Urban Cartography

A new exhibition at San Francisco Planning and Urban Research


Maps have always been essential. And contested. Today, they shape decisions both serious and trivial, from mapping gene activity, crime risks and rising housing prices, to directing a pedestrian towards the most exotic cup of coffee or the most pleasant route to work.

In less than a decade, our relationship to maps has been completely transformed — as have the ways maps are made (and the people who can now make them). If once a map seemed only about getting one from A to B, now, the new worlds made imaginable by contemporary cartography are ever-expanding. Maps help us make sense of the seemingly mundane (highlighting bus route frequency, illustrating urban density) and the controversial (a map of private transit that shaped the discourse of a city, a map that exaggerates, for effect, the impact of sea level rise).

Rebecca Solnit has written that a map is “…in its essence and intent an arbitrary selection of information.” For Urban Cartography, the exhibition I’ve curated at the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, I felt compelled to use that arbitrariness as criteria – there is simply too much that’s new. I’ll focus here on variations on the theme of the city map, with a particular focus on the iterative process of mapmaking: the discovery of what’s been eliminated, reduced, emphasized and/or removed. Also of interest is how maps of the city have become personal maps, dotted with events and experiences that explain, connect and even predict our choices.

“We think maps can be useful and fun, so we’ve designed Google Maps to simplify how to get from point A to point B.” — Google.com blog, February 2005

Google Maps celebrates its 10th anniversary next February. In large part due to its emergence, maps have reached a previously unimaginable point of ubiquity. The appearance of these transformative technologies, together with the proliferation of the handheld supercomputers (aka smartphones) that support them have given us dramatic new perceptions of the world(s) we inhabit. To be sure, more traditional methods of cartography (i.e., paper) remain and thrive. But at the same time, the new worlds made imaginable by contemporary cartography are ever-expanding.

Maps increasingly represent diverse and subjective realities.

In the past, maps were more authoritative, the closely guarded documents that were the purview of kings, generals and heads of state. These people had power because they had the map. Today, regular people with modest skills can make maps to represent the city that they live in. New forms of cartography allow people, in effect, to make themselves the center of their universe, creating a map specific to their desired and necessary uses.

This dizzying diversity of sources, inputs and outputs is both an opportunity and a limitation. Having access to so many new perspectives necessitates having to make decisions about which of them to trust and include. Mapmakers (and map users) need to increasingly be aware of the biases that come with these challenges. Prior to these relatively new digital tools, cartography seemed something of a dead language. Maps, for most, existed as static, seemingly unchanging documents. Today, they are anything but. When it comes to the making of maps, speed has increased, costs have decreased and there are ever more robust tools available. Access to data has enhanced that functionality, and it has also opened the floodgates to an infinite array of possibility. Just as PageMaker resulted in a lot of lousy looking newsletters in the 1990s, the proliferation and accessibility of map-making tools has resulted in a lot of bad maps. More people know how to make maps today than ever before — which is amazing — but this broadening number of practitioners is driven in part by the increased commercialization of their output, which we would do well to pay attention to.

Open source toolkits are challenging the traditional role of GPS. Crowdsourcing aids in the mapping of everything from usage patterns in national parks to the destruction of the Amazon. With iPhones, drones or even just some helium and a balloon, one can now approximate Google’s aerial mapping. Civic groups like Code for America create mapping applications to help both government and citizens better understand what’s going on in their neighborhoods and how to change them for the better. Local groups like Maptime offer workshops to teach anyone who is interested how to make their own map. Nerds for Nature builds tools to help us understand, protect and revive the natural world. Manylabs provides tools for learning math and science using sensors and simulations. Students in classrooms map their neighborhoods to better understand their communities. Many make personal maps simply to help make sense of their of own imaginings.

Ubiquity does not automatically create literacy or awareness. For increasing numbers of people, the unwieldy paper map is an unknown or foreign object, an artifact akin to the rotary phone and cassette tape. This shift has affected the way we experience our environment and may be impacting our spatial awareness. As we increasingly rely on digital maps, we can find ourselves experiencing the real world through a screen. While it is too soon to determine what it means for us to be experiencing so much of our lives in a digital environment, it is worth considering what might be lost when our paths are so directed. Some have cautioned that a dependence on digital navigation systems like Google Street View will impede our ability to experience where we are — and that its increasing adoption might gradually erase aimless wandering. Nothing is left to chance. This limits what we see in the world in much the same way as our user-calibrated internet search tools funnel us to an increasingly narrow world of content. As we are propelled forward into a world of options, we’d do well to consider: What are the implications of only finding what we’re looking for and not discovering what we weren’t?


The Art of What We See (and What We Don’t)

Jenny Odell

With works like “All the People on Google Earth,” artist Jenny Odell attempts to momentarily render humanity legible to itself by mining the surplus yet untapped value of secondhand imagery, mostly from Google Maps. “Changes in scale can unlock infinite possibilities in the very same subject matter,” explains Odell. “From the perspective of a satellite or a microscope, those elements of our environment which we took the most for granted suddenly appear fantastical, outlandish.” This change in perspective – as anyone who’s ever taken off in an airplane, or looked at something under a microscope, will have noticed – is the fastest way to re-experience something familiar. Without this shift, explains Odell, “We’re prone to ignoring the things around us that might actually be the most obviously interesting.”


A New Map for Muni

Jay Primus and David Wiggins

When transit planner Jay Primus and mapmaker David Wiggins decided to tackle a redesign of San Francisco’s public transportation map, they looked to simple design principles to guide the arduous evolution of an established and decades-old document. They combed through more than 300 maps from around the world for inspiration and ideas. When asked why they took on the task of redesigning the Muni map, Primus answers, “Dissatisfaction. It just needed to be better.” An overriding goal was to say more with less. Primus explains that the map incorporates “a bit of Japanese design, a bit of Mark Twain.

If anything can be removed, then you should remove it.” Yet because San Francisco has such a small footprint, it was possible to name every street — which would not be feasible for New York or London. “We could stay in the very literal realm,” says Primus. “That in and of itself is very useful. It let us enhance its utility as a pedestrian map.” The map’s big move is to visually communicate one of the most important aspects of transit service for users: transit frequency. On the old map there was no telling if the 2 or the 38 was more important. Now, line thickness and color is used to indicate frequency. In this way, the new map communicates dramatically more information than the old one. At its essence, this revised Muni map is a guide for leaving the house in the morning without a car. As for why it exists only in printed form, Primus explains, “You can communicate more information. Maps are so information-dense. It’s a matter of cost-effectiveness that we don’t have digital screens in every subway station and bus shelter. It’s more practical to put a printed one there. Plus there’s something about a fold-out map…we can give these away instead of forcing people to have smartphones. It’s like reading a hardcover rather than a Kindle.”


The City from the Valley

Stamen Design

In 2012, Stamen, a design and technology studio received a commission to explore the relationship between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. “We decided we should look at employer shuttle buses,” explains founder Eric Rodenbeck, referring to the now ubiquitous vehicles operated by Apple, Google and other Bay Area tech companies that came to symbolize the housing crisis in San Francisco. “We had no idea where they were going and figured we’d find out.” Usually Stamen’s projects pull data from web servers, but when they found this data didn’t exist, they decided to go out and gather it themselves. “These shuttles are hiding in plain sight,” Rodenbeck says. “They’ve become symbols of what’s changing in our urban landscape, and hiding them seemed wrong. Here were these giant behemoths sliding through residential neighborhoods, and no one was allowed to know where they go.”

Stamen didn’t make this map to show what’s wrong in San Francisco but simply as representation of what’s going on. “It’s not an anti-bus map,” Rodenbeck says. “We weren’t interested in taking a side. If Big Brother is watching where everyone goes, well this is what it looks like. This map arrests your attention and gets you to think about things a little deeper. It’s amazing what kind of power this can have.”


Mapping Place

Eric Fischer

Eric Fischer has been on a quest to learn what places in the world succeed in attracting people and understand why they work.

The “Geotaggers’ World Atlas” attempts, by showing all the photos snapped in particular cities, to reveal the interests and activities of people living in those cities. In most places, it turned out there were large areas that attracted lots of local attention but that tourists rarely visit, a discovery that led him to create a follow up project, “Tourists and Locals.” Fischer, who takes his inspiration from placemaking icons such as Jane Jacobs and William Whyte, says he’s trying to “cast my net as wide as possible to learn a little bit about a lot of places instead of everything about a few.”


Mapping Sea Level Rise

Green Info Network

Making climate change visible is a formidable task. The prevailing imagery is often remote (such as ice floes melting) or aims to tug at our heartstrings (polar bear on ice floes melting) or is too abstract (charts). Global temperature maps typically do not move people to take action while many more creative attempts at visualizing future climate change impacts grab attention but are criticized for being too sensational, inaccurate or demotivating to inspire any real change in attitude or behavior.

But sometimes a little exaggeration is necessary. GreenInfo Network was asked by the Resources Legacy Fund to develop a map that would spark concern and engagement. Using modeled sea level rise data from the USGS paired with headquarters locations for major businesses in the South Bay area, Green Info’s maps reveal that the biggest names in tech (Facebook, Google, et al) are facing climate change right out their back doors. Whether or not this impending threat is factoring into the expansion plans is as yet undetermined.

The San Francisco Archipelago

Brian Stokle + Burrito Justice

Cartographer Brian Stokle and San Francisco institution “Burrito Justice” would argue that even more exaggeration can go a long way. The pair’s joint effort, “The San Francisco Archipelago,” takes things to extremes (we hope), imagining the city that would result from 200-feet of sea level rise. Fifty years into the future, Burrito Justice surmises, the canal system of the San Francisco archipelago is, of necessity, abandoned in favor of expanded ferry service.


The San Francisco Digital Context Model

Skidmore Owings & Merrill

Created by SOM, beginning in 2006, the San Francisco Digital Context Model represents the intersection of modern digital cartography and three-dimensional modeling of architectural and urban form. The model begins with the same type of two dimensional GIS data that is the underpinning of mapping services like Google Maps, but through a carefully designed and controlled process, turns it into a consistent and easy-to-edit three dimensional representation of the city’s built form. Custom algorithms are used to analyze the requirements of San Francisco’s planning codes as well as economic factors like the value of views, daylight, or proximity to amenities and infrastructure. The model also allows the rapid study and visualization of the impact of a building on public view corridors, aesthetics at the urban scale, and the impact of a building on environmental comfort including light, shadow, and wind. Accordingly, the model has been instrumental in synthesizing the complex set of physical, legislative, and economic constraints that drive the design decisions made in large-scale urban projects.


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