these paths is limited or constrained by the fact that no general policy seems to exist–indeed, the FAA is slightly compromised in its interested in fostering commerce, as much as protecting the safety of urban space or local rights, and has limited ability as a national organization to mediate between local residents’ desires as it negotiates the interests in maintaining commercial hubs to foster the expansion of commercial national airspace.

When I was in San Diego last weekend, the close proximity of the airport to the harbor and marina made me think of the huge growth in airspace in past decades, and difficulties of mapping airspace in American cities.  The huge expansion in air traffic since the initial growth of airports in the 1950s, combined with recent growth in belts around cities and in formerly extra-urban areas have led to a common phenomenon of living in or on the margins of an overlay zone, in cities like San Diego.  Although  issues of noise were not a problem in the early age of airports in the United States, dominated  by smaller-sized planes and far fewer flights, since the expansion of non-stop nation-wide flights in the 1960s,  commercial cargo services have created a new geography of air flights and air use, and an increased  intensity of air travel at hubs, as well as the consequent expansion of a huge web of air travel, with attendant plane landings and take-offs, that create a virtual web of crisscrossing flight-paths across the country. Mapping the navigation of individual routes is far more direct.




Yet the image of a nation bound by flight-paths of different carriers already seems to wrap itself in a serpentine fashion around the geographic map.  Basing his work on a mine of FAA data, Aaron Koblin’s “Flight Patterns” uses data to track flight-paths to map of our active airspace–an image of which we are rarely conscious and constitute a maze difficult to spatially comprehend, but whose ghostly network exists around nodes of airline hubs and links arcs of aerial paths.  (This is a hard balancing act:  NASA indeed predicted in 2007 that allowing computer software such as Terminal Sequencing and Spacing to remotely coordinate the flights of the aircraft that simultaneously course across the skies would not only increase the regularity of landings and take-offs at airports but allow airplane companies–perish the thought!–to be a blue to manage an increased density up to twenty percent by utterly banishing human controllers from the scene.

In a finding appealing to cost-cutters, NASA forecast that the combination of more autonomous planes and increasingly automizing traffic control would bring a significant savings to airplane companies; the prospect of switching to automated copilots alone might reduce labor costs in passenger aircraft by some billions of dollars every year.)  The wonderfully organic image of the flight paths across the country seem to render something like an Indonesian stick map.




Our awareness of the rapidly growing density of flight paths may be masked by the mental images we receive from personalized in-flight tracking maps, which perpetuate an illusion of navigating the airways or wile away hours by mapping progress to a destination one rarely registered consciousness of traveling toward, sitting in an isolated cocoon at 60,000 feet, as if we were pilgrims bravely undertaking a cross-country trek, accentuating our experience by wildly magnifying the plane out of any relation to the map on which it is super-imposed.


American 22 in flight map


This map has a wonderful ability to place us in a sort of  relation to a local environment:  we are the bright green moving icon, launched on a dotted line across the country, as we try to equate our perspective with the projected flight path over the screen of a static map. Contrast this, say, to the sort of snapshot that Anthony took at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington of the planes in flight above the country at a moment in 2006, that led him to “imagine the pressure of Airport control conductors . . . at major airports” as they managed flights’ course:


Airplane Flight Maps

  Of course, the icons of individual planes, which seem about the size only slightly smaller that seen by observers on the ground,  wildly out of scale in relation to the background map of the United States, so that they seem to crowd the skies  like buzzing flies.  It is somewhat reassuring that there are directional corridors of national travel across the country, we can see in a map of flight paths; the density of the lines boggle the mind even when we distinguish flight paths at over 30.00 feet, and we face only a ghostly spider’s web of blue and green streams that designate the arcs of inter-city flight paths:


Traffic avobe 30,000 feet


Even looking at the Bay Area alone, it’s hard to get one’s mind around the inhabitation of the sky above 30,000 feet, marked as they are by streaks, and contrary to the idea of inhabitation as well as covering a space greater than most can intellectually comprehend:




Given the need to maintain protection for wildlife sanctuaries, there is a considerable body of maps regulating overflight altitude above protected populations of marine species.



Such maps don’t address urban space, but they do suggest the problems of defining similar overflight regulations of areas human residents inhabit.

It’s less hard to comprehend crisscrossing paths of air-travel from outside the passenger seat.  We can imagine and track the divergence of commercial airspace from a ground-bound perspective as it impacts a city’s social space.   The government-sponsored expansion of airspace has in many ways created an odd and un-natural urban geography between pathways of flight and urban residences:   fly-over zones are mapped over and on top of social space, and airspace as mapped over lived space.  The relation of fly zones to personal  is not only figurative; fly-over zones impinge in concrete sensory ways on the mental space of the individual, which is now permeable to the  unnatural rumble of the turbines overhead.

What’s it like to live under a flight path?   The protection of airspace by the FAA makes it not the best government agency to represent how planes impinge on the ground:  the mapping and protection of flight paths creates a bit of a super-jurisdictional commercial space with limited attention to how flights permeate the mental space of nearby residents.  As if some would naturalize the rumble of a nearby volcano, a sandstorm, or the Santa Ana winds, there’s the knowing acknowledgement, with a shrug, at the convergence of the airplanes overhead.  (This is a soundscape that is worth recording in its entirety, of which the  YouTube video below offer a more condensed time-stop spliced condensation that doesn’t really capture the improbable regularity with which cruises intrude on the sunny street-scene.) Let’s examine the ways airspace is mapped.  Indeed, the FAA has recently been required to publish a set of “noise exposure maps” or NEMs for public notice, as the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act omits airplane noise.  They hope to provide an open forum or acknowledge public input to  the environmental impact of increased air traffic, responded to local resistance to the adverse environmental effects of expanding airports in WisconsinFlorida, Toronto, CharlotteArizona, Sacramento, and elsewhere, given the conflict of interest for the FAA in negotiating local noise regulations and  improve commerce through air traffic as they seek to prevent the expansion of commercial areas around airports that are increasingly becoming engulfed in extra-urban space. But it is the impacting of areas of inhabitation with air-space that creates perhaps the stickiest situation for mapping flight travel for the FAA, and poses the deepest problems of how we expand our airspace at the same time as curtail the impact of that airspace on something we might call quality of life, but has much larger consequences and implications than that numinous and intentionally generic term implies.  Fly-over zones near San Diego exemplify air-traffic appears about to max out , as expanding airspace impacts residential space. The frequent the flights at San Diego International Airport over residential space at a distance as close as 400 feet does not seem a great feat of modern urban planning:  nestled near the port of Coronado, right by Highway 5,  the airport is a stone’s thrown away from the city’s Marina and three miles from the Pacific.  Perhaps this relates to the fact that the city is a long-time base for the military, with it’s own frequent air-shows and culture of naval and air-force bases.  But the expansion of the city around the town of Coronado has paralleled a transformation of the former Lindberg Airport to a three-terminal sprawling cluster of buildings, maximizing its use in response to economic development of the city, apparently naturalized within the coursing freeways that surround it, while dealing with only two runway zones.


Airport Overlay--San Diego



Planes fly overhead at a distance that seems roughly equal to a football field.  In a manner that provides limited negotiation between local inhabitants and the regulation of airspace, we find only the most general stipulation in Part 91, Title 14 in the Code of Federal Regulations about maintaining a minimum altitude of 1,000 feet for air travel over “congested areas,” which is waived in the event of take-off or landing.  And any restriction on airport use or control of flight paths depend on the approval of the FAA, according to the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990 (ANCA), an approval that must rest on demonstrating that any restriction isn’t a curb or impediment to interstate commerce and is “not inconsistent” with “safe and efficient use” of “navigable” airspace:

The airport restricts or “disallows” take-offs in the wee hours of the night between 11:30 pm and 6:30 am but with over 600 departures and arrivals each day and growing, the distinctive combination of a rumble and high-pitched reedy whine from planes that literally fly over apartments at a distance of as close as 400 feet create an inescapable part of the aural environment of urban spaces–with noise levels averaging 150 dB at 100 feet.  The delineation of precise paths of approach airplanes must take to the runway creates the working framework to descend over six-lane freeways to enter the area ringed by palm trees right by San Diego Bay and the old Marina.  It all seems pretty disordered when one enters on commuter plane, but the pathways of arrival are mapped in detail, allowing one to enter along the following elevations, which seem designed to encourage a slow approach from the ocean or inland into the two runways, avoiding the City of San Diego or Mission Bay area, for which landing would require a far more precipitous route of descent, and would anyway be discouraged by the orientation of the field’s two major runways:


Airport Approach Overlay Zone


These points of entry overhead are in a sense defined.  But the dramatically rising number of flights that land or take off to the East create a sizable amount of traffic, rumbling as they do.  While the restriction of the heights of buildings in the pathways of flights are legislated to be no taller than forty feet, there seem to be a way to guarantee safety by not impinging on residential areas in region where 10,000 houses and over 20,000 residents are packed, in a combination of rental apartments and condos.  Of course, most residential areas in California are made up of houses of less than forty feet, anyways, so while this dedicated to the safety around airports and clear runway views for pilots, the restrictions on elevations in the above map–a sort of contour map of the minimum elevation of flight paths–try to map the boundaries that determine relations of airspace and lived space. Overlay zones protect the more verdant Mission Bay area, the more desirable ocean residence, the mid-century area around the city of Coronado–now a suburb whose harbor just getting its first restoration of buildings ringed by palms–creates the backdrop for approaching flights whose entry zones offers an eery aural backdrop oddly incongruous with a harbor populated with small boats sailing at full sail.  The approach of large airplanes over the bay is encouraged, with access from the west, over the Pacific, while restrictions limit flights over San Diego itself.   Guidelines of air travel encourage pilots to descend from the Pacific or over the harbor by two routes of approach, avoiding low travel over the protected Mission Bay area and making convenient two access lanes:


Airport Approach Overlay Zone


But Lindberg was expected to exceed its capacity for air travel by 2015, and there is now no clear alternative to remapping flight density or flight paths in sight. The mapping of air travel around the city, as it were, reflects the constitution of layover zones where flights are restricted over more inhabited areas.  In such maps, routes of flight are granted near-legal precedence over the priorities of folks who live under flight-paths, since commerce must be protected over all.  (This might include, for example, the importation of high-grade Sushi from Japan, on its way with JAL cargo jets for consumption in high-end restaurants in Las Vegas, or a slew of FedEx planes ready to depart, as well as all those commuter flights to Los Angeles.)  While privileging commercial needs seems reasonable, one would not of course expect landings or take-offs to occur in densely inhabited areas anyway, so the stipulation seems bureaucratic legalese, with limited ramifications.  Yet since “neither the City of San Diego nor the State of California can regulate the altitude, speed, location or direction of aircraft in flight,” the road is literally open to free market expansion of flight routes, especially if market forces dictate the creation of airstrips situated cheek by jowl beside residential areas. In much of the nation, the original sites of airports built and constructed some fifty to seventy years ago were planned in areas then outside of the city limits, outside of settled zones.

The expansion of the airport as a hub has led to further construction of buildings in the seventies and eighties, even as their location is increasingly taken over by urban sprawl to such a degree that they’ve been swallowed up in the city itself–if still not in what constitutes its most “congested areas.”  Since it was legally stipulated no buildings be constructed within fifty feet of FAA-established approach paths to the airport, with the exception of those less than 40 feet in height, a large number of relatively short buildings cluster around the flight approach paths at San Diego International Airport’s Lindberg Field.  In other areas of the country, the FAA has turned its attention to the impingement of “development creep” around airports formerly located at a remove from  populated areas, but now more ringed by malls and housing developments and residences, creating a need to impose overlay zones to protect  “public investment in airports,” as much as safety–several airports less economically important have been forced to be closed because of development creep. The FAA, meanwhile, has been legally required to make public  limits of permitted airport noise on the internet in a set of “sound contour maps,” to map the neighborhoods and residential areas impinged by airport noise, as this map of the area around LAX, which restricts approaches to from the east and west, in an attempt to reduce noise pollution in more affluent areas whose property value could be compromised, and only marginally create intrusive noise pollution from residential inhabitants, cast here as if the mitigation of noise exposure imitated the orientation of runways, and conveniently sidestepping issues of noise pollution below the approach corridors of most flights in poorer neighborhoods:


LAX Sound Contour Map



The desire to “make [available] noise exposure and land use information from such noise exposure maps [prepared under 14 CFR part 150] . . . in an appropriate format” created a neat set of contour maps for Oakland in 2006, which took advantage of the planning of the airport along the Bay over which it places the greatest square footage of noise, and effectively removes anything over 70 dB–the sound of a car engine from fifty feet away–from all but a few inhabitants:


Oakland Airport

Yet is the distribution of noise is difficult to steer from urban areas, mapping the impact of noise impingement has led to some dramatic improvements in levels of airline noise in some residential areas, as around Midway Airport, a small one to be sure, which suggests a considerable reduction over time of the level as of fly-over noise from planes in Chicago:

Midway International Airport Noise Contour Map


The selection of maps raise questions about the monitoring, measurement, and dissemination of models of noise-reduction, to be sure.  The FAA seems to clearly desire to project an image of making these maps available for easy download and consultation, as if to give a sense of transparency to the problem of noise pollution in overhead flights, and to convey a degree of public trust.  But there is a   countervailing tendency to naturalize the map, and to naturalize the overhead flight zone, which stacks the cards against any attempt to effectively monitor the impingement of flight zones in areas of urban life, or prevent an idea of the importance of reducing ambient sounds from the social space of urban areas.  Once the threshold is established, to be sure, acceptance is on the way.  Unclear local means of redress  exist, despite the availability of maps online, and we still haven’t assessed acceptable limits for airport noise or the elevation of overhead flights. Sure, in San Diego there’s a lot of pleasure in seeing the planes enter the urban airspace for some air shows– –that echoes how my mother was taken by her parents in the 1940s to watch the planes land and take off at La Guardia Airport on the Flushing Bay waterfront in Queens New York, then the New York Municipal Airfield.  But there’s a danger we naturalize airport noise not in the environment, among the quite variegated sound map of urban life from motorcycles to tow trucks and diesel trucks.


Sound Map of Missionjpg


And, more deeply, there’s the criteria question of whether one means sounds, or the potential other effects of airplanes flying close overhead, and entering inhabited residential areas that are filling up the areas around extra-urban areas.  Isolated motorcycle sounds are the greatest dB count on Saturday morning in the mission, and the neighborhood is spared the sonic intrusion of flight paths.  The effects of that much noise pollution around LAX or SAN have already been removed from the table, perhaps as demand for airspace remove public input for the design of a map of urban airspace off the map. Such planned flight paths that skirt the crowded or more affluent areas of urban residence doesn’t, of course, even start to take into account the density of a map of unmanned flights across the country.  At the risk of caving into the fears of the right wingers, the pleasure many CIA operatives took in their use of drone flights as a relatively error-free incursion into foreign airspace seems an odd extension of the resolution of problems of mapping air flights by legitimizing rising air traffic over residential areas.  There are, of course, entirely other way of raising questions about the pretty clouded ethical issues of occupation of airspace by unmanned objects–but the uses of attack planes to arrive at positions that cel phones or GPS locates suggest an expansion of their coverage of airspace.




Remotely piloted aircraft are so densely flown over the country, if this chart is to be believed, that one can’t but wonder about the ways that our current process of mapping flight “overlay” zones around airports relates to the bartering for access to foreign airspace–or the legal wrestling with the notion that a government can barter or grant off rights for sending unmanned drones into populated areas.  We have coerced the ISI into agreements that all drone flights over Pakistan operate under covert US authority, in other words, and silence be preserved over the invasive nature of their entry into foreign airspace with a mission to kill. In the process, we’ve ceased to defend or see as legitimate a process of open local negotiation about the organization of airspace, even though many of the casualties are nearby residents in the wrong place at the wrong time; the Central Intelligence Agency presumes or assumes airspace rights and flight zones as legitimate tools to target individual inhabitants, in ways that would have little legal justification fifteen years ago.  There seems some parallel in the trade-offs with which we’ve decided, rather than boost the local economy, to protect increased commercial traffic, and to legislate permissible zones of approach, and let the residential market take its own path.  To do so may map an inevitable collision course between airspace and lived space by affirming the exposure or vulnerability of our spatial situation in the face of air traffic above.

1 Comment

Filed under air travel, open data, over-fly maps, Overlay Zones, Santa Ana WInds