I ♥ Maps

Almost twenty years ago, I saw my first Sanborn map. In the years since, I’ve used these maps for work in all sorts of contexts, and I keep coming back to how beautiful they are. They show the information they were meant for – assessing risk for fire insurance – but also so much more. And they’re just so easy to interpret, with consistent and very beautiful colors and fonts. Ask many preservationist and they’ll tell you these are some of the best tools to find the history of the built environment, if only in larger cities and towns (after all, surveying all those buildings had to be economically worthwhile). Wanna explore Sanborn maps? Enjoy!

This week, Massimo Vignelli passed away. Vignelli designed what is one of the most talked about maps of the twentieth century: the New York City 1972 subway map. Vignelli’s passing has made me realize that though I’ve discussed a couple maps on this blog, I’ve never devoted a post to them. This is weird, because I’m a complete map nerd. Sanborn maps were only the first kinds of maps that really struck me. Since then, I’ve looked at many, many city maps. Some full of information, some distilled to highlight block layout. Infrastructure maps are particularly compelling: subways, sewers, all that stuff fascinates me.

A detail of Vignelli’s “spaghetti map”. It truly is a beauty.

I love all sorts of maps, of course, but honestly it’s the city maps that I find aesthetically compelling. Maybe it’s because geographic maps beyond a certain scale have major projection issues. The chosen projection of course has all sorts of meaning. (For the record, I’m a Dymaxion fan, but more because Bucky Fuller was an all around genius and if I ever have $$$ I’ll build a geodesic dome.)

Ok, back on topic. What about practicalities? Here are a few thoughts, in no particular order.
Learning GIS is still needed for quantitative analysis. I wish it wasn’t so, because the software is too expensive and a pain to use. Plus, making a beautiful map in GIS is like trying to trim a bonsai with a chainsaw. Anyway, it’s a monopoly, so complaining isn’t really going to change anything. I do love complaining, though. And I’m not the only one.

Google maps are free, and ubiquitous, but are not particularly easy to use for any kind of analysis. That said, there are lots of great features in Google as long as you’re willing to experiment a little. Bonus: it’s free! Ultra bonus: it’s great for collaborative work! Super ultra bonus: it’s platform independent! If you’ve never made a map on google, check out my tiny tutorial and you’ll be ready to go.

Since Google maps ARE ubiquitous, lots of people have also developed neat tools that go with them. In particular, I’m a big fan of the gorgeous maps made in Stamen (if you have a sharp eye, you’ll notice my website header was made on that site.)

If you want to spend some time geeking out on beautiful maps, check out:
The New York Public Library, which has an enormous collection, with many photo-corrected maps.
You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination
Transit Maps of the World
Les Plans de Paris (cause who am I kidding?)

There’s plenty more to say, but I’m running out of steam, and I should probably work on on more “professional” stuff. Like using maps in my research. So really I’ve been working this whole time. Score!

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