Category Archives: GIS

Sleeping Roads, Ancient Highways, and Paper Towns

What’s the significance of names on a map?  Do they register roads that belong to the territory or only reflect continued use?  What sort of authority does a mapped road, byway, or highway retain in common law–and for how long must it be recognized as a road?  The existence of place-names and routes on a map have become an increasingly contested way to preserve a sense of place, and the survival of the “sleeping roads” of Vermont, threatened in an age of the division of the long predominantly rural state as a  market of construction threatens to obscure local knowledge and a long-valued sense of place.  The deep sense of injustice in the prospect of loosing the legal status of “ancient” and long-pathways preserved in records of in local townships face possible obliteration in the legal memory as such unpaved roads–often more tacitly known than still used for commerce–are going to be reclassified.  Indeed, as the state’s legislature has decided to reclassify common law roads to homogenize property records across the state, the outburst of local mapping seems not an act of antiquarian obscurantism, but a defense of local knowledge in an age of globalism and satellite mapping, where few of the older roads might appear from the sort of satellite-based mapping systems on which we increasingly depend.

The plan for a massive reclassification of “ancient” highways on the books but actually dormant in much of the state of Vermont may be a pro-development land grab, but suggests that the struggle for designating once common lands as private property (and resistance to it) are waged on maps.  The recent promise to reclassify registered but unnamed byways in the state–a mass of roads which were at one time used or previously surveyed as common-law byways, but have since fallen out of use to different degrees–has unintentionally generated a set of local storms about public memory.  In a state where many current town roads remain unpaved, and many more have faded into the largely forested landscape.  The drive to reclassify the diversity of unpaved roads and common law byways once preserved in local jurisdictions reveals the rise of property development for whom the retention of old spatial classifications obfuscates the exchange of private lands.

The local resistance to such a reclassification of roads in the rural state, which has attracted its share of fierce defenders of the local rights of communities long granted precedents to federal or state law, make the proposed elimination of “Ancient Highways” from local law a matter of contention.  The proposed reclassification of a multiplicity of roads poses a problem of having ceased to reflect the sort of use of landscape that developers want to encourage and private home-owners want to ensure.  Given the shifting nature of land use in Vermont, where older houses are increasingly on the market, as smaller agricultural farms close and die out, a premium has developed for the clear definition of ownership without any liens or qualifications.  Hence the increasing tensions between local municipalities in the state and any move by state government to abolish roads they long oversaw.  In a sense, the increased interest in helping demand for fungible residential properties that can be sold without qualification have run up against the multiplicity of roads that have continued to remain on the books.

As the real estate market in Vermont seems poised to heat up in much of the state, and smaller towns face a demand for brisk sales and a large pool of properties arrive on the market, the state seeks to remove any obstacles to development or become notorious for arcane property laws, remapping the “ancient” roads of Vermont opts to treat them as ancient, and, far more than unpaved, not part of its future landscape.  Yet the quilt of county regulations of roads that existed for most of the eighteenth century and was retained in most local maps before World War II reflected a local landscape of counties and townships rarely challenged before the arrival of interstate federal highways across the state during the 1970s, erasing the varied paths, trails, and common-law roads, long overseen by local city Selectboards and regarded as parts of the local landscape.


A Quilt of Counties


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Filed under engraved maps, GIS, GoogleMaps, Vermont

Mapping the Quake beneath American Canyon

The ways of mapping the effects of latest 6.1 earthquake–the largest in a quarter of a century–raise questions not only of the damages it left in its wake, or tragic human injuries, and property loss, but the web of services it disturbed.  The expanse across which the quake’s rumbling was felt at 3:20 am endured only twenty seconds but seemed to last several minutes, shaking the sides of buildings and houses, waking panicked residents, and breaking 50 gas lines and 30 water mains, leaving some 10,000 without power.  In ways that oddly echo the interconnected nature of communication networks, the quake centered in American Canyon was hard to embody or illustrate, if the measurement of the rumbling along the stretch of major faults lying along the San Andreas Fault that lies between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates was exact.




The “shake map” quickly generated by CISM revealed a quite specific concentration of incidence, some 6.7 miles underneath the earth’s surface, whose effects reportedly woke sleepers in the early morning both in San Francisco and Oakland, and as far as the South Bay and Davis.




The distribution of losses created by Napa restaurant closures and damages to buildings or rows of shattered unopened wine bottles might be on some minds–and a multitude of isolated images of individual incidents proliferated on social media, even as maps were created to track its impact.  But for all the many images of local damages and disruptions, from trailer parks to freeway ramps, posted on Twitter and social media, images of the web of outages in PG&E outage maps seemed the most compelling representation of the effects of its wake, even if the most abstract–and in a Google Maps format, that reveals the extent of the energy supplier’s range of gas lines and power lines.


outage map pg&e after quake



legend pge


The comprehensive coverage of the map–and the surprisingly uneven progression of individual outages from the epicenter–make the map a clearer synthesis of the earthquake’s impact than the dramatic footage of fires in trailer parks diffused on news agencies, or the images of damages to unreinforced masonry buildings in downtown Napa.  The distribution that it reveals are both more convincing and readily apprehended descriptions of the cascading effects of the earthquakes in this region than the specific descriptions of injuries and damage paraded on the nightly news.

The range of individual maps generated in response to the event convey a less vivid sense of its disruptions, perhaps as they were less immediately able to register its impact in ways viewers could apprehend.  The USGS generated their own crowd-sourced “Did you feel it?” map, somewhat less scientifically, that tried to measure the dispersion of intensity around northern California, taking the 3:20 am quake–and not its several aftershocks–as its focus:



The geocoded responses provided data for an intensity map over a surprisingly restricted area, using 21,000 unsolicited responses:



Later that morning, service seemed to have been partly restored, but if the range of local disruptions reported at 11 am diminished, their effects also apparently extended far beyond the aftershocks experienced by inhabitants of nearby regions:


Outages, 10-49 am



legend pge



By mid-afternoon, or 2:30, the disruption only slowly diminished.


PG & EOutages 2-30 pm

legend pge


Even though such automatically generated maps lack an author, the data they display organized a collective story for readers by which to understand the scope and scale of the earthquake’s effects.

Yet such maps might also serve as greater sources of information.  The greater engineering superstructure of the Bay Area–including highways, exit and entry ramps, gas mains, airports, public transportation, rail lines, and sewage systems–are all particularly serious potential sites of damage still difficult to be adequately mapped.  Indeed, the parallel expanse of a still relatively poorly mapped network of gas lines in the PG&E system–many of which recently existed only in the very paper forms in which they were originally drafted years ago–makes the final and continued effects of the earthquake difficult to determine.  The web of aftershocks indeed shadow the expanse of a poorly mapped web of gas lines across Northern California that has yet to be fully monitored for leakages in an antiquated system or even comprehensively mapped, whose potential leakages could trigger a disaster more serious than the San Bruno explosion of a natural gas pipeline in 2002, for which PG&E sustains it has no responsibility.


Gas Transmission Pipelines PG&E



Focussing only on the mapped network on natural gas pipelines in northern California that might have experienced breakages or fissures in the American Canyon quake, whose particularly dense network of gas mains around Napa is here mapped at greater scale:


Gas Main Network, larger scale


The questions of liability that would be raised by the inadequate mapping of the state, condition, and quality of existing gas mains around the Bay Area to public safety make it mandatory to release a full and comprehensive mapping of the quality of existing gas main lines and the potential dangers to which they would be exposed in earthquakes, far beyond the documented physical damage to buildings.  As much as counsel customers on its Facebook page “If you smell gas or are experiencing another electric or gas service emergency as a result of this earthquake, please call 1-800-743-5002 immediately,” and caution them that “If you shut off your gas service, do not turn it back on,” the availability of a truly comprehensive map–unlike the above maps provided by PG&E’s GIS system, “as a courtesy and for general information purposes only,” without a disclaimer that the map’s information is accurate without independent verification.


Filed under American Canyon Earthquake, Community Internet Intensity Maps, crowd-sourced maps?, GIS, Interactive Maps, Mapping Earthquake Damages, Mapping Earthquakes, Northern California, USGS

Local Landscapes in OSM: the Shifting Economy of Mapping Place

A battle-cry of the ages goes out over the internet–Crowdsourced OpenStreetMap Trounces Google Maps!–in a banner New York Times headline so shocking it evokes the battle of David and Goliath of the Information Age.  The battle-cry hinted at the victory of not a company, but of the members of a mapping community who slung myriad shots from the slings of multiple local mappers in Sochi,most of  whom we only know by their monikers, to topple trust in the corporate behemoth’s maps at the same time as the whole world was watching.  And the basis by their cartographical diligence is evident in the juxtaposition of two visuals of the ski runs at Sochi that we’ve been watching on TV, since we can easily contrast it to the terrain on which we’ve already watched so many ski events–and use them to track the skiers whose slalom courses we might was better placed in space.  The on-site demand for maps is so acute that the divergence from the now nearly ubiquitous Google Maps engine is striking, and has caused a bit of a shockwave in the mapping micro-world–“In Sochi, Open Source Maps Beat Google”–as if this was a not-to-be-unnoticed Olympic event, when the “Wikipedia of Maps . . . has bested the corporate giant” at its own game.

The mapping of the Olympic games marked not only a symbolic victory, but a dent in what Adam Fisher aptly terms the “Google Maps-based ecosystem” that has grown out of the widespread reliance of a small and growing sector of the economy on the Google map making machine.  The reliance on map-providers is evidence that even now, in an age of satellite maps and extensive geovisualization, mapping is a marketplace and a business to best orient viewers to an image of the ground in some very interesting ways:  rather than exercising the dominance of organizing “all the world’s information” through a monopoly geo data, fast on the heels of some rather nasty accusations that some yahoos caught using Google IP addresses had set out to vandalize OpenStreetMaps from India, entering false information in their competing images to undermine trust in their accuracy by things from reversing the directionality of one-way streets and altering script in order to dissuade users of expectations for OSM’s accuracy.

As much as an act of random hooliganism, this is a sort of trade-war waged by undermining the credibility of the opposition–a huge change from the days when Google might have sponsored OSM’s annual conference.  Alas, no more, as the two generators of landscapes are at one another’s necks:  at the very time that Google is trumpeted as inevitably on its way to charting a road-map to world domination, cracks in its geo location armor appear.  And the interesting part was, in part, that rather than finding weaknesses or inaccuracies within the many photographs that Google engineers thread together to create a database of terabites that allow us to flip through an apparently seamless photograph of the world, the absences lay in the value of selectivity in labeling the sites, routes, and courses that athletes took, and their exact levels of elevation:  information absent from the outdated photographs Google used in its Earth View.

The two media of mapping provide essentially different landscapes–and a different access to the surroundings that they described.  These contrasting visions of landscape are so readily generated by the Map Compare tool designed by Geofabrik, which actively promotes the commercial use of open-sourced maps.  Designed to suggest the difficult selectivity and clarity that the Google offers on the environments it maps, the juxtaposition of the ski runs from the Google Earth view and OSM map are a triumph in the value of embedded signs and measurements of elevation, as well as potential routes of skiing on the slopes of Sochi.


Despite the authority of the Google Map view, the rhetorical power of this juxtaposition between these forms of mapping shows the extent to what Open Source allows in the recently built environment of the Olympic village:  one is immediately struck by the absence of the Skiing Pavilion on the less-often updated Google Maps views, where not only the routes of skiing on the local slopes are less often noted, but the structures built for the Olympics remain entirely absent, and the far limited points for attending to the landscape and its elevation. There is less data in the Google View, even when one goes outside Google Earth.

Indeed, the comparison and turned up many more signs of orientation than the blank spaces of Google Maps which so strikingly recall the “terra incognita” covered by cartouches in early modern maps of the New World or the icy uncharted regions of polar expanse.


Sochi Ski Center Mapped

What seem open areas marked by the faintest of trails or icy frost engage viewers in concrete ways in the OSM maps, raising questions about how they effectively invite us to see, and what constructions that they use to invite us to contemplate space from eight models of the same landscape.  In an age of the huge expansion of Geographic Information Systems and geovisualization, it is amazing not that different modes of mapping circulate–that’s to be expected–but that their contents will continue to be so diverse, or that the very multitude of information that they’re designed to visualize are available in so many competing models.  The ‘Map Compare’ function devised, in ways that recall the classic art history course’s comparison of two slides side by side each other, provide a slippy-screen template to compare any regions with the boast that the open-sourced OSM version will both be more complete and inclusive in its details, and a better commercial model for anyone interested in mapping any city, anywhere, on demand, on account of the multiple modifications OSM users have made.  The story of the more complete coverage of OSM is anything but new, but the recent focus on the demand for better maps in the Olympic games is a great news story, making the lack of information on Google’s map browser comparable to the shoddy quality of the ready-made rudimentary hotels in Sochi in quite potentially embarrassing ways.  Despite the copious Street View detail, Google’s maps of Sarajevo were lacked in the information and visual detail that OpenStreetMap could readily provide to its users.


Sarajevo OSM Google

For all the innovation of push-pins mapping cities, Google seems to have neglected the Bosnian and Herzegovinian landscape, and the very elements of regional mapping we need for detailed spatial orientation.   The mapping of green space,  rather than the Olympic village and the architecture of the skiing slopes, that OpenStreetMap provides a distinctly different approach, which makes it more valued so often by hikers or outdoorsfolk, rather than the streamlined images of roads of Google Maps that so often cast geographical surroundings only as lightly colored muted blocks.  Is OSM a more geographically ethical mapping of space, in ways that reflect how its composite character derived from a community of mappers, as much as a collective crowd-sourced medium whose users have championed it as an anti-corporate mapping model of map making?

The differences in local mapping are evident in the sextet of views that  Map Compare function offers.  Starting from Geofabrik’s local town, Karlsruhe, which seems the default starting place for Map Compare, one can scan the different levels of information they supply, in a massive time-suck and complex compare-and-contrast exercise, moving a nice view of the area around the town’s central castle, that invites visitors to compare what sort of map they’d rather use to navigate the city’s groundplan and to do so with the grain and detail that best illuminate or shine a light on the fabric of its urban planning:

Central Karlsruhe

Moving around Karlsruhe, away form the castle, one can compare alternate mapping views, which offer their own alternative glosses on the fabric of urban space, and their own points of entrance to it:

8 Maps Karlsruhe

There’s a neat abundance, underscored by a healthy pinch of relativity, in this crowding of a variety of perspectives.  Although there is an association of certainty with the map, each of the above images, using different databases which are often protected by copyright, offer different tags to recognize and navigate exactly the same environments, some focussing on the greenery and paths through it, or the road maps and the presence of the national border near Durmersheim, and others letting the national borderline slip into barely detectable gray.  There is a certain healthiness in this plurality–a plurality underscored, in the case of OpenStreetMap, by the varied contributions individuals have made over time, a la Wikipedia, to its contents.  There is a crossroads at which each stand, between data and design, that reflects an attempt both to give and to parse the most useful information in attractive form, and to create a selective map that give each meaning:  as far as selectivity of its record of urban space, the Stamen Toner map in the lower left gives it the most prominent definition by far:  it is something like a bleached version of a diagram of urban design.  The notation of walking-friendly regions of the city in the “Hike and Bike” map offer something like an index of walkability; the OSM De map, made by local German mappers, provides the clearest model to navigate the network of the largest driving streets in Karlsruhe.

And we can follow each into the nation, at a similarly close scale, toward those regions on the French-German border, near Durmersheim.  The maps foreground the different natures of indicating not only country roads and trails, but the nature of national boundary lines, suggest fairly radically different selective views of the local landscapes.  Are roads more important, or is green space?

8 Veiws Maps of Durmersheim

Or, in a clearer juxtaposed context, closer to home, but with similar concerns for the mapping of green space, contrast the highlighting of lakes, freeways, or greenery of the countryside, which the German OSM details in its lakes and countrysides, whose rather picturesque palette of lakes and greens that contrasts with the blah matte of Google maps, in whose flattened 2D color scheme the lakes stand out, but paths to navigate the landscape are annoyingly muted:

Comparing Info Foregrounded in Mapped Landscapes in Germany

Even if the map in Stamen Toner offers the sharpest contrast, as a strictly road map, the German OSM offers a clearer–or crisper–reading of the autobahn’s highway system and its levels of classification–important to drivers, but mute on Google Maps.  The relatively unprocessed nature of the OSM platform, which after all privileges the local detailing of a landscape in ways that are argued to recover the craftsman like nature of remapping space, albeit in a digital format, and after all process the viewer’s relation to place in ways that champion the individual agency of the locally situated mapper’s techniques.  Rather than deriving form LandSat imagery, even if including the backdrop deriving from Bing to ensure its global coverage, thanks to the new friends it gained at Microsoft, or satellite imagery, the structure of OSM uses a form of illustrator that seek to rehabilitate the familiar values of accuracy and open debate in the creation of a local map:  we are all, OSM users say, digital mappers, and can take back the overdetermined datasets all too often passively read and interpreted via GPS.

It’s well known that the detail put into the OSM maps offer a less synoptic view point on areas without roads–or where one might be more likely to travel as a pedestrian or hiker on a dirt path.  Close to my home, OSM is widely favored by hikers in National, State or Regional Parks.  Moving to one of the world’s most strikingly beautiful areas, around Mt. Tamalpais in Marin, the pronouncedly different views of space offer distinct ways of negotiating place and terrain, from the relatively blanched Google Map view of the terrain of the State Park to the mock-lithographic topography of MapQuest or Bing to the comprehensive detail of OSM–more busy, for some, but extremely relevant to orient oneself to the world-famous green space:  the density of the trails around Mt. Tamalpais in Marin are perhaps extreme, but this isn’t information that one would want absent from one’s world mapping system (or data) and suggests an erroneously vacant image of the park:  and the absence of points of elevation from most all mapping platforms, even if all GIS data is always “imperfect,” reminds us of the importance of finding criteria of selectivity that are comprehensive enough.

Mt. Tam Visualized

The question of cartographical comprehensiveness in a sense resonates with the perennial fantasy of mapping a complete view of place or region, trumping the difficulties of distortion with which mapmakers have perennially struggled.  But comprehensiveness–or accuracy–is less the point than the filters on data that exist in the structures (and databases) of certain GIS platforms.  Questions of accuracy are relative to the sort of point of view that one wants to measure, to be sure, and elevation points or nature walks might not be relevant to some–or ski runs.  But the features of the landscape surely are, and so are the role of maps as tools by which we attend to those features.  Something of the distinction that French theoreticians like Jean Baudrillard made between media of film and television in relation to the human imaginary seems to offer an apt point of distinction between the collective visualizations of OSM and the muted visuals in Google Maps, derived from LandSat photographs:  there is no trace of the imagined relation to the place or region in the platform, which offers far less of a basis to imagine one’s own relation to the places that it maps.

Moving to the greener space of the northeastern United States as a test case, I wanted to examine in some detail the different features of each platform a region that I know well, using the scalable functions of each to zoom into a specific place in the green space of central Vermont.

The distinct landscapes of different mapping media nicely foreground the benefits of Geofabrik’s own Topo map, and the OSM counterparts that suggest even greater detail and differences in the options of roads, paved and unpaved perhaps–for long an important local question–as well as variations of landscape green.  While MapQuest provides some important basic detail here, OSM offers a better view of the greenery and scenery, encrypting more information at a great density, especially in contrast to the generic light greens of Google or Bing.  (Sure, you have the Google Earth function to toggle to, but having a single sheet–either on a screen or paper print out, is an important navigational and orienting tool.)

Map Compare-  Vermont and NH

Moving to a local landscape that I know even better at first-hand, in greenish north-central Vermont, we can alternate among a range of mapped views to foreground or highlight distinct areas of the topography and roads that run through the flattened map:  between the topographic views of a cycle map to the routes of a Hike & Bike, the simple landscapes of an Open Cycle map, or the austere Bing and generic Google Map with its crowding of place names at odd angles, while the OSM offer views of the greenery that few others can beat.
8 Maps Near Montpelier

As we focus on a clustering of lakes further south on the Interstate, scrolling down at a greater scale, the clustering of three lakes offers a specific point to contrast mapping styles and the different data they embody and store, out of which we might focus on the somewhat notorious bridge across the lake that occurs in six of the following eight maps, but which I can confirm exists, a bridge which, while on the other six maps, it’s never noted that one cannot drive across:

Lakes and Ponds near Brookfield VT

The contrast in mapping styles grows more evident around the smaller town of Brookfield proper, where the variety of map-signs offers a sharpened difference in perspectives on place:  the eight different conventions of noting the interstate are not only surprisingly different in color scheme to differentiate their source, but the mapped data seems surprisingly distinct in these images:  OSM Mapnik suggests a bridge, lined in black, and overpass, but both disappear in Google Map, and in Bing Sunset Lake disappears, while in none of them is the fact that the bridge is wood, floating, but mostly submerged, and closed much of the year to driving noted.  Not only is the coloration and breadth of Interstate 89 distinct in each, but so is the presence–or absence–of the small lake, the old wooden Floating Bridge that cuts across the Sunset Lake, and the foliage that surrounds Brookfield village itself.  But the inability to traverse that Floating Bridge, either in winter, when it is covered by snow, or in summer, since it has been blocked to all but foot traffic, made me smile at the multiple absences in the map engines arrayed below.  And, perhaps as important for motorists, which mapping renders the transformation of paved to unpaved roads?

Map Compare-  Brookfield VT x 8

What is the best way for a map engine to engage its viewers?  A slightly tweaked variety in another grouping of maps of the entrance to the floating bridge one can’t traverse by car, at magnified scope, suggests the range of arranging information in only one small intersection, and the need to constantly compare mapping forms for their different level of detail:  from the differences among dirt and paved roads, to the range of topographic detail, to the view that the so-called Floating Bridge is in fact perpetually sinking in Brookfield, VT.  At the end, it will all depend on what we want to see in maps, and the array is simply and increasingly boggling.


Dirt v. Paved in Brookfield VT x 8

For while Google has gobbled upwards of six million miles of streets for Street View, the interest in offering an accurate survey of the land surrounding seems to have eluded, as the aim of completing a complete set of photographs of place–as if to seduce us to allowing Google to maintain a system of location-awareness through it–may be removed from what we want to see when we trust the selectivity of the map. For a generation weaned on video, and gratified by the dazzling display of visuals, the sunny streets of Street View and panorama of Google Earth may be enough eye candy for some, but the need for selective filters and for improving semantic legibility in maps might well lead the best maps to be those that are most carefully iteratively refined.

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Filed under Compare Map, GIS, Google IP

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

Mapping Migrants’ Deaths along National Divides

Mortality is mapped to gain a grasp of geographical distributions of illnesses over space.  The mapping of death helps to embody the pathways of disease, and allow us to see otherwise inapparent vectors of transmission, which have historically provided crucial ways to assign meanings to a disease’s effects and pathways.  Even before the bacillus of a disease might be known or seen, the founder of modern epidemiology, John Snow, critiqued miasmatic theories of contagion by mapping the distribution with which cholera spread across London neighborhoods during the 1854 London epidemic, visualizing the disease as a social network of contagion by a dot map of neighborhood outbreaks that used a dot map to as proof that “nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the [Broad Street] pump” whose water was a vector of transmission.  Far lesser incidence of deaths form cholera near other street-pumps provided a new way to grasp infection and disease.




The dot map of the deaths of migrants creates no such clear distribution, and has no sense of transmission form a single site.  But it forces us to acknowledge the deep problems of the criminalization of immigration on the Mexican-US frontier by charging its human costs.  The sites of mortality from hunger and thirst are tragically dispersed over a far great undefined space, but embody the human costs of existing border policy.   Bodies of migrants that were stopped during the course of their attempts to reach a new life in the US were clustered at a distance from the border but reveal the amazing distances many undocumented migrants travel before they collapse, without food, and most often out thirst and dehydration–in ways that force the viewer to scrutinize its mute surface of dots against a deceptively pastel base map in hopes to glean the stories of the individual migrants whose lives ended far earlier than necessary, and the stories of whose travails and travels can never be told, and is reduced to the finality of a bright red dot, arresting attention but disarmingly flat.  Over 2,000 dead migrants whose bodies were retrieved at a significant distance from the border suggest their desperation to make their way across the border by clandestine routes, and the extreme climactic difficulties that they face, with few adequate provisions for crossing deserts whose expanse they feel forced to travel to search for jobs–and increasingly by risking their lives to do so.  This is only a fraction of those who have actually died attempting to travel north, leaving detritus and lost objects in their wake that only beg deciphering.


GIS Mapping of Individual Deaths on Arizona Border





The terrifying distribution of migrants’ deaths near to the US-Mexico border over a decade are not tied to one place, but congregate along the borer itself, from which they bleed into the edge of the nation in ways that strikes one in the gut.  Their striking distribution in a set of overlapping red dots suggest the accumulation of a terrifying loss of life.

The deaths of migrants raise compelling questions about how we have allowed or tolerated the multiplication of the deaths of migrants who undertake cross-border transit, and the inhumanity of compelling migrants to undertake arduous voyages across long, uninhabited stretches of land and undue difficulties.  The maps invite us to with the scale of the loss of life and a universal problem of processing the undocumented, and compel us to try to arrive at a better process for managing the nation’s borders, based less on strategies of exclusion:   one is left silent trying to process the 2,000 corpses of migrants who died attempting to cross the border between Mexico and the United States–many found in different states of decomposition in the Sonora desert near Arizona‘s borderline with Mexico.  For the pathways of many migrants trying to circumvent increased border patrols has transformed the lands of many state counties into killing fields.  The recent plans to augment the place of stationed surveillance agents along the border by Donald Trump will not only compel more cross-border transits to be planned and accomplished, but place undue duress on the even greater difficulties to evade surveillance in the expanded borderlands through the interruptions of built boundary walls, and those who attempt to avoid apprehension or detection by travels through the desert.


1:3 border is fenced  NPRAlready Built Barriers and Walls (2013)


Misrach, Border SignsRichard Misrach



Mapping these deaths over the past decade reveals less of a single cause than something of a social pathology of heightened strategies of law enforcement:  despite increased border patrols, motion sensors, and new border fences, the Department of Homeland Security has been forced to create temporary morgues in refrigerated semi-trailers to accommodate remains, mobilizing forensic experts, and posing problems of mitigating migrant deaths.  Despite recent attempts to help migrants who travel through the high desert in an attempt to reach a highway where they can be met by setting up conspicuous water towers, mounting body counts have come to task the resources of many Texas and Arizona counties like Brooks County in southeastern Texas or Pima county in Arizona.  Even after autopsies and DNA sampling and identification, most of the one to two hundred corpses found so far in 2013 are unidentified.  The corpses suggest the crisis of the border as it exists is a crisis of management, as much as of policing, and of adequate supervision and attention to migration problems.

The remains of those attempting to cross the border make only the point of testing one’s sense of humanity against the recurrent tragedies and human casualties of the failure to deal with our borders.  The below map locates tragic deaths of migrants attempting to cross of the border, noted in red dots, against water stations placed in the region.  While there can be less of a single cause of these , poses problems of responding to their spike over the thirteen years.


Migrant Deaths and Water Stations, 1999-2012


The semantics of this map of migrant deaths across the Sonoran desert, a poster for Humane Borders/Fronteras Compasivas, bears contemplation:  whereas a map registers an abstraction of space removed from particularities, and a border line demarcates imaginary lines between states, often drawn by surveyors with adequate surveying tools, bounding regional entities of abstract names, the abundant red dots are markers of individual migrants’ deaths, and register actual effects of a erecting an insurmountable fence along the border-line.


A border patrol vehicle observes six miles of border fencing in Douglas, Arizona


Leaving aside the many documented instances of mistreatment by border patrols, the recent rise of deaths by starvation or dehydration raise questions about the defense of borders.  Despite diminishing net migration across the border in recent years, the discovery of remains of some two hundred bodies of migrants each year in the Sonora desert, as measured by the Arizona Recovered Human Remains Project, roughly a third of which remain unidentified, indicate divergences between the law’s intent and its effects.

The mapping of border deaths of migrants, many clustered against the border that they had crossed, make a case against our failure to formulate a comprehensive border policy as obstinately as individual migrants’ remains.


jp-REMAINS1-articleLargeRemains in Pima County Medical Examiner (Joshua Lott/NY Times)


It’s morally difficult to absorb the evidence of individual deaths, which densely overlap with one another near the border in a red field, let alone the skeletal remains of individuals who never made the cross-border travel successfully:  it’s perhaps impossible to sum up the loss of lives in maps charting the record numbers of migrant deaths around the Mexican-US border, dramatically risen to record highs since 2003, during the year after they were strengthened and reinforced at considerable expense.

What has such attention to the border with Mexico accomplished?  In the past year alone, US Border Patrols apprehended some  356,000 immigrants as they attempted to cross the boundary line illegally, considered to be roughly half of all attempts–at least 43% are likely to try to cross again; immigration reform has lent new urgency to migrants’ repeated attempts to try to cross the border after repeated detentions, moreover, since a “path to citizenship” would require prior residence.   (Roughly over 60% of such attempted migrants are construction or agricultural workers, largely male, half of whom claimed to have waiting jobs.)

This raises interesting questions of the ethics of mapping migrant deaths.  The number of deaths due to drowning, dehydration, or other accident occur as migrants try to secure a path across the border the United States shares with Mexico, and are pressed to seek routes of relocation across the desert or Rio Grande that evade American authorities who have come to police the zone–a region that is now policed as if in imaginary defense of the boundaries of the Old West or mythical frontier of the “fatal environment” that leads ranchers to ride horses beside Homeland Security officers, largely for symbolism or show.


John More:Getty Images-Cowboys on Borders(John Moore/Getty Images)

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Filed under border barriers, GIS, mortality maps, US Border Patrol, US-Mexico Border

Infographics in America

If the nineteenth century America has been often described as an era of geographic integration, perhaps no one more than the ambitious statistician Francis Amasa Walker created a new way of seeing the nation that foregrounded both the local differences that continued to divide the nation, but staked out the challenges for integration that the country faced in geographical terms.  His extremely influential 1874 Statistical Atlas, based on the unprecedented 1870 US Census that he directly supervised and made the case before Congress about the undeniable need for funding, whose maps created an image of the challenges of national unity that remained in the republic in the wake of the Civil War in which he had fought:  the Statistical Atlas extends the enterprise of the expanded Census, validating how statistics present a synoptic picture of the political economy–illustrating relations of the local to the polity across continuous United States as if processing part of a mental effort of consolidation.

Even before the unprecedentedly bitter electoral divide of 1876, Walker advanced maps as providing a new way to embody the polity through the visual records derived from statistical aggregates.  Although Walker’s subsequent tabulation of the data on immigrants in the late nineteenth century led him to fear their arrival as threatening the nation’s productivity, based on his perception of the depth of racial differences to the national polity, and encouraged others to do so, he advanced the embodiment of statistics in geographic maps, in ways no doubt influenced by his close collaboration with his father, the economist Amasa Walker.  In ways that prepared a basis for his use of maps to express the contested electoral results of 1876, Walker treated maps as coherent statements about the nation’s divides otherwise not able to be articulated, as a basis to start debate about the well-being of its political economy.  (His maps were so convincing, indeed, in framing a question of geographical organization, that they may have encouraged a narrative of geographical integration only recently challenged by investigations into the geographies continued to be produced on the local or regional level.)

Walker's Image of the Nation's Population

Mapping Population Density in the US, 1870

Susan Schulten has recently advanced the quite compelling argument that Walker’s innovations constituted gave the “invention of the infographic” distinctly American roots.  Her argument spoke appositely to the almost obsessive return in recent elections to infographics that suggested the likely tendencies of voters, and indeed often reframed a narrative of division into “red” and “blue” states–and even designated some “purple”–in ways that revealed an undeniable undercurrent that verged on obsession of questions of national unity and division that were of the very sort that Walker had similarly sought to address when he undertook the reformation of the decennial Census in 1869 at an amazingly young age of twenty-nine–no doubt with insight as to the ability to advance and illustrate the distinct distribution of space that the nation occupied.

Even as a staggering proliferation of maps of electoral zones flooded airwaves, newswires and web during the 2012 election, Schulten traced the invention of the American infographic to the innovative visualizations of data and government statics by an enterprising statistical mapper who after working to organize the 1870 Census, not only drew up a comprehensive reform of the census but treated its findings to create a “statistical survey” that came to  embody the nation’s political and economic unity.  While earlier Censuses were strikingly unscientific, Walker advanced issues of political economy in maps as an extension of his expansion of the decennial census, organizing the tabulation of population, agriculture, mortality and manufacturing data on 39 million Americans, and placing prime importance on geographically orienting statistics as tools to better visualize the nature of social and economic divisions after the Civil War in which he had fought and been grievously injured.

Walker’s maps framed the issue of integration in legible fashion–and produced them to allow the fate of the nation’s unity and division to be processed for a wider audience than would have otherwise confronted them–they did so since they readily processed statistics that went far beyond physical phenomena to chart the racial composite by which the national economy could be understood, moving beyond existing models of its physical geology–which he also included in the Statistical Atlas

walker-map-geologyPrinceton University (from Statistical Atlas, 1874)

–to attempts to embody the composition of its human inhabitants whose aggregates were earlier not clearly understood, in what was indeed the first public census to count African Americans who were former slaves as part of the nation’s fabric.

Colored in Aggregate

Colored Populations in the United States (1874) (Courtesy of Princeton University Library)

Walker’s advocacy of such choreographic statistical maps as snapshots of the political economy led to an invitation to join the editorial board of the New York Times–which he declined, probably since he continued publishing in competitors from Scribners’ Monthly to Harpers’ New Monthly, emerging as a public intellectual of originally progressive bent.  For Walker had convinced the US Congress to adopt a variety of projects that used recent lithographic techniques and statistical correlations to use the results of the 1870 US Census map an coherently compelling image of the nation’s situation for public debate.  If all maps reflect both the character and competency of their makers, Walker’s maps reflect the excitement and tenacity of mining data from the Ninth US Census of 1870 that he had compiled with congressional authority, compiling, correlating, and refining the image of the distribution of wealth, illness, and health to a degree that had not ever been earlier achieved.

He engaged in mapmaking in print as a form of public discourse that elevated the statistical map as a tool for envisioning the nation as an aggregate.  Walker’s early involvement with late nineteenth-century newspapers like the Springfield Republican Newspaper as well, from the late 1860s, at the Atlantic Monthly, in fact no doubt encouraged his trust in the power of such organs of public debate–and the power of printed supplements based on the US Census, several of which he published for Harpers’ New Monthly, as well as in Scribner’s Monthly, The Century and North American Quarterly, in ways that no doubt led to his conviction in the infographic as a way to shape public debate on political economy, population density, home servitude, and the working classes.  Walker’s position as Chief of the Bureau of Statistics and Taxes may have helped him use his position as Superintendent of the fifth US Census at just twenty-nine to present the project of the first Statistical Atlas of the country, a project which he expanded in the 1880 Census, whose unprecedented twenty-two volumes collected an even greater range of information than ever previously collated and greatly refined the unscientific nature of previous decennial censuses.

Francis Amasa Walker saw the U.S. Census not only as a way to view populations of states, but to expand the vision of and the likeness of the nation by the more arduous measure of density per square mile, and to then use that image to chart the distribution of the national population as a demographic tool.  He worked with the census to conceive of the map as a measure for mapping complementary sets of data, by mapping relations between density and select quantifiable variables, mapping population density against wealth distribution, literacy, childbirth rates and disease–but not voting preference–in maps that created a legible record of the country, whose public good he convinced the US Congress to fund Atlases in 1872 and 1873.  By transferring statistical observations into a detailed picture of the nation, he began from a base layer of the contours by which its population was distributed, without focussing on jurisdictional bounds, in ways that effectively augmented the independent authority of maps as media of sociological investigation and public communication to an extent that had never before been the case, but established a central place for detailed choropleths in the American Grain.

Walker's Image of the Nation's Population

The maps are stunning choropleths that exploit lithographic techniques to picture the national population in great detail.  Walker started from the initial map of density, using the census of 1870, of which he was superintendent at the age of 29, and whose possibility for converting into cartographical form he seems to have readily perceived.  The plans led to the publication in 1874 of the Census’ data, in an initial atlas that totaled just fifty-six pages, each map of which has a degree of detail never seen as a visual embodiment of the nation, but emphasized its distribution of population and industry to an extent never realized–and, at least among its readership, posited questions of national coherence that concretize concerns for the country’s political economy:

Mapping Density in US

Density of Population in 1870–including African-Americans as well as Whites

For the first time, they also offer a mode to integrate African-American former slaves within a national economy, and posit a detailed, comprehensive and analytic image of population density across the north and south that suggest the value not only of statistics but of imaging the nation and its divisions in a decennial census.  The embodiment of issues formed as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury placed issues of political economy before the eyes of their readers in especially effective ways.
The fine grain of variations provided a new way to look at the nation, as the compelling lithographic choropleths of Alexander Bache, by using line-engraving to chart the population rather than topography as their concern, or coastlines or hydrography, than the shifts that the 1870 census revealed.  If riverine paths were noted, the South looked distinct when one saw the vast “gaps” or absences of population in much of the rural areas of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia, and indeed the concentration of the population most entirely along rivers where agricultural trade grew.
Population Distribution chloropleth
The image of population density dramatically grew in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, in ways that charted the new image of the nation, and must have posed questions of how  population density mapped onto the distribution of wealth, or, an extension of it, childbirth rates, in order to refine and better understand the picture of national population it put forth.
Virginia to Georgia Chloropleth

Things got more complicated and more exciting when Walker mapped the distribution of wealth among these densities of population, in ways that helped reveal the uneven distribution of incomes across the post-war nation, and revealed a conspicuous ongoing divide between northern and southern states that related to industry but also to the extreme impoverishment of much of the population in the southern states that would continue to be a contradiction and difficult conundrum in the nation:

Mapping the Distribution of Wealth

The sort of graduated shaded in maps that Walker created provided something of a counter-map to the symbolic uses of mapping as a way to envision national unity, and pinpointed questions of the intractable nature of differentials of wealth.  If pockets of wealth extended deep West into Iowa and Kansas, and lit up Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania in deep auburn hues, the Mason Dixon line was a divide in how wealth was distributed whose light ochre and pockets of white were rarely interrupted by redoubts of wealth, almost entirely along the coast or select segments of the Mississippi River.  His maps adopted the recent precision of mapping population density against its distribution that had been pioneered by Alexander Bache’s compelling visualization of the records of the 1860 Census with the German emmigre engraver Edwin Hergesheimer

The detailed cross-tabulation of population and wealth seems a bit of an odd ancestor of the modern infographic, although their kinship is clearly recognized.  For the image of Walker demanded the sort of detailed attention as a picture of the nation to which the compacting of information or metadata in the range of infographics generated by GIS programs rarely provide.  If Walker anticipated GIS in a fashion, the rapidity of generating the infographic that synthesized metadata with amazing facility and rapidity rarely demands the sort of attention that Walker’s images command.  In part, the lithographic medium habituated viewers to the parsing of refined distinctions in the economic landscape that variations of shading revealed:  the starkest of our blue/red maps with some pink or light blue question marks are removed from the fine-toothed sort of distinctions drawn in the census, or from a similar statistical subtlety.

But the proliferation of the infographic so readily produced and tabulated provides less of a reference tool than an attempt to hold onto the permanence of a snapshot provides within the rapidly shifting and changing landscape that often seems adrift in the electoral sea.  The questions that Walker asked–distribution of wealth, literacy, disease rates–are rarely raised in the infographics we see most frequently, even excepting Fox News’ proclivity for the infographics that perpetuate stark divisions.  The ‘mediazation’ of the modern infographic as a labor saving device not for observers, but whose construction demanded a more limited investment of detailed attention, has created a new assembly-line production of images of limited refinement, whose authority rests on their mapping substrates, rather than on the measurements they mediate and encode.

The limited subtlety of the infographic suggests not only their ideological points, but a shift in what might be called, with the late Michael Baxandall, a “period eye” to express the tastes of interpreting images from media to the viewing map–the habitual practices by which we look to maps in an age of the rapid-fire production of new infographics each day for broad consumption and, also, ratings appeal–or how infographics snappily  process an argument in a bottom-line nature, rather than approach the social topography whose complexities we’d maybe rather not want to detect or explore at close range:


Most items that bear the name of infographics might not be data visualizations, or even use the map as a tool to construct the meaning of its contents, since the map is so often and so readily abstracted from the territory. Maybe a map might even suggest what we might want to keep distance from, rather than to consider up-close:

Top Party Schools

These pilfered objects are a bit extreme, but their divorce from any sense of geographic meaning is somehow telling.  Sure, these are something like visual jokes, but they make the point I want to make about the liabilities and deceptiveness that the using maps to organize contemporary infographics reveal that adopt maps to bolster their suasive abilities as much as frame a problem.  The mock-maps–the second based on an episode of Ira Glass’s “This American Life” by E. J. Fox, from a series he titles “This American Infographic”– illustrate the problem of the need that cartographical infographics fill, of both adopting the authority of the map (without containing much geographic information) and of using it to display the ready access to metadata that most images of GPS presume–or, in the most banal but most common case, the weather maps on the Weather Channel–and that most folks expect.  Data-mining becomes replaced by graphic design tools imported from the world of advertising, and the maps are a blunt instrument to make blunt arguments, or present an image of the status quo:  the big parties happen at big state universities.

Maps are especially powerful tools to process information for viewers.   Some less ridiculous examples of infographics reveal some surprisingly similar attempts at using mapping forms or mapping syntax to preserve an illusion of omniscience and often to illuminate or make a comment about national unity.  But they also often use maps in ways that, unlike the maps  derived from government censuses that Walker examined with considerable care to demographic variables, conceals an absence of  analytically meaningful argument.  They treat the map as a form of metadata that reduces analytic specificity–from a map of the “battleground states” that effectively uses a format of mapping in order to suggest either the limited support for the Democratic party in the nation (by using a shade of yellow closer to red than blue) or indicate the deeply flawed nature of the democratic process to their viewers.

Recall the sort of maps that were all the rage when Schulten described Walker’s innovative practice, if you can bear it.  Rather than resting on numeracy or the tabulation of relative measures of difference by a statistical model, the map foregrounds the indeterminate nature of places where polling was within a margin of error, rooted less in mathematical literacy but in pollsters’ relative ability of prediction.  The mediazation of the map is removed from a mathematics of mapping or an expectation of refinement, for it is almost more of a symbolization of a politics of stasis or an electoral divide:


The greater refinement of other maps that shaded “tending towards” in lighter colors foregrounded the unpredictable nature of voters’ preferences, more than the composition of the electorate, as they seem to table the question of national coherence or cohesiveness as a whole other issue.


In each of these admittedly varied cases, mapping indicates an aura of accuracy or invests a sense of stability in the face of indeterminate data.  The map is a totem by virtue of its processing of information from varied diverse sources, but the map blunts potentially far more precise tools that seem to divide the polity and focusses on electoral results.   The questions of numeracy that divide the nation are less based in a tabulation of data or statistical familiarity; the block-hues of states mute meaning analysis.

Blocks of red in the map seem possible of being emptied of geographic meaning.  One famous FOX infographic purported to identify a strategy for Republican victory, but undermined the very legitimacy of this potential scenario for the attentive few by mislabeling the states it purported to count with accuracy–as well as deceptively reinterpreting polling trends:

%22Western Path%22

The absence of an expectation of reading measurements beyond numerical addition are evident in a map more reminiscent of the refined criteria of a jigsaw puzzle than in puzzling questions of national unity or ideological difference:

electoral colors map

In part, ideological differences are just not that pronounced, and the maps are oriented to processing polling numbers that were changing like a stock-market ticker-tape, rather than providing a firm basis for a national portrait.  But the father of the infographic would most certainly not be pleased.  The adoption and diffusion of mapping forms in infographics provide metadata constructions perhaps most significant for how they quash related questions or discussions, by ordering a massive amount of data whose impression of preponderance is more likely to take away one’s breath than pose a question, and is almost always likely to conceal an argument.

To some extent, of course, the new elevation of infographics is the creation of the new media economy.  There’s an odd dynamic of devaluing of the analytic power of the map at the same time as elevating its explanatory power.  The map, in an age of reduced news content, seems to substitute for the strength of an analytic news story, as a GPS program produces a snappy infographic that seems both content-heavy and a pleasing amuse-bouche.  The need to process different news sources or on-the-ground informants might be both excused and avoided, where we can come up with a symbolic rendering of what happened, even if we don’t need to look so closely at what its causes or its actual ramifications were.  The absence of analytics in the infographic–which presents, as with the weather, the state of things as they are as an actuality that does not need further analysis or attention to local variation–is perhaps its most pernicious feature as a medium.  They stand at a remove from the maps that the great nineteenth century statistical geographer Francis A. Walker so valuably labored to design.

We develop infographics such as the following by crunching some obtainable numbers–in an image that unsurprisingly perhaps uses the residue of a weather map as its base–to tell a story that collapses multiple different narratives into a single set of information that the viewer can quickly process.  The iconic map that was diffused after the last election was less about fault lines or divisions in the nation, than a cartogram of the new image of alliances in the nation, where the entire midwest stood as a block of blue with the Western states:


That is not to say that infographics can tell a subtler story of similarly chorographic proportions, to describe the image of unemployment in 2003, for example in the country:

choropleth of unemployment in US 2003

But at what cost?  Choropleths such as the below seem to remove individual experience from their comprehensive picture–and provide a “big picture” that is actually difficult if  to comprehend for all the metadata they synthesize.  And they present an intractable image of a social divide whose dark bands of dark blue reveal a density of those out of work that only grew by 2008 in the very same areas:

choropleth of unemployment in US 2008

There was a similar crunching of numbers at a remove from individual experience of tragedy in a map of electric outages suffered as a result of Hurricane Sandy, providing a purview of outages from Augusta to Raleigh.  The map is powerful and striking, but also elided the stories of its destructions or narrative of its meteorology with an easy infographic of a sort of least common denominator to everyone can easily relate of the lights going out.

infographic on power outages from Sandy

These maps erase their inhabitants. So what, then, we might ask, is the territory?

The ghost of Walker, and continued prestige of his aesthetics, have led Nathan Yau of Flowing Data to provide a comparable set of visualizations that embody our national territory, based on the ongoing statistical surveys of the American Community Survey of 2010, to “revive” the project of a Statistical Survey in the footsteps of his august predecessor, noting with some evident pain the absence of any plans by the US government’s Census Bureau to produce one after 2000, perhaps due to the high costs of the Census itself–and the recent Republican-led effort to even claim that the decennial Survey is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy–even though it provides the best basis for the apportionment of government funds, and one of the clearest demographic portraits of the country–that tarred the survey in no uncertain terms as “intrud[ing] on people’s lives, just like the Environmental Protection Agency or the bank regulators,” according to Daniel Webster, an inspiringly named first-term Republican congressman from Florida, who questioned the random nature of the survey as illustrating its “unscientific” value, despite its assessment of over three million American households in considerable demographic detail about their occupations, housing, literacy, languages spoken at home and at work, and levels of education, as well as their approximate computer use.

Perhaps with some premonition of the dangers of resting our democracy on the thin infographics consumed by watchers of television news, the self-published Survey Yau published online imitated the august elegance and clarity of Walker’s maps to point up the absence of needed visualization of the data that the Census compiles.  The images–able to be bought individually as posters–suggest the deep presence of Walker’s idiom of visualization within our current media circus, when the proliferation of news maps from various outlets and Graphics Depts. seem dislodged from the interest of the public good.  Yau’s project was may seem to have obviated need for an impartial assessment of all the data that the Census compiled.  Indeed, while the Times, which once offered Walker a seat on its editorial board, created a brilliantly colored set of interactive visualizations based on data from 2005-9, Yau offered nostalgic images that embodied the images of the nation that the government has puzzlingly withheld, with climatological and agricultural data that provide a similarly detailed atlas of the coterminous United States which, in an age overflowing with data visualizations, remind us of the need to preserve a picture of the nation to ensure we keep the public informed.



The detail of the maps, set in a sepia background with shadings that somewhat approximate the exacting palette of Hergesheimer’s half-tones, provide a set of gradations of population as revealed in the data of the 2013 ACS,



Or, to depart from the demographic and verge into the statistics of the environment, the distribution of levels of rainfall,




or landcover:


The data waits to be visualized, and the simple monocular visualizations capture its complexion with quite understated elegance.  While less rooted in concerns of political economy, the visualization hearkens back to a unified choreography that we often seem to lack–even if it only pictures tornadoes–in ways that go beyond the existential qualities of weather maps as records of the present day.



To be sure, the political economy of the nation has become so fragmented that it is hard to visualize by such clearcut lines or shadings, even though the Times’ visualization of the American Community Survey similarly uses the map as a surface on which to throw the composition of the nation–and the nation’s cities–into relief, here drawing on the Survey to present the complexity of the population of an actually quite segregated New York:

ACS 2005?

from New York Times–“Mapping America: Every City, Every Block

Should such mages serve to whet your appetite for better visualizations that embody an accurate image of the nation, folks based in the Bay Area might want to check out how the students at UC Berkeley’s I-School stack up against Fox News, Huffington Post, the New York Times, and even Francis A. Walker, by looking at the results that are now showcased at  (The website promises to present recent graphic charts of Changing BehaviorsEnhancing Information Systems, and Information Organization and Tools that have been refined over the last three years.)

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Filed under data visualizations, GIS, infographics, political economy, statistics