Category Archives: OSM

Variations on Our Fragile Union: Small Stores across 40,000 Zip Codes

Any maps create quite powerful tools to knit regional divides into coherent forms.  The order of maps serve both to fabricate harmony of a whole from its parts and for showing its divides, in ways data visualizations make increasingly clear.  If the origins of “chorographies” were illustrations of communities, and aestheticizations of their harmony, we’ve become increasingly interested in and attuned to visualize divides, as much as visualize unity, to explain the symptoms of divisions where they might be most evident, and use the format of the map to demonstrate compelling evidence of the fractures that divide, and explore how ideology ever came to “cluster so predictably,” in with geography,” as Steven Pinker nicely put it, and if different conceptions of human nature exist in different parts of the country. We’ve all been all too familiar with the recent remapping of these divisions, increasingly evident  in our political discourse, and affirmed in different ways by posing a set of choropleth maps as points of departure in order to chart, gloss and explain the extent of our divides by the range of data available on local differences across our fragile union.

As we approach Christmas and the season of gift-buying upon us, it makes sense, as Philip Bump, with some help from folks at Esri and Stamen, suggests, to consider the stores where we realize shopping habits and alternatives as criteria that increasingly divide us–and consider the consequences such divisions hold.  Indeed, the divided commercial topography in many regions of America reveal–even more than real estate–a deeply drawn set of cultural divides rarely considered in attempts to understand our fractured political landscape:  so dense are the clustering of large stores in certain areas that they obscure the legibility of place names.  In ways that reflect something like a Google Maps query “shopping at private business near [ZIP code]”, the distribution of data suggests how the landscape of shopping shifts in regions of the United States that provide a deeply qualitative record of our society.  But rather than generate a list of sites, or map all stores, selective parsing of large scale vs. independent shops provides a neat filter to measure the commercial contours of the landscape in ways that won’t so much correlate as reflect a composite image of the lower forty-eight. What’s the new political topography of the United States?  Well, perhaps it’s less red states vs. blue states, here shown in two views of the divisions between Democrats (blue) and Republicans (red)–by data here parsed at county level and by intensity of affinities–map a deep set of social divides that have strikingly played out in weirdly clear geographical blocks in presidential elections.

As Steven Pinker put it, “Regardless of who wins the presidential election, we already know now how most of the electoral map will be colored, which will be close to the way it has been colored for decades.”  Why, indeed, are some red states so red, and other states so blue?  Is this a sign of a divide between rural and urban inhabitants and political preferences–or is it deeper, and, if so, how did we become so divided in our imaginary of what the nation should be?  Are these maps creating differences, or do they reveal some of the deeply-set social divisions codified by Mason and Dixon as a latitudinal divide, but whose division is now reflected ban urban/rural divide? We all know that the last few elections have been stunningly fragmenting–

votes-  red v blue, by county and interest level

In a coy reference to collective mapping, Aaron Black of the Washington Post used Gallup’s annual rankings of which states are the most conservative and which are the most liberal to create a heat map of populations across the nation, employing the popular cartographical device so often adapted in infographics to chart virtual a spectrum of political opinion, which, while less intended to emphasize the fixity of divides within current public opinion, showed that outside of Alabama and Wyoming, the number of self-declared “conservatives” in the country does not follow such a close divide:  yet it is hard to find a less changing term than “conservative” and “liberal,” and these don’t map onto the breaks in voting that have recurred across four presidential elections.

%22Open Heat Map%22Washington Post

But the pressing question of where these divides actually lie have led folks to return to maps with considerable zeal–both as powerful heuristic vehicles of statistical measurement and projection, and to find possible answers for these real divides.  The prevalence of infographics and talk radio have conspired to make this a real issue of political debate for the The American Conservative, where Patrick J. Buchanan placed the question of secession on the front burner this year, corralling red state secessionists and blue-state secessionists into the same category as folks who acknowledge we either face increasing ungovernability due to geographic expanse or having little in common:  the issue of what we have in common, not much of a question for the very notion of a nation or state was in the past understood to balance multiple interests, may be less the question than the “spirit of intransigence” that we face in most political debates.   Does this have to do with the vociferous defense of issues that won’t be debated, or the fact that we have been all too often poising debates in quasi-imperial essentializations of what is un-American?  Or is it due to “lifestyle”?

Can we remap these divisions along lines of population density, as Robert Vanderbai of  Princeton University has argued, whose compellingly recast the electoral map to reveal how two alternate styles of sociability came to inhabit one land.  By throwing the stark red/blue political topography into 3D relief, Vanderbai invites us to look at that divide, not fractured by different data, but mapped onto density so that we might better understand our electoral maps:

Blue v. Red Topo Raised

The divisions in the electorate have also, of course, encouraged the weirdly popular but loosely credibly parsing of local attitudes across the nation.

Despite the hugely informative value of this density distribution, the question of how the distribution of the landscape we have created might be as well illustrated by the commercial topography we have created, and the space that they create.   For the interesting map that charts a distribution between the majority dominance of large box-stores or chain-stores over smaller privately-owned stores suggests a unique landscape that we have become all too used to inhabit, and a measure of density all its own–but not necessarily in tandem with Vanderbai’s glorious and striking distribution of a two-color bar-chart.  Although Vanderbai’s chart makes the compelling case that our distribution of electoral votes no longer in fact reflects the population distribution in the country–and indeed the possibility of the winner of a popular vote losing the number of votes in the electoral college–the map is less than informative of the landscape we have created in the United States–a landscape that is still being repeatedly surveyed.  To be sure this reflects or is a reflection of density, but also offers an alternate index of social topography.

Let’s peak at the regions that Bump has created, in far more fuzzy fashion, by agglomerating the number of stores across its 40,000 zip codes, and taking a measure of those regions where large retailers show a clear dominance to the extent that they have pushed out all but one privately owned retailer, noted in reds of varied intensity, versus those blue dots where privately owned retailers constitute the majority, and the corridors that this creates, despite its lack of clear contours.  While the ZIP-code breakdown is reflective of the new concentration of wealth on the eastern corridor, the relative decline in incomes provides a clearer index of where such box stores (predominantly discount retailers, who appeal to the pocketbooks of their customers) will tend to concentrate.

Fuzzy USA

Income by County:2012

The contours of these divides provide a basis for re-examining the arguments implicit in most recent choropleths, and thinking about the nation we are poised to become.  Although not exactly mirroring the levels of declining income, one can detect in the areas of the spread of the big red superstores a reflection of the yellow states with median incomes below $22,126 a year, showing a selective density of big bog scores pushing in toward Denver, and congregating around Michigan, the Great Lakes, Iowa and near Arkansas.

Red Crawling INland to Denver

Starting small, for example, take the data that Natural Earth and OSM mappers help reveal about the new topography of shopping in the Midwest, that both reflects density but even more the sorts of incomes that can support private businesses:  as one moves outside of urban areas, the proportion of zip codes composed almost or entirely of exclusively large retail stores rises in clusters, often clustering (predictably) about pockets in precisely those cities also able to support small businesses:


The blurring of the map, in a far fuzzier version at larger scale, suggests a veritable field of red that is almost aligned in belts, and creates a strong contrast to many parts of the country lying further west . . . where they seem to choke off privately owned stores.

Fuzzy Mid-West

Returning to view the southern reaches of the country a greater scale, the discreet stores in much of South appear as oases of small businesses in relatively open land–presumably where small businesses don’t crest above a level of 50%– in Nashville, Atlanta, and Memphis:

Southern US

Looking at the odd distribution of the Eastern seaboard, a region where large stores appear to dominate the landscape of all but the coastal corridor, and gain a distinct density as one moves inland and approaches a different economy.

Fuzzy NE

A more fine-grained view of the same region–focussing on New York to Baltimore–reveals a more complicated topography, but echoes the general division between small pockets of private stores and box stores that choke out the competition, being the chain stores that they are, which, with relatively cheaper real estate at malls that can be bought up and leased out by developers, creates a new division between our populations that may be deeper than–if it is created by–a gap in income or disposable wealth.  Interestingly, an abundance of privately held, smaller stores is often concentrated around smaller towns, as well as taking on density at large cities.

New York to Philadelphia

What sort of social topography does this create?

The distribution of stores has not been indexed for growth rates, but might be measured against recent census findings about declining incomes.  The depressing image of the appropriately colored “brown” marking declining median household incomes in a period of just five years nicely captures the tone of depression of much of the country, and the difficulty of political classes to capture much backing outside the venting of folks whose incomes have declined.  Despite the aversion of a serious depression after the banking crisis, we’ve been hardly hit.

Median Income Changes, 2007-12

But the choking off of private businesses might be a sad consequence of these declining incomes, and the road trip searching for big bargains at Dollar Discounts that might be taking up the weekend breaks of much of the country.  While demanding further investigation, the number of chain stores that have emerged across in the country surely reflect the declining incomes in the nation, as much as changing costs of real estate.  And these m

The proliferating choropleths that have emerged to explain our social divisions, something of a tour of data visualizations that have duplicated like rabbits on the web will reveal, have in fact tried to uncover divisions in moods as dividing the country–although this map, with the authority of a DSM, seems to assign fixed moods to the boundaries between states that we have come to internalized, so nurtured are we in reading data visualizations as records of objective truth.

On one extreme, the heuristic value of those boundaries between states are fetishized in a spectacular fashion in America’s Mood Map, which uses statistics originally published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology to detect underlying differences of constitution–the personal, rather than the political–that creates an odd visualization whose  very terms (“relaxed and creative”; “friendly and creative”; “uninhibited”) make it sound like we’d all really get along quite well, aside from difficulties of understanding tone, and downplays any political division by recasting the map in terms of something like affect.  By ostensibly mapping divides of personality types and tabling the political, this map even invites you to find the state that best matches your mood, if one is to believe self-reported data.  (The division was parsed, with a straight face, as reflecting weather–hypnotized by the ubiquity of the weather-map and seeking to invest something like objectivity in the odd color-scheme below as something that revealed actual differences to invest the odd graphic with similar credibility–for more on the notion of mapping how “different regions have different personalities” in a data visualization, look here.)

America's Mood Map


Regional essentialization has proceeded, in an attempt to map the country as made of different nations.  In the drive to map national divides, Frank Jacobs parsed nine nations of North America on largely economic criteria, rather than personality, distinguishing regions of similar economic production, and casting each as a separate GDP, based on concepts of the uniqueness of our nation from WaPo journalist Joel Garreau, and again granting them stark objectivity via a choroplethic map that similarly served to instantiate diverse regions of the continent:


GDP map Is this a proposal for introducing new tariff lines?  If so, how much such a distinction makes sense–what about that “Empty Quarter”?  what on earth do they do, and how can they exist?–can be tabled.  And the future of the “foundry,” if it rests on metallurgy, is certainly on the rocks.  And what does Quebec produce, aside from fleurs-de-lis? Colin Woodard sought to describe national divides into some eleven groups, arguing that we’ve “we’ve never been a nation-state in European sense,” for all who imagined the possibility of American political unity, and wrote a slim book that recast the Progressive notions of a ‘melting pot’ by explaining that each region reflected its own distinct stock, and illuminate differences to which our democracy, supposedly, had unfortunately rendered us blind–but whose divisions Woodard appears to suggest might explain all American history, including the Civil War, up to the spread of the Tea Party.  Woodard’s pedantic mapping of distinct regional variations combines racial essentialism and a “revenge of geography” to point up our innate fragmentation: ELeven Nations

The distinctions were starkly mapped in alternative iterations of the “American Nations” were presented as a key to better understand ourselves, as if to hold a mirror to the land:


American Nations Sean Wilkinson Design


Sean Wilkinson Design Woodard’s work extrapolated from the historian David Hackett Fischer’s argument about the differences in the settlement of different regions–particularly the northeast and south–by different Anglo cultures, and the effects of Anglo farmers who settled the northeast from the Scots-Irish herders who settled the Deep South, and from the work of many anthropologists and the psychologist Richard Nisbett on the culture of honor in the South.  But despite some  neatness in registering cultural differences in the map, it doesn’t take huge skill to reveal the culture of separateness in the Deep South, and a floating barrier of “Appalachia”–the ‘light South’–around it;  yet problems arise when one moves from the map to individual experiences. Despite the evocative names with which other regions are endowed, from Tidewater to the New Netherlands, their relative stability or homogeneity as entities comes to break down, as does the notion that their boundaries are so firm.  The odd coherence that he supposes in such regions as “New France”–would Québécois see anything similarly to folks in Louisiana or even New Orleans, let alone accept them as affines?–and other regions–how isolated and cut apart is this “Left Coast” today?  What could ever be mapped as weirdly as Yankeedom, and is it still alive?–seem animated by an ethnic essentialism belied by the shifting map of ethnic divides and affiliations in the United States.

And it is not clear that these areas will retain meaning with and over time–although the deep danger of which the map is something of a symptom is a pronounced lack of national belonging across the land!  Woodard’s sense that American history “all goes back to who settled those regions and where they came from” flattens history, and would not be readily recognized by any local inhabitants. No doubt these can be traced to the deep and unavoidable social divides and fissures that exist in our country, and to the different parts that different regions have played in the culture wars.  Perhaps it might make sense to adopt an approaching demographic forecasting, less entrenched in the categories used today, and the apparent generation of megaregions.





There are, of course, true socioeconomic divides that fragment the country in all too real ways.  The frighteningly influential role of real estate in shaping the country is sadly evident when we map residential space by income, and illuminate truly early modern concentrations of wealth.  Using the American Community Survey to map a choropleth by variables of income, real estate, and educational levels attained, we can perform something like an archeology of the national map, digging deeper to examine the real divides among its inhabitants.  Dividing regions of the country by median level of income, clear pockets of navy blue surprise the eye and remind us about the unavoidability of underlying social divides–that, I’ve elsewhere argued, mirror local reception of the Affordable Care Act.




Or, again with an eye to the opposition to the ACA, long after the Great Society, we can divide our choros by clearly drawn concentrations of poverty as much as wealth, using a distribution of  local populations living below the poverty line in each of the nation’s counties that reveals a similar concentration of poverty in the deep south and southwest:




Not to mention the map–which somewhat scarily illustrates parallels–of the percentages of adults over 25 years of age who did not complete High School, in a sort of national map of educational attainment as they are reported in US Census figures:


Over 25 w:o High School Diplomas?


These stunning choropleths, courtesy Calvin Metcalf, Kyle Box and Laura Evans, reveal a Southwest and deep South we knew, but weren’t ready to acknowledge.  They tell an interesting story as to why Virginia and Florida belong less to the Old South–or to what it has become.   To look more closely at a comparison of other local trends in the Community Survey, look here. Yet we might do well to look elsewhere to map national divides, and new databases to grasp our emergent geographic divisions and continental divides.  While real estate markets have much to do with the divides, we seem to have individuated the intersection between density and real estate across state-lines, by taking the presence or absence of small businesses in our communities as a sort of tipping point.  For the benchmark of zips with one or more privately owned businesses reveal a major fracturing of the local landscapes in the country, oddly resonant with our divided electorate.  The huge regional discrepancies of coasts and interior needs to be read with density, in ways that few openly consider, as a means to map the habitation of the landscape, shifting from questions of bodies, ethnic composition, or other criteria, toward the nature of interaction between self and place that shops afford, and even the sorts of relations to objects that are synthesized in the contractual relations of the marketplace, not to mention the stimulation and relative criteria of judgment that a diverse marketplace affords customers. The below map of the nation is limited to those spots with no or one small businesses within the ZIP in question (the red dots, which often cluster and overlap, and are more intensely red to reflect the intensity of that concentration) and zip codes which are distinguished by a majority of small businesses (blue dots).  While this omits large regions of the country–where there are an intermediate percentages of small businesses, and they don’t register–those are of course the very regions where large stores are equivalent or exceed small businesses, making them likely sites of the inevitable large box stores.  And the selective optic of the map is precisely its virtue as a portrait of contemporary agora, or our evolving landscape of exchange.


small shops:large shops


In ways of considerable sociological significance, the map reflects the landscape we’ve made for our country, or we make for our selves, by mapping some of the sites where we define ourselves to what is left of the public sphere.  The map may indeed suggest some interesting sociological detail about where the country is heading, with interesting correlations to level of educational completion below which it lies.  There is something that goes beyond or beside a decay of discrimination, but leads to a shift in one’s relation to the market and how one is a participant or spectator in a collective activity, in the geography of box stores that can be mapped across America.   The dominance in a mental universe of Home Depot, Walgreens, Wal Mart, Dollar General, Target, Lucky, Thrifty, Family Dollar, Dollar Tree and even Sports Authority exposes a topography of disorientation and dislocation, rooted in the offshore production of goods and plastics, undermining face-to-face encounters in 24/7 Emporia that offer the best deals may well conceal endemic conditions of placelessness and timelessness:  in a country where 80% of the stores nearest to anyone are large retail chains, one has to interrogate the ramifications of what sense of social space we retain:   as we become consumers in another Holiday Season, bracing ourselves for sales, what sort of social change lies in no longer having a corner store? Where’s the analysis of this shift of commercial topography when you need it?

In ways rich with sociological significance, the map tells much about how store-goers orient themselves to the publish sphere, direct consciousness to the relation of goods’ producers, and regard the social contract or social nexus as a given or negotiated part of the status quo.  For as much as it lies in our pocket-books, perhaps the deepest divide among us of all lies in the landscapes where we spend it.  Perhaps the deepest divides of all rest on not so much in levels of income or consumption across the lower 48, so much as the shops available for perusing or spending time–and the attachments to place, to space, to objects, and indeed behavior pursuant from them, which inevitably cascade from how much time inhabitants devote to patrolling the aisles of brightly lit box stores of Sam Walton–rather than looking in at local businesses to greet their owners and examine their wares.  Based on a search for the places where “small business really thrives” in the lower forty-eight among the nation’s 40,000 zip codes, data from OpenStreetMap has allowed a map of the sorts of stores in each–noting in red those zip codes hosting none or one small businesses, whereas those where small businesses constituted an outright majority enjoy varied shades of baby blue.  The resulting small-business texturing of the country provides a valuable index for looking at–or reading, if not actively interpreting–the nature of its communities, and an alternate American Community Survey of its own.

While this doesn’t exactly correspond to a political divide, it may tell us more about what sort of a nation we’ve become–and what sort of commercial contacts that we value, or personal contacts we are able to cultivate to the owners of shops, places more likely to apt local products.   The division of red vs. blue is less reflective of a political divide, but seems to offer itself as an alternative metric to those above introduced to measure social divides, and belongs in the company of other social indicators taken as prognostics of political divides in the electorate, if not of an alternate community survey.


small shops:large shops


In ways that do not map directly onto the distribution of real estate–shown in the first map from data of the American Community Survey above–as one might expect, the topography of shopping that it indicates suggests deep social divides to which Nate Silver might pay some attention:  while the coasts are brightly blue, in California we can detect the conservative central valley and interior; the absence of blue in much of the central states is shocking, and preponderance of red throughout the south–save coastal Florida–overwhelms, although the Northwest seems reliably blue.  In Minnesota and Wisconsin, the red blotches shade to pink and dissipate; Texas seems divided with deep red concentrations.  Indeed, the problematic position of Pennsylvania in the national picture is nicely illustrated by its deep red isolation, whereas privately run business dominates the Northeast Atlantic seaboard, particularly north of New York, as well as in much of New England:




The irony is hopefully apparent, given that the defenders of Republicans are presented as the champions of free enterprise.  Maybe they are:  they are not, it seems, defensive of independent shops or businesses. The sea of red in the middle of the country, but seems a growing miasma that doesn’t necessarily respect political affiliations, but also bodes pretty badly for the survival of a culture of localism, at least in terms of the future (and profitability) of independent business:


Growing Miasma


The map, in the image it offers of the Midwest, reveals a striking clumping of regions without independent businesses–clumps not necessarily paralleling cities–the like of which is probably a major shift in our society the likes of which the world may have never seen:




Those places with greater income may simply be ready to foot the extra bill for local boutiques, some will say, or forget the offers of Amazon’s free shipping:  but we see a deeper divide, I’d argue, shaped by the market as much as responding to lines of wealth, and conditioned by all those aisles of shopping centers illuminated by starkly lit flourescent lights, lured by the slogan “Save Money.  Live better,” and names like Dollar Tree and Family Dollar that remind shoppers to keep the bottom line first and foremost in their shopping experience, rather than cultivating stores that might provide more jobs to their neighborhoods.   (Even if their parking lots may use LED lighting, most stores have a sort of blinding or blanching flickering flourescent light so recognizable that it seems potentially addictive as a unique neurological experience.) We can see a new mapping of the landscape around cities, which, if we take only the midwest, emerge as something like islands with private stores, surrounded by areas of box stores that cluster around the nearby highways and urban belts, to take Chicago and St. Louis; smaller towns are dominated by zip codes dedicated to large chains:


Around Chicago

St. Louis

And in the deep interior, many zips feature the near-absence of anything but larger super-chains:

In Illinois

And we can see the fracturing of a political landscape in divided states–such as Colorado–where diverse concepts of the geography of sales, as it were, present different models of a lived landscape, almost cheek by jowl, alternating between spaces of chain stores and a telling density around Boulder, Denver, and Colorado Springs–with a few exceptions–of small businesses.  In some ways, this reflects the deep debates in the state on such issues as gun-control, birth-control, ecology and a more nuanced or complex relation to federalism.

Complicated Colorado



Where we shop is increasingly what we are not only because of our attachment to objects or commodities, but how we are oriented to the world through the market–and as we map our relation to markets in different ways,  the ongoing onslaught of this attack of the big box stores has deep repercussions for our society’s unity.  Go forth and map as you do your holiday shopping . . . To be honest, some of the maps derived from this data don’t make immediate sense to me, or at least jibe with my own experience, such as the large number of small businesses found in Las Vegas, although I suppose this reflects the definition of a “small business.”


Las Vegas?

But the image of the Bay Area is somewhat recognizable, and recognizably blue.


Bay Area

Yet a broader landscape and context emerges as one expands to adjacent ZIP codes in order to include bordering strip malls, including those inevitable and all too visible nearby strings of outlets, and sections of highway that are dotted exclusively with box stores.


Bay Area Large

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Filed under American Community Survey, choropleth maps, Mapping Box Stores and Small Businesses, OSM, Red states v. Blue States, Red States/Blue States

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