Archive for the Maps category

October 6th, 2013

Mapped: Hong Kong’s Public Steps

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The photos I posted last week of Hong Kong’s hilly streets reminded me of a conversation I had more than a year ago with Melissa Cate Christ, who works at the University of Hong Kong’s architecture school. Christ is leading an investigation into the many public staircases and “ladder streets” on the north side of Hong Kong Island, where these attempts to negotiate an unforgiving landscape are often the only remaining signs of Hong Kong as it once existed. Many of these steps predate the buildings around them by decades, if not a century; they’re Hong Kong’s last tangible connection to the city of Victorian balustrades and tile-roofed tenements that once existed on these shores.

Officially speaking, however, most of these steps do not exist. As far as the government is concerned, a set of century-old granite steps is no different than an ordinary concrete footpath. There hasn’t been any comprehensive effort made on the part of Hong Kong’s administrators to understand how all of these ladder streets and staircases work in the urban context — how people use them and how they affect neighbourhood mobility, not to mention their historical value. The consequences of that are misguided projects like the proposed Pound Lane escalator, which would install a very expensive and intrusive piece of machinery on a quiet street, encouraging redevelopment and destroying trees and historic walls in the process.

So Christ and her students are doing what the government has not. Earlier this year, they launched a website, Stair Culture, that was accompanied by an exhibition of maps, photos and proposed interventions that would improve the pedestrian environment of Hong Kong’s hilly streets and provide an alternative to the Pound Land escalator. Christ has also been mapping all of the steps from Wan Chai to Pok Fu Lam, which serves to highlight just how vertical Hong Kong is. When she started making her map, Christ was using satellite imagery on Google Maps to find stairs, but she told me recently that the government has started marking steps on a separate layer in the digital versions its official maps, which suggests that it may be taking Christ’s lead and paying more attention to Hong Kong’s steps after all.

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August 30th, 2013

Talking About Cities Without Ground

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Hong Kong isn’t an easy city to navigate. That’s because so much of it exists out of sight: above your head, under your feet, around the corner in a dingy shopping mall. It’s what architect Jonathan Solomon calls a three-dimensional city. “There are all these attempts to map Hong Kong, but most of them are useless,” he says. Maps show streets, others depict shopping malls, but none chart the way Hong Kong’s intricate networks of private and public spaces are linked together by roads, tunnels, footbridges, escalators and lifts. “There’s no record of all the exciting stuff that happens in these spaces.”

Solomon rectifies that situation in Cities Without Ground, an unorthodox guidebook to Hong Kong he published last year with fellow architects Clara Wong and Adam Frampton. Inside its 128 pages is a brief history of Hong Kong’s “condition of groundlessness,” starting with the dramatic, hilly topography that enabled the growth of a vertical city, followed by the popularity of footbridges as a means to connect buildings on different levels and finally the development of vast above- and below-ground pedestrian networks. Most of the book consists not of text but of vivid illustrations dissecting the warren of subways and skybridges, shopping malls and public plazas that make up many parts of Hong Kong.

“There’s an alternative spatial logic in Hong Kong and in order to expose that, we had to reveal something invisible,” says Solomon. “These maps are not meant to be used as wayfinding devices, but I personally find them quite useful as a way of understanding how Hong Kong works.” The maps are as much a document of Hong Kong’s psychogeography as they are of its physical space. Labels include not only the names of buildings and shops, but also human landmarks like “lunching legislators” and the “permanent democracy protest” outside the government headquarters, and “family graduation photoshoots” and a “birdwatching meeting point” in Hong Kong Park.

Cities Without Ground also includes heat maps that chart the range in temperature between different types of buildings: the higher the rents, the frostier the air conditioning. The quality of climate control becomes a quick way to gage the prestige of a given shopping mall. “The network occurs on both the high and the low ends of the economy,” says Solomon. “People talk about Central as one big high-end mall, but if you look at Tsuen Wan, the form is very similar, but it’s all very quotidian middle-class stuff, like hair salons and 7-Eleven and fast food.”

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July 6th, 2013

The Nightless City

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Film, Maps, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf
YouTube Preview Image

Most people use Google Street View for directions; Yuichiro Tamura uses it to make movies. “I became interested in Street View’s images because they’re very anonymous,” says the 36-year-old Berlin-based Japanese artist. Never before has there been such an extensive and dispassionate repository of world scenes. “Nobody knows who takes them, and they aren’t shooting [the landscape] – they’re scanning it,” he says.

Bit by bit, Tamura captured screenshots from Street View and painstakingly compiled them in Final Cut Pro, eventually producing a 10-minute video that depicts a road trip through Nebraska, Chiba, Alaska, Portugal and Marseille. He called it Nightless, alluding to the fact that all of Street View’s images were recorded during the day, and narrated the first half in thickly-accented English; the second half features a soundtrack culled from various corners of YouTube, like a car stereo scanning radio frequencies.

That was in 2010; Tamura has since made 10 more versions of Nightless, and his goal is to eventually make a feature-length film. His most recent work took him to Hong Kong, where he created a new Nightless video for Tokyo gallery Yuka Tsuruno. “In the past versions, I chose random images, but this time, I visited for 10 days and I researched the history of Hong Kong,” he says. He also made platinum prints of Hong Kong screenshots, which were exhibited in wooden frames engraved with internet search terms by Buddhist funerary carvers. “Google Street View images are temporary—there are only a few months or a year before they change it—but platinum prints last 200 or 300 years. I’m interested in how it restores narrative to the image.”

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June 2nd, 2013

Hong Kong’s Silence on Noise Pollution

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment, Maps, Public Space, United States by Christopher DeWolf

SOGO crossing, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong at night

Sogo Junction in Causeway Bay, where ambient noise levels can reach 118 decibels. Photo by James Shandlon

After Karl Sluis’ richly-detailed map of New York City noise complaints was featured on The Atlantic Cities, my editor at the South China Morning Post got in touch about making a similar map for Hong Kong.

Hong Kong can be an intensely noisy place: roaring buses, skull-shattering pile-driving, incessant jackhammers, video billboards set to max volume. Ambient noise levels in Causeway Bay can reach 118 decibels — equivalent to sandblasting or a rock concert. Paradoxically, the noisiness of everyday life here seems to have made people less tolerant of things like outdoor concerts, which are always plagued by noise complaints. Just as Sluis did in New York, mapping those noise complaints would provide insight into Hong Kong’s geography of noise.

But we failed. That’s because every attempt I made to extract precise data on noise complaints from the Hong Kong government were met by obfuscation and outright refusal. Not only does this point to the government’s lack of transparency, it raises questions about how seriously it is committed to handling Hong Kong’s noise problem.

The problem is that, when it comes to noise, the government just doesn’t have any idea what’s going on. “There are not any comprehensive and detailed noise pollution surveys and studies in Hong Kong,” says Yip Yan-yan, chief operating officer of think tank Civic Exchange. The only way to reduce noise pollution is to analyse it — and to make those findings available to the public.

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May 29th, 2013

Behind the Noise Map

NYC Noise Map by Karl Sluis

NYC Noise Map by Karl Sluis

If you read The Atlantic Cities, or follow our Twitter feed, you’ve probably seen Karl Sluismap of the 40,412 noise complaints made last year in Manhattan. It’s a beautiful, richly-detailed effort to chart not only the geography of noise but more subtle variations in New York’s socio-economic landscape, like the fact that complaints about loud music from cars seem only to happen north of Central Park.

I’ve been working with the South China Morning Post to create a Hong Kong version of Sluis’ map for the past couple of weeks. It hasn’t gone so well. I’ll have more about that later, but in the meantime, here’s a quick interview I did with Sluis by email.

What came first, wanting to do a noise map or coming across New York’s open-source data on noise complaints?

As a freelance data visualization designer, I’m always on the lookout for that next great data set, so I was attracted first to NYC’s Open Data portal. Granted, a lot has already been made with the data released by the city of New York. I was perusing some of the less-popular data sets when I came across the 311 (NYC’s non-emergency information line) data set.

Wired Magazine had already made a visualization out of the same data some years ago, so I hardly wanted to repeat an existing project. What got me excited was the combination of geolocation data, time data, and, particularly, the metadata on what type of complaint had been filed. With such a rich data set, I knew the visualization would have legs.

New York’s an immense, incredible, rich place, and as a resident, I’m always curious to learn more.

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May 1st, 2012

The Greater Grid

Posted in History, Maps, United States by Christopher Szabla

Straight as an arrow: triptych along Lake Shore Drive, Chicago

Last year, Manhattan celebrated the 200th anniversary of its vaunted grid street system, the rectilinear net that stretches from First Street in what’s now the East Village to 155th, in Washington Heights. And any assumption this was too dry a subject for most New Yorkers could have been dispelled by the thickness of the crowds browsing “The Greatest Grid“. The still-ongoing exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York which examines street patterns in the city past and present, and, with a number of (mostly outlandish) proposals from architectural studios and planners, future.

The exhibit lingers not only on the planning and implementation of the New York grid, but also its many detractors — the property interests, real estate developers, planners, and landscape architects who sought to interrupt and impede Manhattan’s monotonous future as a flattened island dominated by identical, rectangular blocks — and the effects of their opposition. Avenues were inserted midblock when city leaders realized that facilitating north-south traffic would prove more vital to the city’s future than ensuring easy crosstown access between rivers. Broadway’s anomalous, diagonal swath was retained, the points where it awkwardly intersected with the grid turned into parks and squares. A vast portion of the grid was interrupted for the creation of Central Park.

Baseball diamond tic-tac-toe in Lake Shore Park

Above 155th Street, in particular, a new generation of Romantic planners created a very different Manhattan that respected the island’s original, hilly topography, and complemented it with looping, serpentine streets. Upper Manhattan became a mirror image of the chaotic, colonial streets that characterized the island’s original settlement, at its lower tip, and the closest approximation of pre-grid plans for the city, like the one formulated by Joseph Mangin and Casimir Goerck, which respected property lines far more than it had geometric rigors.

Both aesthetically and philosophically, the grid had chafed at Gilded Age New York, and in particular its high society’s pretensions to be living in city that could equal the capitals of Europe, where avenues headed by monumental governmental, cultural, or religious structures were elegantly expressed the notion that mere business was subordinate to civic institutions. But the attractions of the less hierarchical, more “democratic” grid were embraced more wholeheartedly in the country’s interior. The Land Ordinance of 1785 had imposed a grid system far more dramatic than New York’s — on what would become the entire Upper Midwest. At its heart was Chicago, a city that would far more enthusiastically embrace the right angle than even its most eager proponents in New York.

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February 17th, 2012

The Unsquared Circle of Old Shanghai

Posted in Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, Maps by Christopher Szabla

Take a look at a map of Shanghai and it still jumps out at you — a tightly-wound ball of narrow streets threading through warrens of centuries-old houses. Call it what you will — the neighborhood seems to have no standard English name, and “Old City,” “Round City,” or simply “Old Shanghai” have been used before — but it’s impossible to deny this slice of China’s largest city stands a bit aloof; what’s left of it appears to exist in total defiance of a metropolis that appears ceaselessly hungry for towers that soar high enough to match the gaping width of its newly-broadened boulevards.

Old Shanghai’s uniqueness is a longstanding trend; the last time the neighborhood didn’t buck the rest of the city’s form was during the Middle Ages, when the Round City was Shanghai — a fledgling Ming Dynasty port. But skip forward to the 19th century and Shanghai has grown to become the hub of foreign commerce in China, its cityscape defined by the architecture the colonial powers have brought to their respective concessions — tiny fiefdoms run by local Westerners nominally reporting to overseas capitals.

Somewhat like Hong Hong’s Kowloon Walled City nearly a century later, the Old City, or “Chinese City,” as it began, then, to be called, remained an enclave within these enclaves, a densely-packed and ghettoized dormitory for much of the city’s local workforce. It even remained behind literal, medieval walls — until, during China’s 1911 revolution, they finally came crashing down.

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May 5th, 2011

Elected by Ethnoburbia

Posted in Canada, Maps, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Election results in Toronto in 2008 (top) and 2011 (bottom)
Red is Liberal, blue is Conservative, orange is NDP

Canada held its 41st federal election on Monday and the results have unleashed a seismic shift in the country’s political landscape. After two consecutive minority governments, the Conservatives have now won a majority. The left-wing NDP, a marginal party for much of its existence (it ran fifth for most of the 1990s), is now the Official Opposition.

Much attention is being paid to the massive surge of support for the NDP, especially in Quebec, where two decades of dominance by the Bloc fell victim to the “Orange Crush.” But Quebec is prone to political mood swings, and even as an NDP supporter, I’m sceptical that they will be able to maintain their current level of support until the next election. What I find especially remarkable about this election is the near-collapse of the Liberal Party — and the political rise of the ethnoburbs.

Take a look at electoral map of Greater Toronto. Red has given way to blue in virtually all of its fast-growing, immigrant-dominated, ethnically-diverse suburban areas. Losing these ridings is what pushed the Liberals to the edge of oblivion. “Of the 18 seats they gained in that region, 14 are more than 45 per cent immigrant, and most would not long ago have been considered un-winnable for the Conservatives,” notes the Globe and Mail.

In other words, the Canadian election was fought and won in ethnoburbia, the suburban immigrant enclaves first identified in 1997 by the geographer Wei Li. Ethnoburbs are socially and culturally self-contained, but unlike the urban ethnic enclaves of decades past, they are also prosperous and extensively connected to transnational networks. Their affluence and influence have given them enormous political leverage.

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April 11th, 2011

How Canada Votes, Street by Street

Posted in Canada, Demographics, Maps, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Election signs in Calgary, 2006

Canada is in the midst of yet another federal election, one that will, if the current trends hold steady, result in a third minority government for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. It’s a pretty dismal state of affairs. But even the most delicious truffle looks like a turd, so things might still turn out well, especially if Canadians finally wake up and grow tired of having a petty tyrant as prime minister.

In the meantime, my friend Cedric Sam has created a pretty good way to kill time: Google Maps of 2008 federal election results based on data from each and every polling station in the country. Since each polling station serves no more than a few hundred voters, the level of detail is extraordinarily precise, especially in dense urban areas. You can check it out at the website of the Montreal newspaper La Presse, which has published the maps in English.

Sometimes the maps can be surprising. Who knew that the well-heeled streets of Outremont held so many NDP supporters, while the immigrant-dominated, working-class north end of Côte des Neiges was so heavily Liberal? Other times, it looks exactly the way you would expect: in Edmonton Strathcona, the densely-populated streets around Whyte Avenue and the University of Alberta voted NDP, while more suburban areas to the south and east voted Conservative. (The NDP won in both Outremont and Edmonton Strathcona.)

2008 results in Outremont, Montreal

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April 7th, 2011

An Alternate Map of Manhattan

Posted in History, Maps, United States by Christopher Szabla

The original, ca. 1800 Mangin-Goerck Plan (top) and part of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, as engraved by William Bridges

Last month, New York celebrated the bicentennial of one of its most iconic works of engineering and urban design — Manhattan’s grid. The 1811 street layout was officially known as the Commissioners’ Plan, but its execution is really owed to John Randel, Jr., the plan’s chief surveyor and engineer, who endured — and persevered through — endless legal and physical challenges to imprinting his vision on what was, north of the burgeoning city, a wild, hilly, watery island.

Randel’s difficult (and often amusing) travails have been widely recounted elsewhere: he was, among other things, pelted with vegetables and even arrested for trespass in the course of carrying out the Commissioners’ scheme, which involved seizing property and, in the course of leveling hillsides, leaving some houses stranded on bluffs along his new avenues. The New York Times has a colorful story about him as part of a larger feature celebrating the grid — which, the paper proclaimed, had easily stood the test of time.

But what if Randel had encountered more propertyholders like Henry Brevoot? His obstinant refusal to part with his estate means that, to this day, you can’t walk the length of 11th Street uninterrupted — it doesn’t run between Broadway and Fourth Ave. Or what if the considerable engineering challenges his project faced — eight million cubic yards of dirt had to be moved from the future west side to fill in the valleys of the future east — simply couldn’t be overcome, either physically or financially?

There’s been plenty of aimless speculation over centuries as to what Manhattan would look like sans grid. Among the more tongue-in-cheek illustrations were Charles-Antoine Perrault and Alex Wallach’s views of what the island would look like if crisscrossed not by its grid, but by Paris’ medieval streets and strident boulevards. Cutting and pasting the Left Bank from one Google Earth grid to another didn’t exactly make for a perfect fit, but the idea that a gridless Manhattan may have developed in a similarly piecemeal, haphazard fashion — as it had, with farmers subdividing their land into individual, poorly meshing grids, until 1811 — makes sense.

But there was at least one serious master plan for Manhattan that predated the Commissioners’. Surviving in only a few rare maps (themselves mostly reproductions), it demonstrates that, had the Commissioners’ Plan not prevailed, New York could have been a considerably different place today.

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October 20th, 2010

Seen and Unseen: Street View Meets Brazil

Posted in Latin America, Maps, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla


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A colorful crossing in Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro

Google Street View has landed in Brazil, and its timing is probably no accident: it’s a momentous point in the country’s history. Latin America’s sleeping giant seems, at last, to be climbing into its proper place in the global pecking order: it’s an increasingly assertive diplomatic force that’s put the B in the rising “BRIC” countries and wooed the world to become the future site of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. All that means Brazil will be the focus of intense scrutiny over the next decade, no more so than in its cities, whose violent reputation might be the most jarring objection to the narrative that the country’s trajectory is is headed nowhere but up.

Such is the bilious stereotype of Brazil’s urban barrios that even intrepid street photographers often refrain from unsheathing their SLRs even a block or two from the most upscale streets or highly visited tourist attractions. For virtual investigators, armchair travelers and Firefox flaneurs alike, that opens up a lot of virgin territory to explore via Street View. Take one of Brazil’s most celebrated neighborhoods, Rio’s Ipanema. It’s renown worldwide for its beach scene, but also boasts largely blocks of rarely-documented inland avenues.

I’d pointed my browser only a few blocks from the the virtual beach, on a digitized representation of Rua Visc. de Paraja, when I made my first Brazilian Street View discovery: colorfully pink and blue intersections, which look like tropicalized versions of the scramble crossings common to the busiest corners of Tokyo. Coming across these flamingo-hued florescent bursts helped convince me that Street View might be as adept at validating positive stereotypes of a colorful, festive Brazil as it is said to have been in disproving negative ones faced by other societies — like South Africa, where Street View was also unveiled in time for a World Cup — which the media similarly allows to appear locked in a desperate struggle with urban violence and destitution.

But it’s important not to take a too-naive view of Street View, which, like any recording or imaging technology, inevitably somewhat distorts its subject. Street View’s format — static images taken from a slightly elevated perspective in the middle of the street, make it easier to disregard some of the country’s most persistent urban problems. That’s likely true for many of the developing countries increasingly cruised by Google’s cars. Via Street View, it’s simply easier to stroll (or rather, scroll) through what might otherwise be unease-inducing neighborhoods filled with less than friendly sights, sounds, and smells — and the often distinct impression of being unwelcome. For these very same reasons, though, the technology helps virtual visitors ignore or deny evidence of the root issues that lead to such shocking material and social divides.

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September 27th, 2010

Mapping Segregation

Posted in Demographics, Maps, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher DeWolf

Four decades have passed since the end of formal racial segregation in the United States, but as anyone can tell you, informal segregation remains a part of everyday life in many areas of the country. That becomes especially clear when you look at Eric Fischer‘s new maps of race and ethnicity in major American cities. In each of these new maps, one dot represents 25 people, and each dot’s colour represents a racial or ethnic group as defined by the US Census: non-Hispanic white is red, black is blue, Hispanic is orange and Asian is green.

Every city in the world is divided along some lines, be they ethnic, linguistic or economic, but what is shocking about Fischer’s maps is how many American cities remain starkly divided according to race. Just look at Detroit, where 8 Mile Road is visible not only as the border between city and suburbs but as the line of demarcation between black and white.

(Along with ethnicity, the maps also illustrate population density — the more densely-populated an area, the more opaque it appears on the map. What surprises me about the Detroit map, along with the starkness of the city’s racial divide, is how the city proper remains just as dense as the suburbs, despite massive depopulation.)

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August 23rd, 2010

Two Cities’ Scale Models

Virtual World: The future of China’s largest city is on bombastic display at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre

Set in the seclusion of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, well inside the largest of New York’s outer boroughs, the Queens Museum of Art doesn’t attract the same blockbuster number of international visitors as the megamuseums and power galleries of Manhattan. That hardly means it fails to draw from cosmopolitan sources — in a borough as diverse as Queens, appealing to the local population means displaying art that speaks to many points of origin. But the museum is best known for a work of very local significance: the Panorama of the City of New York, a vast scale model of the five boroughs built on Robert Moses’ orders for the 1964 World’s Fair.

Despite an occasional lack of updates — including one twenty-some year gap — the Panorama has been kept fairly timely. Though the last comprehensive upgrade took place in 1992, sponsors can now adopt buildings and ensure the accuracy of a given plot on the map. There are some exceptions where updates are off limits; the museum preferred the World Trade Center towers remain standing rather than represent Ground Zero (they will be replaced when the new site’s new towers are completed). But by and large, the model is a decent representation of the city — precise enough to use for mapping geodata.

Last year, urban planner and artist Damon Rich did just that, taking advantage of the Panorama to detail the extent of home foreclosures in New York. Reasoning that, for many New Yorkers, the foreclosure crisis appeared to be something taking place in far-flung Sunbelt suburbs, his aim was to bring the extent of the national real estate debacle home to a city that didn’t yet seem to realize the problem had reached its front stoop.

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June 10th, 2010

Locals vs. Tourists

Montreal

We’ve always known there is a gulf between the city as experienced by tourists and the city lived in by locals. Now we have a fun visual representation of that divide. Using various types of data from Flickr, one user of the photo-sharing website, Eric Fisher, has created maps that indicate the spots photographed by tourists and those shot by locals. Local photographs are blue, tourist photos red and undetermined photos yellow.

There are some problems in the methodology. Whether a Flickr user is a local or a tourist is determined by whether they photograph a given location over a long period of time (like a local would) or in just a few days (like a tourist would). That seems fair enough, but not everyone geotags their photos, which could possibly skew the results one way or another. One person who obsessive geotags all of his or her photos could have a disproportionately large representation on the map. You can see this in Vancouver, where one person’s geotagged cycle routes are prominently displayed.

Still, just by looking at the maps you get a strong intuitive sense that they are close to reality. In the Montreal map, tourists overwhelmingly stick to Old Montreal, St. Joseph’s Oratory and the Olympic Stadium while locals take photos throughout downtown and the Plateau, with an especially notable cluster of local shots around Lafontaine Park, Maisonneuve Park and the Botanical Gardens (which, interestingly enough, are right across the street from the Olympic tourist hub).

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