Monthly Archives: November 2013

Commemorating Kennedy, Each Place, Everywhere

In the rush of commemoration and remembering of President John F. Kennedy‘s death some fifty years ago, it is fitting to remember how widely inscribed his name is in the land–as well as across much of the world.  While we often examine places’ renaming, the widespread adoption of one name is a striking act of commemoration; while it’s not clear when they were bestowed, a great proportion of these names must have been made in the days soon following the President’s sudden–and numbingly shocking–death.

We can see, over the fifty years ago in Dallas, the memory of the killed President is present across the land, dotting the country, schools, parks, streets and more–of which there are over 400 across the world.  The maps below chart, thanks tot he diligence of OSM’s many mappers, the rippling out of shock and memory after November 22, 1963.  (Open Street Maps collects the data that its users upload, creating a collective map of global scale whose open data is an invaluable resource.)  Thanks to their diligence and the work of Chris Kirk, Emma Goss, and Nicholas Duchesne of Slate Labs, whose excellent controlling and parsing of this data in a map of three sorts of Kennedy commemorations ensures the Kennedy commemorations referred to the President (or that Kennedy)–with little comment.  Yet the graphic has impact alone.

We may never know how many of the fatal shots were fired–or from where, or by whom–or what led the so-often-analyzed events of that day to occur, although we may.  But we can se the country as marked almost ubiquitously in ways we have come to overlook.  By looking at the overlooked, as it were, we can appreciate how closely rooted President Kennedy is as part of our national memory, and how familiar such namings–especially of schools, but also parks or squares–actually are.


Across US


Though we don’t have a graphic of their temporal spread, the toponymy is almost uniformly spread about the country, particularly of schools–it might be interesting to ask why there is not a school named after John F. Kennedy in any major city–and Kennedy roads are mostly uniform from Texas to the East, outside of which regions Kennedy parks are present across the nation in a slightly lesser degree to judge at first glance.  But the map is, if most striking for its weird clusterings of Google Maps pinpricks, or inverted tears, a difficult canvass to read:  the clustering in Texas is striking, as is the density of overlapping sigla in New England in New York, but can we read its abstraction of sites of memorialization as more than a residue of collective mourning, or a reverberation of the terrifying events that day in Dealey Plaza to the world?


Across US

The distribution of sites that were named after President Kennedy almost seem the clearest reminder of the border between the US and Canada, it’s interesting to note, especially in the West and Midwest–though this is a bit less true of Quebec, perhaps since the region always sets itself apart from Anglophone Canada.


Kennedy Street, School, Airports and More-  Memorials to JFK Mapped


This has something to do with President Kennedy’s Catholicism, as well as the sudden shock and hopes invested in the young President.



Although the spread of commemorations world-wide reveals a clear differentiation between a wide density of road names in Europe, including squares or places, and even an actually surprising number of schools (and parks) outside of the United States, according to the statistics compiled so far by many OSM-mappers–and not only in satellites like Guam or the Philippines, but in Pakistan and India, as well as in Liberia, Hong Kong, and Brazil, or Argentina and Peru.

Places Named After Kennedy across the World

The spread of “John F. Kennedy”nomenclature extend far beyond the usual Anglo-American ties–and the Anglo-Irish that the Kennedy family embodied, but is particularly dense across France and Germany–we can see in a map that also reminds us of the Cold War, and its division of the quasi-continent into two halves, with outposts in Berlin and Vienna.


And a somewhat famous (laudable) Swiss profession of neutrality:

Swiss Neutrality


Turning back to the United States, the concentration of Kennedy commemoration might be predictably dense in the Boston area, which seems explicable given the Kennedy ties, but it actually seems the process of naming was actually perhaps more difficult to be performed.


OSM Maps Kennedy Sites around Boston

A broader look across  New England clearly reveals greater breadth of naming outside the Boston areas:

Around Boston and MASS OSM maps of Kennedy

But the density of mapping in the Northeast–particularly of schools–seems most reliably intense around New York City, probably marked by an intense expansion of educational institutions, but perhaps because of a possible intensity of legislative involvement in renaming of the region, from roads to, of course, airports.

Kennedy Density around NYC



The southeast betrays a  real density in southern Texas and in Dallas-where two schools appear–and a strong number of roads in Florida–perhaps a reflection of the longstanding Cuban community?

Kennedy in Florida and south US


The places whose names honor the former president’s memory seem densely grouped (or looped) around Cuba, in a memory itself of how closely discussion of his death has been often, but in ways still not fully explained, linked to that country, and to the American policy with it.
Kennedy names around Cuba

While it may never solve the Gordian knot around the bizarre relation of Lee Harvey Oswald to the assassination, or the unanswered questions of what happened on Dallas that day, the huge act of collective grieving is awe-ing, and can remind us, if we need it, of how close and physically proximate its memories still are.

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Filed under John F. Kennedy, Open Street Maps, OpenStreetMaps (OSM)

Urban Modernity, RIP: Mapping Marshall Berman Mapping Modernism

Throughout his life, Marshall Berman (1940-2013), long-time New York City resident and echt urbanite, provided animated and rich maps of literary modernism that rhapsodized cities as privileged and vital sites.  Even in light of his recent death, it is hard not to be struck by the vitality that he saw and felt cities to possess, and whose existence he never stopped reminding us about and celebrating.  As a native New Yorker, Berman wrote from committed engagement in New York’s space and shifting fluidity, and in his works mapped the sense of fluidity or perpetual permutability of urban life.  He showed us, in so doing, that maps are not only imposition from above, or Olympian views, but can map daily encounters best registered on city streets.  Even when I best knew Marshall in the 1970s and 1980s, he was one of the inveterate street-walker of the Upper West Side and Broadway who exulted in most everything he noticed on the street.  Marshall maybe increasingly became an inveterate street-walker who took pleasure in public space, and enjoyed claiming for himself a spot on the street, finding a sort of release and liberation on the night-time sidewalks, in Times Square, or at the diners where he so loved to sit.

In retrospect, I imagine his championing of the street’s energy came from the magnum opus he was then completing, All That is Solid Melts into Air (1982)–but that his love of street-life also shaped his voracious exploration of the space of literary modernism through the act of being in public.  For Berman quickly recognized that the depersonalization of urban life was not only the trauma and drama of modernity, but, transfigured by literary expression, also a privileged site for individuality.  In ways that are still resonant, his generous mapping of the modernity among cities extended from the city that he loved to the modern urbanism.  R.I.P., Marshall.

Berman’s sudden and unexpected death in a booth at the Metro Diner, at the heart of the Manhattan Upper West Side, can’t but provoke a reflection on his relation to the concept of urban space, from the sense of public space he lived and explored relentlessly as an observer and city-dweller to that which he read so very widely to excavate and explore with a canny sense of the personalized human geography.  For Marshall loved the lived urban environments and continued a life-long fascination he had with the living nature of a streetscape illuminated by electric lights, as if an ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef, whose deeply modern possibilities he always felt beckoned and invited and which he was eager to explore.  Marshall’s recent death has prompted several emotional reflections that note the inescapably autobiographical aspects of his work, some of which he would himself, surely, be the first not to hesitate to note.  Marshall’s work was, first and foremost, that of a public intellectual who bridged personal criticism with urbanism.  For Berman often described his engaged writing on modernism and modernist projects of urban space as part of the creative projects of his life.

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November 22, 2013 · 4:02 pm

Green Urbanism? Blue Urbanism?

Since maps invite their viewers to enter an image of the natural world, as well as to relate places to the broader geographic context in which it lies, they offer increasingly useful perspectives to relate the ocean to the land.  The perspective they offer on all regions has long been rooted on the land,  however.  And the coasts–and indeed the dangers–for adhering to such a “landlubberly perspective” on our rising oceans are increasingly apparent.  A perspective that privileges mapping inhabited lands –and orienting viewers to a set notion of place–places us at a particularly disastrous disadvantage when assessing questions of climate change, or reacting to the increasingly lethal storms, tsunami, and typhoons encountered as the inevitable consequences of climate change, and that coastal cities–from New Orleans to New York to the devastated Philippine coastal cities of Tacloban, Ormac or Baybay–seem condemned to repeat.

In continuing to rely on maps whose perspective denies that of the future expansion of oceanic seas, we threaten to lose perspective on our changing relation to the sea.  We have long found threats of the invasion of ocean waters difficult to integrate in an inherited image of the city as a bounded entity, and continue to draw clear lines around the cities in which we dwell:  our maps draw clear lines between land and water.  Perhaps this is because waters seem so difficult to circumscribe or bound, and the fluid relation between land and water difficult to render accurately or draw.  When an influential movement of urban architecture and planning calls for a greater integration of the natural world–so often bound outside of cities or city walls–within urban entities, they retain the notion of the bounded city.  Recuperating the term the entomologist and biologist E.O. Wilson coined, “biophilia,” to express the “innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms” in human nature that demanded attention, they argue that cities need to promote contact with nature, since, Wilson argued, such contact provides a spur to creativity, productivity, and well-being.  The planning of “biophilic cities” is dedicated as a movement of urban design to “contain abundant nature” in their structure.  The championing of “model cities”–such as Perth or Singapore–are promoted as examples of the “biophilic” age of urban architecture.

Yet are these models (often located in semi-tropical climates) not limit cases where we can most easily integrate oceanic waters into a built environment?  For by isolating the city as a unit in which to restore nature, there seems more than a bit of bio-fetishism in singling out new spaces where blue waters can enter an urban environment:  the optimism of its evangelical tenor as a movement of urban planners, dedicated to reframing the reintegration of cities with the watery surroundings has gained a broad charge and dedicated following, including partner cities that border on water such as San Francisco, Portland, Milwaukee, Vitoria Gastiez (Spain), Birmingham (England), and Wellington (New Zealand).  While the benefits of such urban architecture appear considerable, the challenges for expanding the role of the ocean in the horizons of city-dwellers seem only the start of restoring the historical isolation of the city from watery life, or integrating the oceans within our future urban planning.

The movement of blue urbanism is an illustration of courageous dedication to a project of reintegrating aquatic and urban environments–at least, presumably, before the shores of cities will be redrawn by ocean waters.  The considerable cognitive benefits claimed for these more enriched urban networks build on movements for integrating networks of urban “green-spaces”–including not only parks but green-belts and even forests is a reasoned reaction to urban sprawl and overbuilding and way to take charge of the built environments we create.  “Blue urbanism” would comprehend a watery frontier, offering opportunities for immersing children in rivers, urban parks, watery excursions, and underwater ambients which surround cities.   Blue urbanists espouses an improved integration among the fauna and flora lying near aand around cities within something like a green belt–and espouse the value of an analogous “blue belt” as a way to foster a new attachment to the waters and their shores, rather than seeing them as limits of built city.

Yet does emphasis on the human benefits of such contact carry a all too narrowly restricted notion of what a watery surrounding might be?  The watery oceanic borders of cities are in themselves rarely mapped, though the shifting waters of the Gulf Stream and other currents determine the shoreline inhabitants of North America, but might a map provide a fuller perspective on the interchanges and ecosystems lost by drawing firm barriers between urban and ocean life?

1.  The “blue urbanism” that Timothy Beatley advocates wields the rhetoric and best practices of green architecture’s “integrated network of urban space” to invite us to re-imagine cities’ relation to the shores on which they border.  Yet there is concern that such projects of rebuilding turn away from the depth of our historical remove from the waters that surround our cities–an increasingly pragmatic concern after the very fragility of this divide has been so traumatically revealed in recent decades, from damages inflicted on US cities by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy or, afield, the Indian Ocean Tsunami and super-typhoon Haiyan.  The ecology of biophilic design, for all its benefits, could benefit from a broader global ecology, basing itself less on the benefits of human friendship with the biosphere, and being more oriented to global contexts of the cost of climactic shifts by looking back to the geography of the past–lest the affections of biophilia border on the bio-fetishism of the philistine.  The precepts of adaptation and resilience to mitigate bad policy decisions are of intense importance; historic maps offer base-lines to qualify the alienation of cities from their shores that compliment the need to build green and blue belts.  The maps we have drawn about urban areas may provide a basis to recuperate the integration of life along the shorelines we have lost, in short, and the nature and settlement of life along the city’s shore–as well as the ways that oceans serve less as a barrier to than interface with the shore.

While we map the trespass of waves over the finely drawn boundary lines of territories, measuring incursions across demarcated shorelines and property lines, and mourning the scope of damages and loss, we seem to remediate via maps–much as how OSM-mappers have begun to chart buildings and routes in the Philippines for delivering humanitarian supplies, as a way of rebuilding, if at first in virtual form–to restore urban infrastructures in digital form.

Mapping Tacloban via OSM

Yet these maps do not comprehend, for lack of a better word, the sea.  The terrible human costs of each of these events serve as something of an intimation of the threats global warming poses to urban environments, and invite rethinking notions of ‘planning’ replacing the imagined stability of  a built frontier of urban society with a more permeable line of inter-relations, even as we come to appreciate how little conscious “planning” went into the drawing of earlier boundary lines.  Both the human and material costs of these events compel an appreciation of the role of the shoreline, as well as intimations of the threats global warming poses to urban environments and indeed the world we have built.

Homes in Samar provinceReuters

Naturalists have recently begun to realize the power of maps to invite reexamination of our relations to place, however–often by using historical maps to excavate the shifting historical relation to the natural world that have led us to draw such finely parsed lines between planned urban environments and their surrounding waters to assess the costs of these sorts of fantasies of spatial distinction:  if we don’t build on the water, we cannot ignore it but at our collective peril.

Map offer a particularly precise if plastic means to situate place that are able to register deeper, less easily visualized, chronological changes and global contexts, or shifts within a regional ecosystem that would be otherwise difficult to conceive.  In age of rising oceans and global warming, maps draw relations between local settings and global changes to help assess the extent to which global warming threatens to obliterate or erode the stability of our concepts of place.  Maps of the circulation of waters around specific cities compel us to rethink an inherited oceanic boundary.

2.   Can a “blue architecture” invite us to re-imagine bifurcated schema of ordering of space to which we have reduced the relation between land and sea to a simply drawn line?  Or have we lost a relation to the land that a new building project cannot recover without clearer lenses to view the relation between water and planned environment, and to be invited to appreciate a clearer register of the relations between coastal cities and the surrounding sea, and, indeed, of the delicate interdependencies that are the basis for our sense of place, and underwrite how we imagine “place” as a category?  A historicized art of mapping stands to call attention to the ecosystem that might lurk beneath the threat of climactic change, and understand the changes they pose to local ecosystems.  The art of mapping provides unique tools to invite viewers to consider local settlements, and develop tools to re-imagine a relation to the sea new building projects alone cannot foster.

Sanderson's Base Map

We can appreciate the huge changes wrought in a relation to the shore by how a cartographical reconstruction of Manhattan island revealed in this stunning 1782 British Headquarters map drawn at the painstaking scale of 6 1/2 inches per mile reveals the island’s coastline as it was experienced by Lenape tribespeople.  Using the watercolor map as the base-map for his digital reconstruction of the local environment, landscape ecologist Eric W. Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society worked over five years to create GIS database, geo-referencing landmarks and sites to reconstruct the forgotten landscape based on 200 control points.

Sanderson’s completed map has a beauty that invites viewers to explore a computer generated landscape’s verdant arboreal landscape and rich wildlife, moving with amazing apparent precision over a web of lost streams, rivers, and hills that agricultural and urban development erased over time–most all of the more than 570 that distinguished the island Lenape members to give the name “Mannahatta,” the ‘island of many hills,’ and to map over 627 varieties of plants in the island, and the 233 types of birds and 24 different mammals who lived in its delicate interstices of interlaced ecosystems, in its swamps, ponds and the estuaries of its shores.

The older shoreline strikingly engages one’s mental map of Manhattan’s shore.   It jar one’s notion of place, and shift the stability of shorelines, streets, and riverine banks within one’s head.  Superimposing data from a Google map visualization of the verdant forests, ponds, streams, and marshes before four centuries of landfill shrunk its coastal geography, the map reveals a huge change in place in a powerfully persuasive graphic form.

Indeed, the superimposition of the shifted maps–the street grid and coastal drives laid above the earlier contours of the island’s expanse– is compelling by the complex cognitive dissonance it creates, placing multi-lane expressways and drives on the expanded edges of the island, so that they run across the marshland estuaries of the Lower East Side or cut into the blue waters around the island, suggesting the actual de-naturing of the landscape even more than the de-naturing of place that all Google Mapping templates seem to afford–and far more eerily reminding us of the extent to which we’ve effectively distanced ourselves from the expanse that the island once occupied as well as the ecosystems that it held.

Welikia 1609 Map of Mannahatta

3.  The remove of the world of this island situated on merging saltwater and freshwater, and with a dynamic verdant ecology is apparent from Markley Boyer’s stupendous digitization, which recreates the island seen by Henry Hudson in 1609, and which, if not a map per se, compels us to both explore its content by mapping them against our own experiences and spatial imaginaries.  The almost palpable landscape invites us to explore its content, as if as it invited Henry Hudson and his men in:

Mannahatta's verdant paradise 1609
These now absent beaches, marshlands, and estuaries in the landscape offer a striking contrast to the current shore.

The integration of its coasts to the river echo the shorelines that John Randel, Jr. famously mapped in delicate watercolors in a detailed rendering of its many hills between 1818-20, even as the grid of streets was lightly traced and projected above a far less level urban topography, where the city descended in differently manners to the rivers and estuaries on its shorelines, most of which have been erased by time:
Randall Farm Maps

Boyer’s glorious digital reconstruction recreates the shimmering presence island of hills, rivers, and trees that Lenape knew in its speciated glory, mapping the messiness of that shore in ways that inspire a vision of or compelling case for the optimistic dream of restoration of these shores:
Mannahatta:Manhattan from south
4.   Maps offer persuasive forms to re-think cities’ relations to oceanic shores, perhaps more compellingly altering deeply set attitudes than new practices of planning to integrate more fluidly and esthetically water and land.  Although Beatley calls, at, for new attitudes to the surrounding world, and fostering a new culture of lifestyle, curiosity, and an integration of the tactile presence of the seas in “blue urbanism,” we  might better appreciate the nature of the frontier created between city and water not only in the benefits of immersive aquatic environments in cities, but respond to the absence even of registering seas in urban planning by examining how we came to map a disconnect between cities and ocean– and the cultural divide that has emerged between shore and urban space that was elaborated from the mid-nineteenth century, and is now deeply established by zoning, districting, EPA standards and urban planning texts.

In asking to extend our concepts of cities to the oceans that surround them, we might work not only to make new maps, but use old maps to be mindful of the need to extend our sense of place through the refiguration of urban spaces–noting how maps mark and register the depths of the cultural divide between urban and oceanic space, and examining maps to chart the losses of a shifting historical relation between the city and ocean.  Such a remapping of the city’s relation to the land is echoed in the recent interactive mapping project of Stamen Design, Surging Seas, which tracks rising sea-levels caused by storms or flash-floods, mapping sea levels in relation to the inhabited land–and visualizing a nine foot rise in sea-level of nine feet, here in lower Manhattan, based on data from Climate Central.


Stamen-TriState Submerging Seas
And the interactive site allows one to track what changes would happen if the sea-level were to rise it to a ten full ten:

Surging Seas--NYC, 10 Feet

5.  At a recent discussion in San Francisco’s Exploratorium about relations between land and sea promoting such a “Blue Urbanism,” the relations between place and global change rightfully gained considerable attention.   Most presentations focussed on specific examples of cities, but the problem was pressingly (and depressingly) relevant given the recent typhoon.  Occurring in a room exhibiting such splendid shifting nine-panel global color video projections, courtesy NASA’s LandSat satellite photographs or the Goddard Flight Center, of Global Precipitation Levels, Sea Surface Currents and Temperatures, Ocean Currents, or, below, Global Aerosols, they seemed to provide a unique context for rethinking the presence of the local in relation to the sea.  For only in rethinking built relations between land and sea, and the compartmentalization that led to the diffusion of aerosols, the shifting of water temperatures, and  changes in the level and salinity of oceans over the past one hundred years, can we measure the human footprints already left on environment.

Global Aerosols Exploratorium

One such remapping of such relations and attitudes might begin from maps, it began to appear–and from the inspiration maps might provide to remap relation around San Francisco, not only by seeing how space was filled by the city–or the urban conquest of space–but rather how the negotiation of the boundary with the sea was based on spatial practices of such longstanding nature, entailing and perhaps rooted in the representational practices of defining space as an area of settlement and urban planning–and a practice of planning that sees space as filled up by housing projects that cut off the marine space of the sea.

The projected maps on plasma screens raised questions of how to rethink the sedimentation of such deeply set cultural practices, if only by providing a context for the dramatic remapping of urban environments at a remove from the ocean’s ebb and flow–or relate place to a far broader context of environmental change.   When Rebecca Solnit recently offered a haunting analogy between global warming to the processes of gentrification that threaten the fabrics of urban neighborhoods–both occurring with blinders to the overall structure and coherence ecosystems, whether the social ecosystem of urban space or global ecologies, and of removing oneself from our role in creating a scenario of global warming or urban change.

6.  The history of spatiality and of spatial practices that define the city may suffer, one soon realized, from the separation of such “spatial practices” from an appreciation of urban environments.  The circumscription of the spatial is partly inherited from the conceptually pioneering–if idealizing– strain of thought in the work of the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre, whose notion of in The Production of Space was rooted in an Aristotelian or Kantian categorization of space as a human creation.  For when Lefebvre distinguished forms of apprehension among social practices, representations of space, and symbolic models of spatial representation, he refined how Aristotle cast position as a category of human apprehension and Kant affirmed space as an attribute of human judgement–rather than an ecological space of multiple species’ interaction, or indeed of biological overlap.  Instead of commodifying space from a human point of view, we fail to register either local specificity or the density of coexistence around place:  maps can return attention to all too often forgotten margins of settlements, and effectively reconstitute place in a greater environment.  A similarly broad sense of the sea-shore as a “primeval meeting place of the elements of earth and water, a place of compromise and conflict and eternal change,” as much as opposition, was suggested by Rachel Carson, who suggested the basis for understanding the shorelines by “the long rhythms of earth and sea that sculptured its land forms and produced the rock and sand of which it is composed”–and the biological communities specific to each.  She chose a map of the Gulf Stream as a sort of emblem for the situated knowledge of the shore, using a version of the 1769 chart of Benjamin Franklin based on the working knowledge of a Nantucket sailor, Timothy Folger, that is the end-paper for her 1950 The Sea Around Us; Carson praised the map for transmitting understanding of ocean currents–and for the first time locating the course of the equatorial Gulf Stream, or “Gulph Stream,” on a map, in ways that embodied a tacit familiarity with the flow that many sailors well knew, but which Franklin, as Postmaster General, was frustrated to find absent from any chart.

The recovery of the rare original Franklin-Folger map showed a pointedly less centrally defined Gulf Stream than the composite map reprinted above, but illuminated a new need for mapping oceanic expanse–in this case, for the postmaster general to elucidate the greater time needed to traverse the Atlantic from England, which world maps or charts had long excluded, in failing–or, more accurately, not knowing how–to map the seas.

Franklin- Map

7.  The question then becomes how to adequately map the seas, as much as urban space.  The ability to register and communicate familiarity with place–and with a watery space–is particularly lacking in most urban maps.  The absence is a considerable difficulty for adequately registering knowledge of the sea on its own terms, or the shoreline and its inhabitants.

Or can we use maps to register a shifting knowledge of the ocean’s shore?  One charge for spatial history would be to excavate the construction of space in different environmental contexts.  If it is to extend beyond the recapitulation of space as a human construction, “space” might be more adequately placed in a global–and less of a human–context by recognizing and affirming space as an ecological category.  One place to start would include the negotiation of deeply set cultural categories of division and differentiation that are framed in maps, taking the map as a human artifact–rather than a representation or a practice, a model of interaction that conditioned and provides evidence of lived experienced.  For the tendency to idealize space at an Apollonian remove–an image perpetuated, to be sure, in maps which subject the cognition of space to human understanding–abstracts space as a category of apprehension, rather than registering the density of interaction through a suitably “thick mapping” across boundaries, borders, and regional change that recuperate buffer zones, watersheds, and shorelines we have lost–in ways the art of mapping is uniquely suited to portray.

The challenge of recuperating the network of estuaries and streams that once surrounded the low-lying areas around the San Francisco Bay, for example, might negotiate with how we constitute the terrain for urban life by drawing a clear divide from the surrounding waters–or the perpetuation of the fantasy of drawing a clearly demarcated line dividing water and land.  Rising seas once flooded a river valley to create San Francisco Bay, whose many inhabitants  long existed in relation to a less clearly defined shore.  Maps can reveal how humans have interacted with the Bay over time that created deep mental barriers to interaction.   One can trace the shoreline moving in hundreds of feet inland, and slowing in past centuries to but a millimeter a year, or a city block over the last century, as a  shape-shifting feature with which bay residents have negotiated in different ways since a time when people lived near the bay, and negotiated with its salty marshlands, as a map of native American Shell Heaps that ring the bay eloquently reveals by noting the clear buffer zones that inhabitants created on beaches to meet rising tides.

BayShellmounds 001

The maps registers crucial details of the negotiation with marshlands and wetlands now lost or recently restored, outlining an image of interaction with the sea that is not immediately recognizable, and difficult to negotiate with our own changed landscape.

The particular coastal region near El Cerrito indicates the building up of these mounds to create a permeable barrier from the resident crustaceans along the marshlands running from north of Albany Hill to behind Point Isabel–now landfill, then a remote rock in the Bay.


The salt marshes, and the five creeks that fed them, are evident in this detail of the 1856 US Coastal Survey:

Salt Marshes

Yet as people moved inland from an 1850 shoreline was reduced by almost a third all of a sudden in last fifty years in a quite rapid and decisive manner, to create a new sense of the stability of the shoreline that segregated land and sea which will be particularly challenging now with the rise of sea levels projected global warming.  The illusory stability of the shoreline is however inevitable . . .  and the bay on track to expand again by 2100, to return to its size of 1850, in ways that pose disastrous consequences for such overbuilt regions of low elevations.  All low-lying areas are threatened by this projected expansion of the ocean, from Foster City to the treatment plants near to the Bay, to Oakland and San Francisco’s low-lying airports . . . and Oakland’s port.  In cities with waste facilities, oil tanks, refineries, ports and airports lie close to the water, as in Richmond, Oakland, the Carquinez Strait and Albany, ocean waters pose very real environmental threats illustrated by the tsunami’s breaching of the Fukushima Daini power plant.

8.  Can we redesign the shoreline differently?  Observing these low-lying areas that stand in close relation to the water in this map of 1850, we might consider the importance of beaches that can constitute a natural buffer to the shore, and the need for restoring their role as transitional zones and regions that has been so precipitously eroded in our environment.  For the erosion of such transitional spaces–and the overbuilding of the shores–has rendered more vulnerable low-lying areas such as Albany, Emeryville, Oakland or El Cerrito, encouraging blinders about the potential possibilities of future risk.

Sandy beaches that once circled San Francisco similarly served as barriers to the encroachment of the sea.  The loss of beachfront corresponded to a huge expansion of reclamation by landfill, and a resulting loss of estuaries, widely known around the Marina, and evident in the expansion of the city’s shores from an 1895 USGS topographic survey:

Lost Land SF-Historical Creeks and Shore marina detail

The loss of estuaries, creeks, and rivers in the entire peninsula of San Francisco since 1895 is less well-known, but even more dramatic:

SF Built Out:Loss from 1895 Topo

Will the process of getting to know the shoreline again provide a way to make them stable barriers once again?  Will we be able to provide natural resources by fluvial deltas, and support the growth of these buffer zones to do better on a second chance, by expanding an estuary system linking to the ocean that was so drastically mis-designed in the 1950s, when it was even proposed–if the proposal was reversed–to pour more landfill into the Bay, and re-zone the estuary, in order to fill an expanding housing market?

Bay or Rivewr

While it was not so prominent as the urban planners had proposed, the dramatic loss of such crucial buffer zones as tidal wetlands is evident in a comparison of first coastal survey of 1850  in this overlay of coastal maps, courtesy the San Francisco Estuary Institute, detailing the configuration of the coastline as it was and as we have made it,  over the century and a half of urban growth throughout the Bay Area–and the dangers that this poses:


The map cannot begin to conjure the shifting dynamic within the landscape and ecosystem we have lost–although the system of dykes and landfill suggests the beginning of the possible excavations of a lost shoreline.

This image of the expansion of the city’s urban claims to housing derives from a cultural and deeply anti-ecological view of the city as a site of stability–and ocean was seen as a site of antagonism on which, in the domesticated image of the bay, the city could rightfully expand–and the estuary be recast as a river to accommodate housing needs.   In starting to change our attitudes to our shorelines, and to view them as sites for other residents and as permeable barriers, we might start from changing our attitudes to the sea:  and remember, with Rachel Carson, that it is through our expansion of the “artificial” nature of cities that we have forgotten and somewhat brazenly rewritten our relation to the shoreline and the sea.


Maps, of course, forge bridges between nature and culture in provocatively engaging ways–and engage viewers by mapping these relationships.  If we are starting to remap place in provocatively interactive ways, the challenge is to best map the shifting relation between place and the global changes that call for an extensive remapping of place within the world.

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November 14, 2013 · 10:19 am

Encoding Narratives in Maps

In surveying artists’ maps at the recent symposium “Mapping and its Discontents,” Katherine Harmon celebrated how “creative cartographies” oriented viewers to a narrative about place.  If most of the presentations made viewers re-think the nature of map making as an art and science, Harmon’s attention to how the art of mapping create narratives about place at the symposium sponsored by UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design suggest the inadequacy of separating  “cartography” and “art” by examining the map as an art of orientation–by how maps invite viewers relate lived space to the space that they create.  In a symposium that raised questions about the seductiveness of the ability of how better-defined datasets can make maps that better capture processes we want to describe, it was refreshing to shift focus to how cartographical arts register an individual relation to place.  Indeed, if several papers in the symposium struggled over how to bridge map and narrative–do we need to depend less on maps?  to be seduced less by its promises of truth?–each artist returns to the dialogic relation map instill between viewers by orienting viewers to their content in ways that pose questions about the lack of personal detail in an undifferentiated record of space.

In a sense, the survey of artists’ maps on which Harmon organized and explored exposed the artistic values in which all cartographical practices are embedded.  But they also pointed up the narrative ends to which cartographical forms were so particularly suited as joint representations and explorations of space.  All maps engage their readers’ appetite for knowing a place, and even revise it, by creating a relation–a “map”–between personal knowledge and the residue of collective knowledge distributed in the design of their surface.  The narrative possibilities for registering personal knowledge of space are particularly inviting in such an ostensibly objective framework of geographical denotation:  Harmon called attention to the particularly eloquent transformation or adaptation of how the framework of mapping offers both a compelling and legible text by the forms of “deep mapping” that technology now allows–and the expressive form for deeply personal narratives they offer even as they threaten to lose specific details in the very process of generalizing a record of a uniform space.

In an age where we are deluged by maps in all sectors of life, the tracing of these artistic strategies of mapping seems a recuperation of maps as orienting tools and arts of orientation, and this post surveys some of the maps that she presented, some known from other works, as serving to orient viewers in a practice of mapping that is often too removed or alienated from individual experience.  For the ways that cartography can serve as a practice for engaging our different understandings of space in particularly inventive ways maps both feed cognitive by orienting viewers to place in revisionary (and potentially liberating) ways–by engaging viewers n how they uncover meanings about spaces one already thought one knew or believed to have been recorded in existing maps, by creating dialogue about spatial relations as much as to generalize a record of space.

Harmon’s presentation showed less interest in how to tell stories in a map than in using mapping to register personal familiarity with place, by orienting viewers to the multiple personal networks in a mapped social space.  The “creative cartographies” recuperate the artistic basis of mapping as arts of individual and collective orientation that exploited the structure of synthesizing spatial knowledge in a combination of ways.  The narratives each cartographer creatively located in maps exploit the innate curiosity maps invite by orienting viewers.  Harmon distinguished the narratives that several maps create; the “creative cartographers” all draw connections between the specificity of individual narratives plotted in maps and their structural designs.  If the “discontents” of mapping lay in the anonymity of the maps of public space that were universalized for their readers in many digitized mapping projects and by government planning agencies from Rio di Janiero to Beijing to Ho Chi Minh city to Zagreb to the Google Earth platform, creative cartographers exploit the inventiveness invitations of maps place oneself in space by the power of making meaningful cartographical spaces by balancing them with a personal reading of place.

Harmon invited the symposium to follow how creative maps buck the conceit of large data samples to inscribe maps with the personal meaning from a particular perspective–and in so doing, turn the abstracted nature of cartographical practice on its head, reminding us how such “scientific” practices are embedded in a discourse on the arts.  Indeed, as they engaged scientific practices of cartography, they adopted the tools of mapping in as tools to chart a distinctively individual relation to a known space, rather than a universalized one–or, rather, they novelistically use the format of map-making to universalize the particular situated perception of space that maps rarely include or note.

Harmon emphasized in her own visually stunning and compelling presentation the narrative content in these creative maps as setting into space individual stories about space that pointedly contrast with the de-personalized map and emphasized their own personal knowledge.  She showed a set of creative cartographies that exist in a dialogic relation to our own knowledge of a place, moreover, and, more deeply, out knowledge of objective–as well as subjective–renderings of it, making creative maps particularly neat ways of opening up new perspectives on a space that fence in interesting ways with our own.  Indeed, maps have a unique power to illuminate the relation between our story and our surroundings, as much as to tell stories of their own about how we understand place.

The cognitive webs of connections that maps both embody and render visible and concrete have the effect of never seeing ourselves as isolated.  They rather allow us to map our place in a set of other stories and narratives about place, in ways that are deeply social as well as rooted individual cognition.  And perhaps the most problematic subject of mapping such an individual narrative–or restoring its centrality–is in as frequently a re-mappped event as the September 11 tragedy, whose multiple mapping has accreted more meaning on the event–as if it needed this injection–to erase its personal narratives, and imposed meanings on the event that have almost obliterated our memories of its occurrence, and our relation to its immense tragedy.

It is interesting how she began from 9/11–an event that illustrated the tyranny of the map in the public imagination, and a touchstone for how a local event effectively mapped a geopolitical relationship to the world, albeit a quite distorting one.  The event is not only ripe for re-mapping, but demanded a resourcefulness in using mapping forms to forge new networks of meaning in an over-rehearsed geographic conceit.  The artist Karin Shneider effectively re-mapped our cognitive understanding of events of 9/11–and the cognitive space of the twin towers–that  re-framed memory of their destruction and the death of their unfortunate occupants in plate-glass maps inscribed with the commuter routes those who were tragically killed had taken on that morning as they arrived at work.  The sounds of breaking plate-glass were inseparable for many observers of the twin towers’ collapse on September 11.  In Shneider’s commemorative map, individualized etched glass plates restore both the fragility of their lives, and the integrity of each life that overlapped that day, providing a commemorative cognitive map of the event that viewers to consider how the event tied these lives together so tragically, tracing the routes each took to remind us of the voyages each performed that day.   The set of maps commemorate the deaths of some 2,752 individuals by distilling the circumstances of their spatial intersection, giving specificity to that over-photographed and documented event by emphasizing their now unrecoverable perspectives with the evocation of personal letters or diary entries, so unlike the opacity we usually identify with maps, inviting us to see through their commutes to remember the loss of individual life.  The map of approaches to a final intersection replaces the all too familiar rendering of collision courses of two airplanes on September 11.


9:11 flight paths mapped


Shneider’s composite of overlapping maps remind us of the very difficulty of recuperating individual narratives in such an over-narrated event–mapping the mess of lives that intersected fortuitously that morning, and which will no longer be with us.  They reframe an event too often framed as a war on “terrorism,” “clash of civilizations,” or a sign of barbarity and civilization in distorting and exploitative ways, moreover, giving transparence to the very surface of the map.  The absence of a one narrative that unites these paths is, indeed, a great part of the effectiveness of capturing such multiple individual itineraries within one map.

The decided lack of spatial narrative–but a snapshot summary of the lives that intersected on that day in early September–is evident in a quite different map that, oddly, interestingly emphasized the international origins of those who lost lives that day, perhaps in an attempt to remove its violence from a narrative of opposition, and disturbingly cast the loss of lives in terms of the quite different-order abstraction of individual nations:


wtc world map flags

That map’s argument is disquieting because of how it erases individuality.

Mapping can be a clarification of such tragedy, however.  The far more delicate set of superimposed plate-glass maps Harmon described stands in contrast to the anonymity of this map, or the very disembodied and abstracted map of the routes that these hijacked planes took, by inscribing their paths at a complete remove from individual lives.  Indeed, even the inscription of names of those killed in the event at the site itself on a granite plaque, evocative of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, oddly strips them of individuality–unlike how the reflecting stone surface of the Vietnam War Memorial designed by Maya Lin invites viewers to touch individual names on its surface, as if to try to map abruptly curtailed lives.




The inscription of the names of the dead of 9/11, unlike Maya Lin’s monument, offers no attempt to embody the event–or to express the multiplicity of narratives that that event so tragically condensed.

At another extreme of mapping the 9/11 tragedy lies the grotesque dis-humanized blood-flecked map, so sensationally printed by the New York Post, allegedly based on a map fire-fighters compiled of human remains, as a broadside intended to vilify plans to construct a mosque nearby the site–a map so shockingly dispersive in its energies that rather than embodying the 2,752 deaths it seems to chart, aggressively alarms its viewer with an explosion of meaning impossible to process save by recoiling in horror from its tabulation of human remains near the scene of impact:

Blood-specked map WTC

For if the violently voyeuristic map seeks to dignify the site’s sanctity by delineating the violent loss of life, its superfluity of meaning is something of a recapitulation of violence, attempting to shock the viewer as does the inset photography, by providing some access to the history of the event.

Scheider’s creative cartography also stands in eloquent counterpoint to the abstract cartography of that emptiest of maps, of PATH commuter routes, which she adopts as something of a basis to trace a palimpsest of commutes:




The problem of how maps evoke or shift a familiar narrative motivates the inventive ways itineraries are combined with maps to upend their abstraction, or the spatial oppositions that they create and reify.  Daniel Zeller recuperated the itinerary as a unit of spatial knowledge in imagined maps linking two sites of worship in two different religions by imagining their proximity, and almost delineating an imagined route of pilgrimage that might link their footprints.  Zeller used his deep study of topographic maps and satellite imagery to forge an imagined spatial tie between the Vatican and Masjid al-Haram, the mosque at Mecca, as if to bridge ties between two sites removed from one another in such popular and political discourse alike, by connecting them as if on an individual footpath.  By tracing the footprint of each in graphite, and imagining a windy route of pilgrimage that might actually connect them in “Vatican/al Haram,” using the extreme precision to actively embody and create real spatial ties–


Vatican:Al Haram


–with attentiveness to precision evident in this detail of the links he creatively mapped between both houses of worship.
Zeller Vat al Haram--detail

Departing from digital simulations that often create information overload,  Zeller’s craft-like remapping places with the symbolic continuity that maps create to all too improbably link two sites so often separately segregated in the global imagination.

Bridging divides through a pathway that itself unites or crosses cultures is the theme of Asma Ahmed Shikoh’s beautiful acrylic “Van Wyck Boulevard,” part of her project “Home.”  Shikoh’s art maps her status as a Pakistani artist trained in Karachi who moved to New York:  “Home” brilliantly reclaimed the craft traditions of mapping, recasting the NYC subway map as an Urdu manuscript and within a geometrical design borrowed from the Islamic Al Hambra, in Spain, to reexamine its functional status, and its role as an icon of urban belonging at the same time as mapping a Muslim diaspora–precisely by casting the map of the path of the MTA’s “F” line that took her to her first home in the city.  Shikoh reconfigured the map in a painted form of distinct coloration, engaging its form as well as using language as a tool to assert my identity and make the new place my own.”   The widely reproduced and iconic subway map served as a template to assert and recreate the familiar embodiment of the subway lines as a constellation of meaning invested with a narrative intent that the location of stations on this diagram rarely possesses: only by  “transliterating every stop, was painstaking, repetitive, and yet therapeutic for a newcomer” that traced a narrative through a process of remapping and making the city her own– using the subway map to transcend the increasing construction of a dichotomous divide between East and West, and re-center her identity (and immigrant identity) in the mobile paths of New York City’s subways.

Van Wyck Blvd


Cross-generational mobility was mapped through the shifting degrees of access or familiarity with space across generations in a map of the town of Sheffield, Harmon noted, when Dr. William Bird traced i the limits of known space created across generations living on an aerial view of the city that redefines the mapping of “city limits.”  The chart of the boundaries of a “known world” where children were entitled to walk unaccompanied in Sheffield provides a far more general (and very poignant) map of a demographic group’s relation to space, investing the map with particular narrative and expressive properties beyond that of a spatial register.

How Children Lost the Right to Roam in Four Generations (2007) employs the format of aerial photography to map the ambits at which children were allowed to walk on their own in the same neighborhood in one family.  The result of comparing the increasingly restricted spaces parents tolerated wondering illustrates and documents the daramatic contraction of the consderable freedom eight year old George Thomas enjoyed in 1926 in Sheffield.  His parents, not able to afford the tram’s fare, let him to walk six miles to fish on his own.  The erosion of the English commons is a trope of the enclosures of the early nineteenth century, and the lack of urban exploration a more contemporary concern for city-dwellers who find their children less adventurous in making the out of doors their own.  But the more recent specificity of Bird’s roaming map shows the harrowing circumscription of space up to the present:  George’s great-grandson Edward, on a tether of some 300 yards, and with few liberties to roam at will unsupervised, possessed less of a spatial narrative of his relation to the far more industrialized region of Sheffield today, as his mother’s was far diminished from that of his Grandfather Jack or the wide range of space George was trusted to personally navigate.  The narrative of a restricting relation of the person to space in mapped by the narrowing boundary lines in Sheffield:


How Children Lost the Right to Roam


As much as describe the changes in Sheffield’s geography and the story of its expanding industrialization, the map presents a strikingly local microhistory which echoes and encapsulates frequently expressed concerns about the lack of exploring a safe urban space.

It was made in the capacity as health officer to Natural England, to substantiate a concern for Bird’s belief in the benefits access to grassy areas, ponds, and trees brought to kid’s behavior and school work, and question the healthiness of the narrowing relations of space from George, his son Jack, his daughter Vicki and the eight-year-old Ed.  The creativity of these practices of cartography bucks basing maps on their synthesis of a large data sample, by questioning how maps can be creatively rooted in a narrative of individual experience, even in ways that preserve their value as a collective register of the experience of space–and how a Google Maps template might be distinctly personalized as a record of spatial knowledge.

Discontents with Google Earth maps lie precisely in the deeply problematic recuperation of a cartographical art that they perpetuate for their users.  And so Jeff Sisson focussed on the spatial meanings and consequences of the threatened disappearance of the Bodega as an institution and anchor to urban communities in New York by crafting an interactive Bodega Map within the city’s expanse.  In charting the survival of a store central to communities across different neighborhoods, the map almost anticipated the recent turn against Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York that the recent De Blasio victory seems to portend.  In tracing the footprint of the institution of the Bodega, Sisson selects stores pressed out of existence in the absence of rent control for shops in the city’s expansive real estate market, and provide evidence of a vanishing urban culture of diversity.

Sisson’s website invites all visitors to place Bodegas in local neighborhoods to elevate the individual discovery of a community store, in an exercise of collective crowd-sourced participatory mapping that displaces the archipelagic city’s usual contour lines by rather trying to map the local meanings of these distinctive and useful stores within local communities, in ways that invite one to insert one’s narrative connection to the colorful local Bodega so long an urban fixture situated at odd street-corners, combining such mapping resources as Google Earth, Google Maps, and Flickr snapshots of facades and marquees of individual family run stores.

Bodega Map



The project “Mapping Bodegas” tracks processes of micro-urbanism, by marking sites of interaction and stages to which communities respond, to reflects on the danger of their erasure from the city’s map and its neighborhoods, as well as to preserve meaningful “hot-spots” of collective memory within outlines of the specific neighborhoods they nourished.  This infusion of narrative content is, to be sure, one reaction or response to the universalized abstraction of an anodynely marked places of interest in the space of Google maps, with something approaching a zero-degree of the denotative signs of registering affect or place.  It is in reaction to this lack of narrative that Adam Bartholl staged his public sculpture “Map,” creatively appropriated the blandly uniform “inverted tears” of a Google map push pins by placing these physical objects in the very center of Arles–on the hexadecimal longitude and latitude GoogleEarth uses to denote Arles.

The discontent with the abstraction of our knowledge of place in Google Earth led Adam Bartholl to remind us of the increased distance between iconic cartographical markers Google employs so blithely in its tiles and knowledge of places they denote.  By the co-option or appropriation of the sign of place in geolocation practices in the public square of Arles, Harmon argued, Bartholl reminded us how the marker shapes (and fails to capture) our sense of place, as we use it to make our narratives of travel:  by placing a larger than life physical embodiment of such a dayglo pushpin in the exact center of Arles’ public square on the altitude and longitude where it occurs in Google Earth, Bartholl asked us to confront a physical embodiment of a sign we too often internalize without interrogating its affectless muteness as a sign as itself a denaturing of place.




Arles?  It happened right here . . .


On a more political level of the silences concealed in many maps, and the environmental consequences of these silences, Harmon turned to the failures of mapping ecological disasters of Bonga oil spill and  transformation of the Niger delta.  What are the limits of Google maps in tracking the multiple levels of ecological disaster within the Delta, seat to a preserve of some 600 million barrels of recoverable oil mapped in 2001, but whose mapping silenced the complex narrative of regional toxic pollution that has spun out around those platforms and oil rigs.



The delta, an oil-rich area long plagued by irresponsible levels of annual oil spillage greater than in the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010, is a site of widespread flares on rigs, and, as a very poor area where oil was found close to the surface, of dirty DIY oil refining and extraction have created deep-set ecological disasters through the Delta–over 7,000 spills from 1970 to 2000, some spewing at least 9 million barrels of crude into wetlands that sustain millions of local trades from fishing to agriculture, and where consistently poor clean-up of spills have eroded increasingly fragile local communities and economies in an image that, viewed from space, appears both ecologically fragile and remarkably pristine.



How to map the devastating ravages to the local environment, whose production the Nigerian government is economically dependent, is particularly problematic since the oil-rich delta is the source of 90% of the country’s foreign earnings.  Regular under-reporting of spills by NOSDRA–the Nigerian Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency–to keep in line with corporate claims led to a failure to register the escape of up to 60,000 barrels of oil in 2011  from one Floating Production Storage and Offloading Facility at the Niger delta’s mouth by Shell oil (Nigeria’s major client) in Bonga, or 1979 spill of 570,000 barrels of crude, also by Royal Shell–eroding the environment all up the Delta, by the devastating toxic effects of acid rain that are only starting to be mapped–from the ruin of coastal livelihoods and fisheries to deadening formerly plentiful fields of kola nuts.

How to map or embody the narrative of the destruction of an ecosystem?  This time-lapse map seems as disembodied as Vassily Kandinsky’s “Einige Krise,” but charted decade-long oil flares in surrounding coastal waters spewing crude into the air, in color-coded fashion since the expansion of oil drilling in the Deepwater Bonga project since 1993–blue from 1995; green 2000; red 2006–as the outlines of an ecological disaster since deepwater drilling began–and whose mapping almost defies narrative:


Several Circles


If the agglomeration of colored dots in this time-lapse map suggests pattern, the distribution mirrors the division of the Delta and surrounding waters by prospecting leases for locally administered oil fields since 1993, but only starts to map the disastrous consequences for the environment of this massive release of crude into the ecosystem and its local economy:


Deep Prospect Nigeria Oil and Gas Concessions Map - Deep-Prospect

While the slick produced at Deepwater was not at first mapped, it occurred on a 2011 Google Earth view charting oil slick on the ocean’s surface:

Bonga Bongo Delta in Niger Delta-Nnimmo


This map provided one of the few media sources documenting the Bonga spill not provided by Royal Shell Oil itself.  Indeed, it only starts to track the implications of the spills, fires, and leaks in the Delta that constitute the largest wetlands in all Africa rich with swamps, estuaries, rivers and streams, and can only suggest the extent to which forests and mangroves are being polluted by spills from a network of pipelines, acid rain, and water-borne or rain-borne oil slick–rain regularly returns drops of crude oil to formerly fertile region–where oil is relatively close to the surface has led to a distortion of the environmental perils of oil extraction–and over one thousand abandoned oil spill sites in the over-drilled Delta, with huge environmental consequences–often blamed on the ships that regularly illegally siphon crude from the pipelines that criss-cross the delta.




Google Earth views used by Sky Truth to map the 2011 Shell Deepwater spill barely chart the environmental devastation on the Delta rivers.   The map that almost leaves one speechless in how the beauty of its sinuous detail chart the slicks of oil that have contaminated a once-healthy delta’s agricultural wealth; this NOAA aerial photography created by the United States Navy rebut the oil multinational’s silence as to the spill’s scope or devastating consequences, whose silences have only recently been targets of international blame, and obscured some 474 spills in one area during 2012 alone.  Perhaps  the recent expansion of Nigerian crowd-sourced mapping projects may shift these cartographical silences, but the burden for mapping the disaster has not been met.


Deepwater Spill Nigeria

Shell Deepwater Spill



The narratives that these aerial image of considerable beauty recover present a counter-narrative to that of the corporations that distanced themselves from the Bonga spill, and perhaps a case of maps speaking truth to authority.  These maps begin to tell a story of the transformation of the land–and the destruction of the environment they map.  These maps foreground new narratives about the Google Earth format that invite a broader story to be told about the event, and to fill the silence of Shell’s official narrative about the quantity or causes for the massive spill–and the blanket denial that any of the oil ever reached the coastline, and all barrels were successfully dispersed in the ocean waters, and seek “unconditional license to contain and disperse the Bonga oil spill” itself.  Without these Google maps, Shell Oil would have retained a monopoly about the production of truth about the devastating Bonga spill.


Sleipner A


Can a narrative emerge of this event from the perspective of those who dwell in the Delta, to capture the consequences of the toxic transformation of the land they live and work in, or those for its non-human inhabitants?

Some semantic possibilities of expanding the ecological narrative of place were suggested in the tracking of growth of Chesapeake Bay grasses,  in a mapping project using data to track changes in the growth and density of grasses around the largest estuary in the United States particularly illustrative of the subtleties of overlaps to achieve the sort of deep mapping that Google Earth would not allow.  The Stamen interactive map frames a unique narrative of the restoration of the estuary ecosystem incorporating data from over forty years across some forty years, redirecting data to create an image of where the estuary might later develop:  the time-sensitive visualization of data about salinity, water-temperature and bathymetry with the restorations of bay grasses who are the subject of this narrative of ecological restoration, to offer a powerful–and positive–interactive map about the local recuperation of environmental health, by synthesizing a wide range of data from the EPA officials and local institutions about an area to reverse effects of chemical pollutants on wildlife and grasslands that viewers can read or virtually explore as unfolding over time, in ways that press against the technological boundaries of cartography as an art.


Chesapeake Bay Program


If this graphic visualization of the watershed appears a document only of the growth of grasses, as we unpack the map we realize the expanse of the effects of the possibly narratives of human interventions in the landscape that it presents–both on the ecosystem of the estuary and to possibilities of our future relation to that very dynamic environmental space–a space we better know through our more multi-leveled representations of it.

The art of registering knowledge of place has expanded to comprehend new personal individual narratives of fine grain by a GPS revision of the Google Map view of a city.  Indeed, the maps of Christian Nolde and Ingrid Burrington both seek to recuperate the density of specific narratives of encounters in urban space that echo and engage the emerging forms of mapping by which Google seeks to plot points of interest for its users on the maps of cities that they visit, so that they might include selected points of interest, sites of beauty to visit, or local stores and commercial districts of interest judging by one’s web history.  Both Nolde and Burrington used GPS to create a synthesis of these individualized maps of the city in ways that anticipated the announcement of Google’s plans.

Christian Nolde employed GPS technologies to register of feelings related to place in his emotional map of San Francisco (2007), created during a tenure at Northern Exposure.  After collecting on data gathered by a galvanic skin response by which participants’ physiological responses, he keyed them to places that he transposed to a GPS map of the city’s locations, as if to trace itineraries in a city usually mapped by city blocks or along district lines.  The maps seeks to register responses to a location or geographic environment on individual emotions, in a sort of counter-map synthesized individual responses into something like an encounter with places of specific individual resonance in the city, in a record “visualizing the emotional space of the city” by objectively tracing an alternate topography in 2007.


Emotional Map SF


This map has a texture of accommodating the individual storyline or narrative that makes its reading an active part of its enjoyment, by engaging individual storylines in a dazzling if fragmentary novelistic detail, challenging the legibility of the map’s surface of significant local depth for readers who can take the time to delve into the map to read the actions that its maker associated with a specific place, but which would be ‘overlooked’ by scanning the broader path of his itineraries across the city:


detail SF emotion map

GPS was used, in other words, to contextualize multiple narrative fragments in a composite view of the emotional significance of urban space  by tracing if a residue of collective emotions on its surface.  The completed artifact combines multiple spaces of reading, augmenting the notions of position that he noted in GPS at specific way stations by his own transient or apparently ephemeral personal reaction to the city at a specific place–“beautiful street with lovely houses”; “went into my house and got my mail”; “This is where I had the bike accident”; “i was remembering a person I had a major relationship with whose parents lived here”–that foreground the personal in ways GPS cannot alone register.

The practice of GPS creates a synthesis of discrete meanings rarely associated with geospatial mapping, and puts a premium on emotional or associative precision, as much as the abstraction of terrestrial locations.  A similar desire to base a map on personal narratives to record the city as an emotive space led Ingrid Burrington to take data from Craig’s List “missed connections” as the data to reveal a hidden distribution of the desire for half-glimpsed connections in her “Loneliness Map” (2009-11), included in an earlier exhibit of personal maps Harmon earlier curated.

The map’s unique pinpoint form focusses observers’ attention on mini-moments of “missed connections” in the course of the day against a map of physical topography and street intersections, as if to present the variations among missed connections as an emotional terrain or urban psychogeography, creating a new sense of reading mapped data to register a notion first used by situationists such as Guy Debord.



Burrington--Missed Connections


Such collected ‘mini-moments’ trump the topography of the city, tracking personal attachment to selective moments in urban space as more meaningful than the mapping of the outlines of its streets that create a new experience of reading the map’s surface.  They recall the Mappiness (LSE) smartphone app, which disrupts the relative abstraction of space in a GPS framework by registering our own states of happiness on a map.

The map becomes a site to register individual travels through the city in a collective document, or a capacious holder of narratives, as tangible with resonance as any map might ever be.  And the very tangibility of this record of encounter that maps allow, even with limited qualitative content, suggest the underlying basis of cartography as an art.

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Filed under 9/11, Art and Cartography, Chesapeake Bay, Google Earth, Google Maps, Guy Debord, Jeff Sisson, Karin Shneider, Katherine Harmon, Mapiness, Mapping and its Discontents, Mapping Bonga deepwater drilling, Masjid al-Haram, Niger Delta, Stamen design

The Map is Dead–Long Live the Map!

Participants at the symposium Mapping and Its Discontents debated the benefits of the near-ubiquity of uniform mapping systems sponsored and orchestrated by Google in our lives.  Many of the wonderful papers tried to suggest the benefits that mapping served as alternate ways of making visible the unseen and giving voice to the silenced–but did so with deep skepticism of the dominance of Google Map’s blandly undifferentiated surface, both as a sort of collective erasure of knowledge, and a sinister synthesis of gathering meaning about individuals’ consumption habits.  In this somewhat hopeful symposium, whose speakers urged the audience to go forth and map, Denis Wood offered a skeptical history of mapping as a form of art, focussing less on its craft than on the contexts in which it was read and exchanged–and the historical “explosions” of map making as a tool of state-making.

Although Scott McCloud does trace comics back through cave paintings and the Bayeux tapestry, something we recognize as a comic book it to printing and mass-production of paper in the mid-nineteenth century, the printed ephemera Alan Aldridge and George Perry first identified as antecedents to  the sort of fantastic album art he produced, we don’t see much we would recognize as a map until printing, Wood argues–and that the fifteenth century is a good place to start the history of maps.  But rather than peg the map to the material practices of the production of information, the ways of embodying information and need to embody networks of spatial organization reflect the new need of an emerging modern nation-state–as well, he might add, though he omitted it yesterday, the need to straighten out clear bounds of contact and digest the discovery of new worlds.  (One might object that rather than leave this entity of the “state” so monolithic, dual origins of causation can be seen in the Renaissance, both as a period of contact with new worlds and that gave currency to the creation of newly imagined worlds–the “other Green world” of Harry Berger–as joint ground in the poetics of making, reading, and reproducing the map.)

As longtime interrogator of the power of maps and enfant terrible of the cartographical establishment, Wood’s opening salvo called attention to how print helped differentiate the standardization of shared practice of mapping space from the genealogy, charter, systems of notation, almanacs, calendars, or rolls, maps served to conjure the state to existence in its graphic performance–and to conjure the state, in ways repeated in histories of Japan, Siam, and the United States, as Elizabeth Berry, Thongchai Winichakul, and Martin Bruckner have shown, as a natural object, when it was not before.  Any attempt to naturalize the map either as a depiction of the world’s surface or universalize its documentary function, he noted, including the celebration of the recent democratization of mapping skills that seem to dislodge authority from the map’s form, passes over the map’s role in the state and state formation as a form of spatial intelligence and spatial intelligibility.

We might do well to look for origins, Wood proffered, by asking exactly when it became a slur on a civilization that it does not use maps–or couldn’t read them.  The question was enticing because of how it raised questions of the ties of map making less as an instrumental tool of dominance over space, than a standard of civilization and knowledge–a standard of the sort that Graham Greene evoked in his postwar visit to Liberia, Journey without Maps (1949).  Although Greene’s visit to the colonial outpost was certainly a product of Africa’s partial colonization by European industry, and the end of English empire, his account reflects Wood’s point that maps exists only where social relations call for them exist:  that where talk serves, maps are rare; but that when talk becomes inadequate, alternative graphic forms of communications develop within the state–of which the map plays a central role.  Greene beautifully if parsimoniously evoked the elderly toothless man with whom he shared a boat ride at the end of his 1946 journey who suddenly approached him with a piece of pressing news:  “‘Do you know that in Monrovia they have a map of the whole of Liberia?  I’m going there to see it.  It is in the possession of a family called Anderson.  They have had it for years,'” he says wonderingly, suggesting amazement at the foreign family of colonizers who possess a map of the entire country in which he lives.  “‘Sinoe is marked on it,'” he continues, “‘and Grand Bassa and Cape Palmas,'” repeating what he has been told by others, but never having seen a map of his entire land.  The encounter might well have been invented by Greene, but created a topos for the encounter between the map-literate and native that presumed an eagerness for encountering a map–the map seems a sort of lodestone–that might be either a western fantasy or a deeper discovery of a land where, absent the myth of colonial organization, the residents don’t know maps, or an illustration of deep ties of mapping to the civilizing process delineated by Norbert Elias.

Printing allowed the map to penetrate the lives of people about 1500, unlike other forms of data-keeping:  for the creation of a map that penetrated the lives of ordinary people and readers effectively under-wrote social relations of power in very concrete, linking territory to other things in ways that advanced the making of maps and shifted the role of mapping as an enterprise:  we count only a few thousand maps prior the growth of the nation, but an explosion of the production of maps in the sixteenth and seventeenth century occurred of the sorts of which was never known, and parallels the map’s entry into individuals’ lives to a degree that never occurred earlier–a notion, as Wood long ago argued, of “map-literacy.”

Nations were indisputably the new arenas of this move to mapping, unlike the printed maps that were widely sold in Italian city-states or the Netherlands.  Earlier maps such as cosmological charts, star maps, or property charts of the Babylonian period or in Japan and England had legal purposes, but quite different from large-scale graphic property function in varied places around the world, and without participating in a map-making tradition in projects such as the mapping efforts of Phillip II to create detailed records of imperial possessions in the Mediterranean, or the huge map making projects of Louis XIV and Colbert that are tied directly to the state and to the material recreation of state sovereignty.  (Of course, this raises the question as to why maps first emerged as forms for advancing epistemic claims and embodying places in areas that were less clear as examples of the modern state, like Italian city-states or sites without empires like the Netherlands or whether the imaginative ends of mapping can be separated from their administrative ends.  Wood sees them as being as tightly tied as the sides of the same Moebius strip.)

It is in this arena of the state, Wood forcefully argued, that we can see the inauguration of modern topographical functions from real estate, to prisons, to cellphone use, to voting practices, to states rights, to a point at which we can’t consider life without maps.  The date 1500, far from being one of convenience, is something like a benchmark or velocity point for the new roles that maps began to play and that they continued to assume today–a point of no return, as it were, of the sort Ian Hacking drew to mark the emergence of probability at the date 1660.  Only after 1500, or in later periods, did mapping emerge as a way of life, Wood insisted:  if some fourteenth-century monks drew plans of their monastery, the idea was not widely or even narrowly pursued as a basis for collating evidence, or followed up on in ways that reflect the multiple functions maps came to assume.  There is a bit of utopianism here:  whereas human societies didn’t need maps, and got on well without them before 1200, he argued, noting rights and properties’ specific attributes in other ways,  the map’s discourse-function failed to develop itself as a means to exploit strategic resources and to have operable use and currency.  While he recognized the evidence of the creation of maps in Song-era China within select parts of well-established bureaucracies, only later did maps gain a large discourse-function of operability.   This may be a bit of a slippery logic, but argues that the “map” had new meaning at a certain point as an object of exchange, and that no properties inherent to its design exist save as such an object of exchange.  So much for its formal attributes.

Wood marked the birth of the map that is now perhaps dead  at this sort of a watershed:  in 1400, few used maps; by 1600, maps became inseparable from social functions in a global context that is itself only beginning to be mapped.  The abundance of eighteenth-century maps in China, or in the seventeenth century in Japan, and in Vietnam from the 15th and 16th century, and Mesoamerican and Malay maps in 16th century, are traditions that inaugurated in the early modern state.  Indeed, there is a weight of evidence to shift this change in the growth of European knowledge, and it reflects a massive rise of needs for map making to ensure border control, water management, land reclamation, military needs that just exploded with the state.  If even in Florence, Italy few maps exist from before 1565, Florentine, Neapolitan and Milanese mapping projects all exploded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as they did in seventeenth century Japan, when thousands of government maps issue in Japan, and maps served to perform the form of statehood.  

What changed, Wood argues,  was that then new political structure of impersonal construction demanded new forms for its embodiment, and gained a propositional function that was absent from earlier map making traditions–a propositional function that was necessitated and called into creation by the state.  He recalled how Martin Bruckner showed how the image of the national map of the United States staked the proposition that there could be a tenable unity among this expansive nation, much as imperial maps of Britain tried to persuade readers on both sides of continent of imperial possession of north american content, as an artifact of state–both of these cases illustrate the new tangibility that the map assumed as a means of calling the expansive relation of the state into existence by the graphic performance of statehood that was newly enacted in the printed map, and which the map served to make legible.  As Thongchai has shown in his work on Siam, maps served to produce the very “geobodies” that become totemic through the map’s presentation of the state, creating a sense of unity not familiar to many, but able to normatize a nascent polity, and to instruct countless participants in the construction of our country–even without a clear idea of citizenship.  The skill of state apparatus lay in bringing routine of state practices to a larger audience, as Valerie Kivelson argues in Russia, down to a lower level of reading–as the map served, both in Japan and elsewhere, multiple function to against the images of other states and other imaginative constructions.  Identical patterns of map-use can be found in these cultures, and, not surprisingly, in the post-WWII state of Israel, founded in part by European Jews:  in each place, maps affirm the state, the state affirms the map, summoning unity from . . . chaos.

The medium of the map and its power as a form of synthesis arises as a new form of narration when other forms of narrative do not suffice–it is both the master-narrative and originary myth of the modern state.  And, indeed, maps have become so powerful to bring objects into being in concrete terms, that it would be impossible to discuss otherwise in a multitude of ways–from the nation to the distribution of electoral politics to the spread of fires to the ozone hole to El Nino.


Footprints of Actively Burning Fires--Google Map

Ozone Loss Map


The credence that maps create by linking subjects of propositions to a specific code enables these new subjects to be discussed, and in linking subjects of propositions like the state to the code inherent in mapping, and to real relations in the world, maps can come to signify the world, and networks of causation within it, as well as prospective statements for its future.  As Wood wrote in an earlier context, “Insisting that something is there is a powerful way of insisting that something is.  Mapped things–no matter how conceptually daunting–possess such extraordinary credibility because they’re capable of propelling into popular discourse abstruse abstractions:  high-pressure cells, El Nino, seafloor spreading, thermohaline circulation.”  Or global warming, or the the expanding ozone hole, earthquake swarms, or the global threats of desertification of arable land.  These curious abstractions enter public debate as concrete terms, if never clearly grasped, based on their cartographical realization.  It is, of course, only because of maps that these very issues can become contentious foci of public debate.


Tracing Sandy--Time Map

Prognosticating hurricane_sandy_map


The map serves double-duty a representation or a cloak, Wood makes clear.  Its two-fold duties are so effective to make creative practices of map making disappear, to make states affirm their role as real things of nature–even as maps obscured their own existence in the reasons of the state itself.   And if it’s hard to imagine that these artifacts as nations or concepts like ozone could come into creation, without the creative functions of the map, the wonder of the map is to link subjects of proposition signified (State) with signifiers constituted by their code–and to signify the world.  This might explain their clear currency as a form of realizing the make-believe, or fantastic, with a sense of actual concreteness by delineating a credible topography with which we can visually interact–especially while reading a text, and in whose creation we can indeed vicariously share, so powerfully creative do they affect their readers.

The use of maps to lend credence to propositions in the early modern world led them to embody abstractions from the map of “Utopia” Thomas More pointedly included in his dialogue of the same name, the maps of emotions Mme. de Scudery devised as Cartes de Tendre, or Jonathan Swift’s maps of Lilliput and Blefescu or Gunniland in his “proposal for correcting modern maps,” or–and here we leap centuries–modern ancestors such as Stevenson’s Treasure Island, whose fantastic claims to embodiment in maps extend all the way up to map of Middle Earth–and to those Christopher Tolkein subsequently expanded–whose publication and currency, he argued, led anyone with a computer software applications to make maps from Grand Theft Auto to map art, as map is congenial subject of exhibition.

More Utopia Map


Carte de Tendre

But are not these maps playful inversions of the operative roles of maps as tools of state–orchestrated by figures with close state roles, as More and Swift?  The role of middle-range cartographers from E.H. Shepherd to Christopher Tolkein to Jules Feiffer, to trace one genealogy, seems quite distinct.



Is the state’s stranglehold on cartography at last weakening, much as Wood asserts, even with the diffusion of mapping platforms and the availability of digital mapping tools?  Wood detects a twilight of the age of the paper map as leading to an end of the dominant role that maps of states once enjoyed as vehicles to view boundaries and confines of state possession and areas of juridical control.  This does not mean that maps are less used by the state.  But that the map is less the gripping tool of engagement whose history he has traced since circa 1500, the magic date from which maps were, he argued, so instrumental in conjuring the subject of the state and so successful in naturalizing its truth claims as part of our world.  This may be curious, because of the proliferation of digitized maps that defines potentially unwieldy concepts–global warming; the ozone hole; hurricane Sandy’s path; plankton algae bloom distributions–that can be latched onto in public debate and, occasionally, grasped.  Or, on a humanitarian level, the sort of crowd-sourced map of deaths in Syria’s civil wars, legibly tracking a succinct geographic table of the distributions of killings, rapes, revenges, and poisonings or the humanitarian disasters of the Syrian refugees whose number has far surpassed two million.

Crowd-Sourced Mapping of killings, rapes, revenges and poisoning


Syrian Refugee Crisis


We can also distinguish better and worse attempts to map  tragic humanitarian disasters among these visualizations.

One may, indeed, ask what constitutes the state today–and try to map it–or try to define to the widespread distribution of mapping functions within states.  Wood presented the insanely rising prices of old maps sold at auctions today as making something of a mockery of the idea that states so monopolizes the use of maps that it cannot but illustrate state functions.  But are not these maps, now evacuated of meaning and illusions of power, disquietingly assuming a role, retrospectively, as images of a world where power worked differently, or of an age when the design of maps was performed with such due diligence and care?

But Wood is perhaps too happy to say goodbye to the map.  If this grammar is not that much less operative, is it true that the state’s stranglehold on cartography is now weakening or has weakened?  Or that cartography–and the illusion of the map–has outlived its function as a basis to visualize the nation?  Wood doesn’t find that the state can any longer repeat the trick of naturalizing its own presence through the operations of naturalizing with GIS tools, partly because of their lack of similar persuasive skills.  But if it may be argued that the state has no need for the same truth-claims any more, as they are, somehow, finding themselves to be outdated, that doesn’t mean that the collective power of mapping does not exist outside the purview of the state, and as an activity of resistance and calling into being new information, as several other papers delivered at the same conference by Annette Kim and Rebecca Solnit showed.

But although maps arose in needs of nation state to take on form, and organize its interests, rather than seeing some sort of triumphalism continuing in the use of maps to shore up the nation-state, from Raleigh, NC, Wood doesn’t see the map as doing that good a job even as a tool of surveillance.  And he sees the use of maps to call attention to historical practices, and even to restore historical landscapes, as well as address issues of social justice, as marginal to the disappearance of the map as a tool of state control.  The declining efficacy of the sort of operations that maps were able to accomplish, he notes, seem to have contributed–notwithstanding the omnipresence of maps in our lives–to its declining authority, more than a ‘democratization of mapping’ can be celebrated. But as the functions of state-power also seem to be less clearly visualized–and preserved–by means of maps in an increasingly interdependent world where the concept of the boundaries of a map have less meaning as fabricating a category or signifier out of whole cloth, perhaps the map would enjoy new versatility as a tool outside the rubric of the state that so long sponsored it.

If one can talk about a geohumanities that extends beyond those with digital expertise, who engage in studying and producing the culture, that would depend on understanding of ‘map making’ not only as a practice, but as a verb engages other contexts, and a verb that offers something like a grammar in conversation that is specific to the map as an object, distinct from other accumulations of evidence, as well as appreciating the role of mapping as an art.  If in an age of such widespread collations and ordering of evidence, the paper map–and the official map–is somehow rendered obsolete, even as multiple maps continue to wage authority in ordering our lives.  But the ubiquity of Google Maps can be resisted, if only by making its origins better known, and its the limits of its practices evident.  To be seduced by their objectivity is surely to ignore the continued power that maps still have.  If maps continue to offer such a pleasurable area of exploration in Grand Theft Auto and other media, it seems likely that personal meanings maps afford provide not just diversions in the esthetics of map making, but appropriations of an all too familiar authoritative form to define boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, trace networks of meaning, and give stability to collective entities, even in the age of the slippy maps fabricated by Google that convert declassified satellite photographs to easily downloadable tiles.

Wood’s prognostication of the death of the map seems premature.  Perhaps we, as consumers of digitized information, pay attention to its grounding in geographic reality and its operations, and are also less susceptible to the sequestered codes contained within maps, or the truth claims of a single map’s persuasive form.   Perhaps the map’s near-ubiquity cannot but decrease its authority.  But we do seem to stand at the brink of a future where mapping is ever-present as a form of surveillance; perhaps a society in which power has learned to work in new ways, unmoored from maps to define power and realize or recognize its bounds, but has adopted mapping forms as dispersive ways to organize power claims.  But in this society, maps can gain new power as media to realize networks of which too few seem aware.

Wood suggests that the map is dead, perhaps, as a useful tool of conversion in the arena of state.  If the act of mapping seems less clearly situated in the arena of the state, or less dominated by the state, this does not mean that maps are media that don’t still mystify relations of power.  And if the leaks of Edward Snowden have shown that the state is surveilling us to a far greater extent than ever imagined was the case, Wood found little evidence that that has made so much of a difference, or that that helps states do much of a better job.  The query cannot but arise in response:  did the map ever do that much of a functional job, or only a basis for imagining a state that performed its functions well?  Long live the map, perhaps as a form of counter-mapping.

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