Drawing the ‘Map of Every City’.

Last weekend I drew a map on a post-it note. Then I posted it on Twitter. 48 hours later it had 3000 re-tweets. Here’s (I think) why that happened…

The map isn’t a map of a city in the literal sense. Sure, the layout of the graphic mimics that of a map, with areas arranged in 2 dimensional space, with two bridges and a river lending it some kind of geographical framework.

However, it’s not actually a map of a city, not in the traditional sense anyway. Rather it’s a map of people’s experience of living in cities: The changing circumstances of people as they get older and have children, the way ‘cool’ areas emerge from formerly ‘rough’ areas and are then invariably compared to the less-cool, traditionally wealthy areas, the kind of areas that an Ikea needs to be built for it to be profitable. All these things are endemic to most large cities, with most of them the outcomes of events situated at some point along the gentrification arc.

Since the tweet was posted (tweeted?), there’s been a lot of speculation as to which city I was referring to when I drew it. As stated at the beginning, this was always intended to be a map of the experience of cities in general rather than a cryptic map of an existing city waiting to be cracked by an investigative twitter user. That said, my experience of cities has obviously been informed by specific cities, (in this case, Melbourne and London) which, unsurprisingly were most often guessed as the real city behind the map. However, as it turned out, everyone was managing to find their own cities within the same map.

Meanwhile, to my utter delight, people like Greg Jordan were starting delve a little deeper…

While to me, the map isn’t specifically one of London, the idea for the style of the map did originally stem from a map of London I drew for some friends who were visiting back in the summer, which I used to describe my perception of the city relative to other landmarks. This idea of creating a map of perception rather than using place names gathered pace from there, and after a few false starts, I eventually sat down and started drawing it out.

A very Hackney-centric view of London and entirely useless for getting around if you’re a tourist.

I drew the river first. I’ll admit that the shape of the river does appear to have a similar meander and width to the Thames, however in truth, the shape of the river is more or less a slightly rotated generic sigmoid function, and the reason for the meander was an entirely graphic one (a straight river would have looked, well, like a canal). After that, it was a case of building the city from the middle outwards, exactly the same way a city would naturally expand.

The complicated mathematics behind the meander of the river. Took me ages to calculate.

Most cities have a river through them, because most of those cities began as small settlements on the bank of those rivers. Over time as the city expands outwards, the original location of the city becomes the city centre, that central location means that property values increase as the city expands outwards, which in time creates the need for skyscrapers, which in turn serve to attract people in suits.

1673 London map by Wenceslaus Hollar, who as well as being an excellent cartographer, also had an excellent name.

From there, it’s simply a case of building the city as if it were an actual city. For instance, Area 2 is always going to be close to the center, as it’s most likely the old working class neighbourhood that sprang up when Area 4 was still full of factories. Of course, Area 4 needs to be situated on the river and with a good connection to the centre, however as the city expands and rents go up, industry moves out and soulless developments fill the empty space.

At this point I should mention that yes, I played a fair bit of Sim City as a kid.

And so the city keeps progressing outward, with each area drifting through different uses and demographics over time, until the former swampland on the edge of the city previously used to dump waste, becomes a viable place for a large Swedish budget furniture maker to build a store.

Because all these factors are unavoidable to any expanding city of a certain size, the experience of the inhabitants are also extremely similar from city to city, so the the notion that a couple might move further out from the centre in order to afford to buy a home is a fairly common occurrence world wide. (something that Courney Barnett illustrates way better than me)

Meanwhile, the fact that we all at some point in our lives need to buy some Ikea furniture, yet at the same time rarely live in the same suburb as Ikea, means that the naming of Area 13 (The area you only go to because Ikea is there) is bound to respond with people (the fact that making the trek to Ikea is usually memorable for all the wrong reasons doesn't hurt either)

That said, it’s quite interesting how keen people are to shoehorn the map into their respective cities…

…which I find interesting. People seem keen to adapt the map for their own use, or experience — which was really the original plan.


A post-script caveat before I sign off:

This is all, obviously, a very western perspective of cities and in most cases only really applies most readily to North American, European & Australian cities. This is a direct result of my relying on my own experience in those cities to populate the map, and the only real reason I claim it to be ‘A Map of Every City’ is a shameless stab at making a click-baity heading. Still, ‘A Map of the Two Cities I’ve Spent the Most Time in’ doesn’t really have the same ring to it, and would have taken up an entire neighborhood.


You can find more drawings over at Instachaaz, where there’ll be no doubt more maps on the way…