Tag Archives: Oakland

The Recent Resurgence of Manually Made Maps

A somewhat celebratory survey of the recent rage for manually designed maps affords a veritable visual smörgåsbord of aesthetic pleasure and innovative graphical design.  It is interesting and tempting to compare them to the craftsmanship of manuscript maps, a subject discussed in an early post in this blog.  But the survey oddly makes little reference to the notion of the ‘counter-map’ that resists the omnipresence of the digitized map, and the manner we have come to be immersed in the traffic and generation of digitized maps.  To be sure, these are images suitable for framing.  But the appeal is in part a knee-jerk reaction to the satellite photo or the schematic land view.

In mediating a more fully stylized map of first-hand knowledge of urban areas clearly reacts to the increased hegemony of Google Maps–add your own business here!  map your way to work!  note your favorite coffee shop or restaurant near work!–as a plastic form of collective memory.  And, of course, a data resource on which Google can draw  in its own work.  The hand-drawn map is the map stripped of metadata and made without surveying instruments.  For the self-made map re-invests the format of mapping with a vibrancy and immediacy to enliven inhabited space once more–and indeed enliven the medium of the map that seems to slip out of our grasp as it turns up on our hand-helds, and even tracks our own habits of shopping, physical movement, data usage and cel phone use.  When we see the self-made map–and we buy them because of this–on Etsy or in the house of hipsters, we re-recognize places, and subscribe to how they define our emotional relation to space in ways that many other web-based maps make us feel more alientated.

If our memories are recorded in our maps, which note centers of interest, sites of pilgrimage, historical buildings, or public parks, the processing of how we track places worldwide in Google Maps is not somehow wrong or diminished, but has the sad effect of erasing any sense of specificity.  There is a display value of the map that is diminished from its reappearance on a tablet or smart phone, but also a dramatically reduced range of semantics or iconography:  it’s hard to imagine Charles Sanders Pierce, who enjoyed his spell of work on the conventions of map making and determination of spatial coordinates for the US Geodetic Survey, dressed in a neon shirt emblazoned with a corporate logo, using his expertise to boast of the benefits of Google Maps in tutorials.  The semantics of the Google Maps project is geared not toward innovation, but streamlined synthesis and ready access, after all.

And there is something of an erosion of display-value of the digitized map approximating Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura, since the refinement of data in digitized form approximates a concept of disembodied mechanical reproduction:  the emotional tie to the map is in a sense severed, the trace of the hand absent, the physical touching of the map’s surface gone.  These maps provide the clues and signs to reconstruct a mental map of place in one’s mind’s eye, rather than synthesizing the authoritative satellite composites whose clicks release downloaded data, but draw fewer associations from synaptic ties.  The focus of enriching the map’s metadata removes any trace of the hand.

Mapmakers like the artist Jenny Sparks set out to recuperate the specificity in place that still exists and see the map as a medium to invite the viewer to explore.  While there’s a tendency to map a uniform green, Sparks’ comprehensive imaginary but copiously detailed ichnographic stark rendering of the collective architecture of elevated skyscrapers in New York in 3D, in ways that collapse street-view into a crisp crowding of built boxes.  The map, interspersed with memories and words, includes Bob Dylan on 4th Street; Beatniks in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square; and the Farmer’s Market on Astor Place, and is interactively enriched with text.   Sparks winks at the zoom function of Google in the elevated buildings  of Manhattan, each carefully drawn, and words that unpack the cornucopia of memories that the built space of the city holds, as some sort of metonymy for its residents.


New York map by Jenni Sparks


The pop-up three dimensionality of the map plays with the flattened two-dimensional view of maps, but suggests a bird’s eye view into which viewers can peer.  A few close-up details of Sparks’ self-made map of reveal how the skilled placement of words among 3-D buildings in her imagined elevated view draws you into a space linked or bound by the colored avenues of underground subway lines, peering into its so densely cluttered detail:


Close-up of New York map by Jenni Sparks

The closer one looks, the easier to see an image of place saturated with the visual interest that Google Maps just fail to afford, as one falls into the map in order to get to know its neighborhoods, suggesting a unique zoom-in function that the clumsy navigability of Street View only approximates:

Sparks' NYC


The rise of the hand-drawn map not only is a testament to design or a rebirth of a craft, but uses precepts of design to counter the vagaries of digitization Google so actively promotes, in championing the synthetic properties of a register of businesses, places, and personal routes.  I’ve written elsewhere, earlier in the year, about Becky Cooper’s recent anthology of the recent efflorescence of maps that personalize one’s relation to place, almost a collection of tools to encode personal meanings for a broader audience.  These images recuperate the aura of the map and its materiality, its hand-made status and both the physical practices of encoding place and decoding space.

Something similar is going on in how Stephen Wiltshire draws Manhattan’s skyline from memory, lovingly attending the scale, proportions, and perspective views of each of the many skyscrapers whose sight so impressed Wiltshire on his first trip out of England that he promised to move to New York “in the future,” and claimed to have already designed his Park Avenue penthouse.  Wiltshire’s retention of and fascination with urban environments has been discussed by Oliver Sacks, and is the subject of Cities (1989) or Floating Cities (1991).  But his drawings are the intuitive opposite of a map’s abstraction of place by selectivity and spatial remove.




Unlike Wiltshire’s intuitive renderings of urban space, the abstraction of space of a place underlies these hand-made maps, which sketch something like a hierarchy of relevance within their totality.  There’s a huge appeal in reclaiming the map as an intimate record of place, as well as an art of encoding meanings that encourage further examination, as this “mash-up map” based on the personal experience of Shawn Watts, and might be best described as his spatial experience of a long-distance relationship, compiling the places they had been together not only in his native Montreal, but in Athens, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia, as well as Montesquieu, France, and reflects his own deep pleasure in “hiding secrets in maps” as opposed to publishing information, and a pleasure in using the map’s form to map or be the surrogate for an interior emotional state:


Shawn Watt's Shutterbug


For Watts, the density of meaning in maps becomes a way to unravel and eloquently express one’s own state of mind in public form, and to invite the viewer to partake in the pleasure of decoding its contents.


Hope Mapped


This somewhat but only partly legible hand-made silkscreen map of London comes in varied colors, populating areas with figures and words to approximate a paper cut-out hanging as much as a map:



If these maps treat the map as an artwork, the trace of the hand on the map is even more present in the medium of linotype map, recalling Renaissance single-point engravings or woodblocks.  The linotype word-map Marc Webber designed of Amsterdam, a historical center or clearing-house for engraved maps, places front and center the words often absent from Google Earth or many digitized maps to use them to fashion a sculpted cityscape, whose linotype words offer something of an alternate surface to see the city in one’s mind’s eye:




In Webber’s ‘map’ of Amsterdam, the written landscape becomes a site to explore and its very surface a sight to ponder; the texture of its woodblock words gains new textural richness as it is seen from different angles, from which the materiality of place-names on its linoleum-like surface increases in impact:


Amst Linotype-Looking at Map's Surface


Moving in to examine details more closely, the map assumes status as a surrogate for the world, as if the one-to-one map of which Borges dreamed or described is suddenly translated to words that substitute for things, as well as to the notion of a word-map:




The Central Station assumes a newfound concrete prominence that transcends its place-name, without the curled Stedelijk Museum beside it, from a distorted view of this mapped space:


Somwhat more derivative or second-generation forms of manual mapping already exist on the market, as the sort of silkscreen word-maps popular in New York that maps the city’s neighborhoods, many of which are as much destinations as the city itself–and might provide a tourist map of realty.  If it is meant to evoke neighborhoods, it oddly recalls  real estate, even as its cartographical transcendence of space seeks to create something like a cascade of memories whose every words might serve as triggers, rooted within lived experience.


Manhattan word map


If the map seems a bit of a bare-bones realty map to the uninitiated in New York life, it is far less elegant and inviting than pictorial perspective views realtors employed of San Francisco to enjoin viewers to become settlers.


Vene! Vidi!  Vicet!


There’s far more detail in a linotype word-map of New York City.  The silkscreened map plays with the legibility with which maps use words to arrange space by surrounding Manhattan island with big, looming, isolated blocked fonts–inserting recognizable neighborhoods and cultural monuments in an what seems a more improvised mish-mosh of fonts from a printer’s tray, rather than from a pull-down menu, arranging the text to replicate what might better correspond to the place of regions within our mental geography, all the while emphasizing the extremeley crowded nature of inhabited space in New York boroughs:




Sensitive as always to the particularity of place, Marc Webber’s quirkily detailed ‘word-map’ of Paris is more elegantly artisanal in how it fills the surface of the map, exploiting a range of fonts to arrange historical layers and tiers of class and style from the staid if impressive Opera to the lounging letters of Montparnasse, moving rangily down large streets.

Paris map by Mark Webber

The written city is more demanding of a mastery of fonts, to be sure, since it also depends on the arts of assemblage; the word maps sold in the Bay Area provide a nice counterpart since its patchwork of its complicated topography is so impressively dense, and the only area of uniformity seem the Presidio or the landfill regions of Bayview:


An alternative to this sort of mapping, illuminating the micro level of street-names, graces the design of one of Upper Playground’s t-shirts, suggesting the relative size of individual streets by their prominence in a list of names, that lends currency to the idea of the wearable “map”:

Upper Playground Tees SF name map

The diversity and unity of nearby Oakland is aptly captured in this patchwork roughly-hewn word map by Oakland native Ozan Berke of its 146 neighborhoods:  the jumbled density is almost rendered illegible by crowding, but with such dexterity that the artist/mapmaker uses to capture its diversity.  The density of some neighborhoods balance the urban intensity of some areas with the far more light settlement of the hills (Montclair, Sequoia; Claremont Hills; Skyline; Joaquin Miller):

Oakland Word Map



Writing the unity of the city in a sequence of place-names reconstitute the whole in a new form, as if by magical transmutation or an alchemy of type: this artist adroitly resolves the absence of the seceded largely ‘white’ village Piedmont from the city with the contribution that this town-within-a-city continues to make, writing its “name” as a neighborhood in mirror-writing, the “OMD” among the largest and most eye-catching in the map.

The declarative blending of words with place resonate with the politics of remapping popularized in the urgent signs displayed in the recent Occupy Movement outside Oakland’s downtown City Hall in Frank Ogawa Plaza to the iconography of the protest movement–mapping the helicopters that whirled overhead, but minimalizing their police surveillance to the upper corner of the map, and giving prominence to the placards that protesters held in front of City Hall–the scene at which these maps were sold:


Hella Occupy System Sucks

It is fitting to contrast the map to the elegance of San Francisco should be captured in the distinct media of a paper-cutting map, adapting the Chinese art of  Jianzhi (剪纸):

Paper Cut Out SF

The remove that all place cartographical practice from digital media or design is central, I would argue:  the artist reclaims their own synthesis of a unified whole as the subject of the map.  All evoke the late Saul Steinberg’s over-reproduced map of New York, famous as a poster and originally a New Yorker cover, used to suggest the limited global perspectives of its residents or the centrality of the city in a mental map of the world.  That map has its response in the recent satire of Mad magazine’s “Slimeball” mismapping mediated by and poking fun at the recent failures of Apple Maps.  The revision of the classic Steinberg view of the New Yorker’s View of the World  plays with the spate of failures that app by calling attention to the radical disconnect between even a familair place and digitally mediated map, as if to suggest the depths at which we’ve been had!




The growth of such a range of hand-drawn maps seems to me a reclaiming of place–as well as of mapping skills–that has come to gain a special niche of its own in the craft economy.  We are discontent with the proliferation of maps from which we are increasingly alienated–and which abstract information in ways confined to, say, only three viewing preferences.

There is still a possibility of changing less the digitized reconstruction of space than the notion of what Google defines as information, of course:   and perhaps the range of hand-drawn maps suggests some ways that this might be done.  The above view of New York, or rather its prototype, makes me wonder about maps that reprioritize the structure of information imposed on the templates of Google Maps:  a map, say, that would not note the Russian Tea Room or Trump Center and Empire State, but create historical layers of Automats, bodegas, Chock Full o’ Nuts, and 5-and-10 stores or the shifting confines of invisible ethnic neighborhoods in the city, and the impact of waves of migration.  This falls back on a map of memories.  And then, after all, it probably wouldn’t be hand drawn any more.


Filed under Aura, Charles Sanders Pierce, digitized maps, hand-drawn maps, Jenny Sparks, Jianzhi, linotype map, Marc Webber, Oliver Sacks, Saul Steinberg, Shawn Watts, Stephen Wiltshire, Street View, Walter Benjamin

The Density and Habitability of Urban Space

How to map the compelling question of urban livability?

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Desnity of Population [of US]

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

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

sq kilometer

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

specialreports_2edb.population density usa

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


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

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

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

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

out of reach hourly wage per two bedroom

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bay Area Property Map

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

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

Access to Parks in Los Angeles


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


SF Greenspace Stamen


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

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

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

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

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

Grocery Stores v. Bars

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

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


Community Gardens NYC region


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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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