Category Archives: Mapping Manhattan

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

Cartographic Selectivity and the “Objectivity Question”

The comments elicited by readers of the imagined maps of Manhattan island  that I discussed in my last post were so interesting because they mistook the selective criteria of mapping for their objectivity.  The personalized maps featured in the Magazine of this past Sunday’s New York Times appropriated cartographical tools to  render personal spaces in the anonymous city, recalling the way we map the neighborhoods we live in and how they change with time.  But readers of the online version blamed them for offering limited perspectives of the city.  This was especially true of those posted by former city-dwellers who didn’t recognize the city as it existed in their own minds–or maps, and felt that their own mental maps were under-represented or neglected and just, sadly, not there.  We all have subjective maps that divide social space in our minds, that don’t line up at all with judging the accuracy or objectivity of maps.  As Becky Cooper, the curator of these maps, puts it:  “I’m really, really bad at geography. But I think it helped me to see maps more as biography.”  Cooper’s collection of maps are very different from, say, Cohen and Augustyn’s volume Maps of Manhattan that Tony Hiss introduced.  And they only gesture to what Henry James called the city’s “primal topographic curse”–its street grid–or the many neighborhoods that can be mapped and were mapped in the island.

Some blame might be assigned the limited demographic range of those invited to map their memories of the city, or map their memories of particular sites in a far more diverse city:  the selective criteria that each adopts might just as well be read as an invitation (or opportunity) to map your own image of the city, and otherwise unremarkable sites that you remember in identical cartographical outlines.  These maps transfigured existing maps of the inhabited island, mapping the island as inhabited by you, mapping individual memories, objectivity be damned and cartography full speed ahead:  rather than erase the role of the cartographer, behind the veil of objectivity, the cartographer becomes you.

The practice of selective notation of what qualify as a prominent site fits an age when AAA sells Trip Tik Guides that pride themselves as  accurate routing maps for trips, consciously designed as counterparts to comprehensive road maps of a region.  Trip Tik Guides hearken to medieval route-maps, providing a very selective guide–if a comfortingly narrow guide–to a world where we may all too often suffer from information overload:  they winnow the basics from the maps, a service that the AAA folks are proud to offer for any twelve destinations from any zip code.  AAA meets ADD, in other words:  these maps can help us decide what to pay attention to, or allow us to read a map when we might be too easily distracted by its contents to navigate effectively with them, or be tempted to stray off course by the inviting name of a region or a coastline that can’t fit our itineraries, or just help us plan an itinerary for our entire weekend trip.

Objectivity or the rhetoric of objectivity are central to the market for terrestrial maps.  But that rhetoric should not conceal that all maps are not only selective, but use selective criteria to make sense of space.  The  sharpness of contrasts of their selectivity as records that orient us to space–and the mental ties their selective criteria create in space–is a measure of the usefulness of maps as tools to think about a space that seems a dauntingly undifferentiated expanse before we’ve been there to visit and make it our own.

In the medieval maps known as “mappaemundi,” or maps that represent the world, “the religious importance of towns . . . determined their location and their prominence,” as John Gillis put it, rather than their location or size.  There seems some comfort in not plotting a sense of space, and of privileging Jerusalem’s position  in how medieval T-in-O maps, and the early printed world maps that retain the Holy City as their center, for the very reason that not many places even needed to be named other than Jerusalem in a map of global space.    The divisions of space in this 1485 world map suggests less interest in comprehensively identifying places or dividing space to scale than describing the configuration of lands around the city called “hierusa” and Holy Land, even as it claims to “lay everything before our eyes,” including the origins of our oceans, including “the sources of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean”:



Most of the map, including the “terra incognita” of the mythical Antipodes, is blank.  Before the increasing

population of space, terrestrial expanse was still more or less undifferentiated in 1493, when sites worthy of memory were few, and maps’ contents were not read by audiences familiar with few places or sites.

Regional identifications were few, and confined to known landmarks and major rivers, all of which are less detailed than the sons of Noah, Shem, Japheth, and Ham, who hold the planisphere by its corners, as if it were a tablecloth, or the puffed cheeks of the nine curly-headed winds who float in the intermediate frame:


Schedel map small




So we might ask what are the criteria that we use to differentiate space, as much as wonder about the accuracy with which we denote place.  The new emphasis in maps of ordering place by terrestrial coordinates of location defined a model for reading space in quantifiable or measurable terms, in which a graticule of parallels and meridians offered terms for the viewer to judge distance and scale.

The selective criteria of later maps reflected not only knowledge of toponymy, or discovery an abundance of place-names, previously unknown, but the cartographical ability to delineate meanings in space.  Successful criteria of selectivity allow maps to make space available to the viewers, and cartography provides a sort of public ‘good’ to understand public space.

Although this sort of juxtaposition would not be possible to most, precise urban surveys allow maps of provocative maps of overlays, presenting maps less as sources of information than a sort of resource to “think about” space and imagine public space, particularly advantageous to urban planners.  I had hoped to include different maps of the UC Berkeley campus, one that construed spatial relations on directions, another by mapping creeks, and the last highlighting in blue routes lanes of wheelchair accessibility.  Each differently privileges information for different readers–and offers multiple views of the very same ‘space’–one concerned with routes of access and travel, another with spatial orientation to finding the individual buildings for university classes.


wc accessile campus routes ucb








Let’s turn to San Francisco’s space, however–more challenging to map and more recognizable, and offering examples more semantically complex.  The below maps explicitly construe relations that are hidden to observers, although with considerable spatial precision, as this visualization that performs a layover between crime, trees, and cabs in San Francisco, overlapping three data sets to  visualize a Venn diagram. This is not a simple visualization of data, but a unique topography based on selective criteria:  the concentration downtown of cabs (and hence potential witnesses or bystanders) do not lessen crime more effectively than the planting of trees; though it’s hard to see trees as an active crime-deterrent, the overlay tells us about how we construct our neighborhoods as living spaces.  Or, as the man who made the map, Shawn Allen, put it, “I’m still not sure if it’s significant, or even interesting, but here it is.


cabs, crimes, trees in sf.



The versatility and value of the selectivity mapping techniques depends on the readiness of the cartographer to perfect a legible iconography–as well as its ability to surprise and invite viewers to reconsider space by revisiting the socio-economic differentiation of a space that we might already daily move through.

The mapping of food access is a good case in point of how maps make space look different.  Although this map includes no toponyms or place-names, the synthesis of data into a tricolor spectrum of a data overlap creates a topography of food choices available in each neighborhood.  It poses questions of how food constitutes a neighborhood’s attraction and the constraints its inhabitants face, or consider how these choices arose.  Another map employs a color-drenched spectrum, glowing in flourescent hues that denote relative access to food markets across the city:  the spectrum dominates names of the city neighborhoods, to reveal a topography of food that underlies their divisions.



One might better understand the constraints its inhabitants face by a more traditional map of retail stores–both in terms of different regions’ quality of life, as well as real public health risks.  This alternate data visualization is at a finer grain, identifying seven varieties of sites of retail food stores of different colors, with liquor and convenience stores noted by a simple dot of black.  This makes the map both more detailed and less easily readable for some, but provides a meaningful view of the city’s urban space.


Retail foods SF



Successfully selective criteria can help create a map that is a better public resource.  To craft these maps of neighborhoods better, we’ve even begun to push against the preference for the visual, in maps poised to break sense-based walls as well as esthetic boundaries to register an aural dimension:


Sound Map of Missionjpg


Filed under Food Maps, Mapping Manhattan, San Francisco, sound maps, Stamen design, T-in-O, UC Berkeley Campus Map

Self Made Maps

Many online responses to the arto-carto project of Mapping Manhattan remind us of how the biggest challenge of any cartographic totalistic idealized view is to record local details with fine grain: it’s no coincidence the chorus of posted responses to the maps in today’s New York Times often complain about the loss or absence of specific individual neighborhoods, or the absence of economic diversity (and ethnic diversity) in the beautiful colored maps.  As an exercise of collective map-making, the project that Becky Cooper ideated and planned, “Map Your Memories,” provoked each cartographer to record their own view of that island, rendering it as inscribed with memories of their own.  This open call perhaps provoked the deep-seated nature of responses it has met, evident in the energetic nature of good-hearted responses Mapping Manhattan has elicited from online readers over the past few days.


The call to “Map your Memories” asked a range of writers, artists and other would-be cartographers to record individual memories in the outlines of a map of Manhattan island of vague north-south orientation.  The book stands on its head maps’ implied claims of objectivity, by treating media as a screen to project memories, whose individual design reveals their topography to be imprinted with haphazard collections of personal associations or reminiscences.  The white upper-class basis for these mapped perspectives  is implicit in their subjects– lost gloves, volumes of Proust, chick-lit, cups of non-Starbucks-brand coffee, lovely one bedroom apartments, or stages of urban fear; the maps are something like open invitations to play Proust.

They are rightly, and also wrongly, criticized as upper-class white bourgeois artifacts, since that is what they openly are–no one would presume to credit them or mistake them from objectivity.  (That might not be the audience that the New York Times wants to address, but is after all the audience of Abrams, the art-book publisher.)  The playfulness of some of the maps clearly perpetuate these myths playfully transform Manhattan to echo something like a medieval zone-map, where torrid zones of uninhabitability, and in fact are divided by zones where the mapmaker would never set foot or know:


In quite a few, boundaries of class are visually thematized and reified with a certainty familiar from  the medieval “here lie monsters,” or Odyssean sea-monsters, or an edge of the earth from which one might easily be able to fall . . .


These maps celebrate the artifice of cartographical fiction-making, reading more like the maps of Jules Feiffer and Norton Juster, or of the sensibility of that great medievalist JRR Tolkein.

I prefer to read other maps as a range of responses of common DIY creative reactions to the plague or deluge in most of our big media of weather maps, visualizations of databases via GIS creations or simulations, where detail provided by surveying is lost or filtered out for a schematic view of the whole, reactions that are apparent in their sheer cartographical abundance or ecstasy of naming with which each cartographer is offering a map of their own.   I see a sort of reaction to the dramatic diminution of the art of the cartographer in Google Earth or the Weather Channel, where big color-drenched screens, sometimes over-saturated with details or more often just clotted by hues to signify climactic variations or cloud-cover, replaced the selective criteria of mediating topography or settlement via cartographical art. Such a diminution of the act of creative cartography is, after all, an imaginative failure, as much as a shift in cartographical media.  Contrast the abstraction characteristic of many GIS-generated maps to the abundance of local meanings that distinguish the series of maps that Cooper has assembled.  There is a joy of celebrating the individual that has led so many of the online comments to beg for their own memories to be inscribed in the maps, as well as those of the authors.

This is evident in the visual celebration of the mapmaker’s art in the lovely watercolor map submitted by Markley Boyer, one of the few historical imaginations, of the imagined bucolic past of Manhattan as a field of green, surrounded by a sea of blue.  This map most reminds me of the impact of the tools that our cartographers use, as much as their level of artifice.


In this material remapping Manhattan as a lost Eden, the author of Manahatta: A Natural History of New York City, has reclaimed the artifice of map making in richly saturated colors and applied sponge.  This Manhattan of the mind is mapped at several degrees removed from the actual inhabited island–as are all the maps in this volume–but the degree of artifice by which it stands at a remove from the island reminds us how much all mapping records the relative richness of a vision of self.


Filed under Becky Cooper, Feiffer Map, Manahatta, Mapping Manhattan, mapping memories, Markley Boyer, Proust