Category Archives: Maps

Christchurch, NZ and Jan Gehl

I was lucky enough to go to the Hackney Empire last week, a fantastic 1901 theatre slightly off the beaten path (we had to take the Overground to get there – well outside my usual stomping grounds).  We were there for a screening of the film ‘The Human Scale,’ a documentary about the work of Jan Gehl and the way he has worked to make cities all over the world more geared toward people and less geared toward cars and high rises.  His most famous book is called ‘Cities for People’ and he is to urban planning what David Attenborough is to nature documentaries, so I was super, super psyched to get to see the film and to hear the Q&A with him afterward, and the whole evening totally lived up to my expectations.

One of the major tenets of Gehl’s work is borrowed directly from traffic engineering: it is a truism in urban planning that more roads does not ease congestion; it only encourages more driving.  But, it turns out, it holds for public space as well: creating more public space creates more use of public space.  This has been most recently demonstrated by the changes that Jeanette Sadik-Khan has made to the New York City street grid (pedestrianizing Times Square in 2009 being the platonic example). Man, do I wish I’d thought of that.

The film (which is 90 minutes, but we saw an abbreviated 60 minute version) focuses on 5 tenets of Gehl’s work, and chooses a case study (or in some cases 2) to illustrate the ways in which Gehl’s work has been applied and to what effect.  For the most part I thought it was amazing; there was a section on high-rise suburbs in China; on traffic engineering in New York City, on pedestrianization in Copenhagen; in urban interventions in Melbourne; and a final section on the rebuilding of Christchurch, New Zealand.  Gehl gave a short presentation on London, as well.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in New York but none in China, Copenhagen or Melbourne.  However, I did spend two very full days exploring Christchurch about a year ago.  The city was devastated by a series of earthquakes in 2011-2012 that hit the downtown area especially hard – so much so that as of a year ago, a huge section of the city was still completely fenced off, completely inaccessible unless you were part of the demolition crew.  In the initial rebuilding, the city moved to minimise parking and to restrict buildings to 6 stories, which a feasibility study suggested was most appropriate to Christchurch conditions – above 6 stories, buildings need stronger foundations  and reinforcements that render extra stories less lucrative than is commonly imagined. Gehl Architects were called in to help the city envision its future and to create a redevelopment plan that respected the human scale and restored the city’s quality of life, though responsibility for the plan was subsequently taken away from the city government.  And when I was there in March 2013, there were giant boards advertising the city’s bold plan of action.

It did not live up to my hopes and dreams.

The film made it clear that the outcome of the planning process was not everything Gehl Architects (not to mention Christchurch city planners) had hoped. And the scale of the disaster is something that’s hard to comprehend from a documentary film.  Christchurch faces an uphill battle, even with Gehl Architects’ advice: New Zealand, as much as many parts of the US, is a car-dominated city (712 cars per 1000 people, vs. 828 in the US).  A map of Christchurch is almost funny – even the most novice mapreader will be able to tell where the master-planned portion of the city ends:

What were the original boundaries?

What were the original boundaries?

Like many colonial cities, Christchurch was founded on the site of a Maori settlement in the mid-19th century.  The streets reflect the city’s origin and subsequent expansion, which is to say: they are really, really wide. In the US, midwestern cities (the same vintage as Christchurch) were built wide to accommodate streetcars and today are being retrofitted with bike lanes (and, in my hometown’s case, they’re resurrecting the streetcars. Woot!).  I’m sure this is something that Gehl & Co. took into account when they actually made their recommendations to the city. But a few things struck me as I walked around, none of which were addressed by the masterplan the city ultimately ended up with or in ‘The Human Scale:’

1. The city is car-dominated. There are some lovely, quiet residential streets and a big park and some reasonably pleasant stuff, but the routes between them are dominated by wide avenues full of fast-moving traffic. While some early recovery projects have sought to address this, there was not a city-wide effort to address the ratio of pedestrian to car space.

2. The pace of rebuilding is frenetic, even with a big chunk of the city centre fenced off and still being demolished.  Everywhere you go, you see billboards advertising new construction. The use, heights, scale and design quality of the buildings varied considerably.

3. The city masterplan is published and hanging on big boards outside the cathedral (which is fenced off, but as a major tourist attraction, has a special access point that allows yahoos like me to get a good view). The masterplan focuses on a series of mega-projects, like a new healthcare centre and a new conference facility, at the expense of the parts of the city people actually live in.  I thought the future city outlined outside the cathedral represented a huge missed opportunity, and I will be detailing my logic in successive posts.

In the meantime, please note that my experience of the city is already outdated, as is ‘The Human Scale,’ both of which are from 2013.  If there have been developments that I have missed, please let me know.

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How do you see the world?

If you ask a collection of strangers to draw a world map from memory what do you get?  With an understanding of map projections, we know there is no one “correct” depiction of the globe on a flat piece of paper.  But do people even get close?

Zak Ziebell undertook such a project and asked 30 people on the University of Michigan campus to draw the world map from memory.  He then combined the layers in Photoshop to produce one map as seen below.  One vision of the world from the University of Michigan.


The resulting map, in my eyes, is not bad.  New Zealand and England are forgotten, Greenland becomes part of North America, and the Middle East and India smush together to form some sort of African/Asian hybrid.  So it’s not great either.  Is this a sign of American Geographic Illiteracy as some of the online overseas community has suggested?  Or is it a sign of hurried impatience as a stranger approached a map drawer en route to more pressing matters?

I would love to see a similar project undertaken by people at all corners of the world; or even all corners of America.  I would love to see it undertaken without a political bent.  If somehow time of drawing could be controlled.  Would it result in an illustration of American incompetence or American impatience? Or both? Or Neither?

I probably would forget New Zealand too.  But would they forget the Great Lakes?

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Point – Point: The End of the Series

This is the last in a series of three posts about Swindon, a small city where My Friend Lauren grew up. The other two entries stemmed from the disagreements Lauren and I had as we explored Swindon together (she as a native, and me as a pedantic polymath interloper). While the other two entries have been point-counterpoint, this one is more just…reflections on the Railway Village, a historic and troubled neighbourhood downtown.

Swindon experienced a populations explosion in the 19th century (specifically 1841-1842), when it became a hub for the Great Western Railway.  This was accompanied by a colossal railway works and an associated worker’s village, both of which stand today in substantially altered form. Railway yards are not necessarily organised in a way that lends itself to adaptive reuse; the scale is enormous; the buildings are not organised at right angles and they tend to be extremely long (you know, like trains).  There’s too much space in between the buildings for traditional streets but not always enough for more buildings – and how much plaza space can you have? Plus, the Swindon Works – seminal as it is to British rail history – is a protected monument.

The Swindon Works can be divided into two parts, one of which is the historic railway yard, the other of which is the village built simultaneously to house all the workers.  Lauren’s mother works for the Swindon housing authority, and reported that the railway village has a reputation for being dangerous and especially low-income – today, the entire village is social housing.  A long tunnel connects the village (and the rest of Swindon) to the old rail works, which now also houses an event space, an English Heritage office, and a giant shopping centre, plus some new construction. This is really two separate posts – first, its about the railway worker’s village, a perfectly picturesque urban scene if ever there was one.  Second, there’s an assessment of the old Railway Works, the place where the trains were manufactured.

The worker’s cottages are just the cutest damn things you’ve ever seen.  Stone cottages arrayed along narrow streets with generous setbacks (by English standards) and wide sidewalks, the houses look like something out of a movie.  Small pedestrian pathways intersect the terrace houses and the corners have little three-story towers to add visual interest. Mature trees in the back create a domestic scene that delineates private space without closing the neighbors off from each other. The cottages are small – it was housing for poor people, after all – and the ceilings look low, but the experience of the railway village reminded me of some very successful social housing projects I’d visited in the US.  Furthermore, it didn’t seem like it should be social housing at all.  It was historic housing an easy walk to the train station, shopping, and a park…I mean, these things are just adorable.  And while they may be the product of another era, there are literally hundreds of thousands of Victorian terrace houses that have been modernized and appeal to the middle class – I live in one.


The only thing this place didn’t seem to have was any people. We were there on August Bank Holiday Monday – not typically a busy time – but I don’t think we saw a single person walking through the community. I’m hoping Lauren will contextualize Swindon for me a bit – why isn’t this place full of yuppies? Shouldn’t it be a prosperous place?  The workers’ village is the little grid to the right of The Park – you can see how close it is to the station (the red hash mark)

The Swindon Designer Outlet is sandwiched into a corner of the railroad, and you can see how huge the scale is from the size of the streets around it.  Up close it looks like this:

The eastern (right-hand) side of the railworks is weirdly empty.  Although the scale of the buildings is low and reasonably human-scale, the space between them is enormous,  and the wayfinding through the site is awkward, especially when you approach as a pedestrian (as I did).  There is plenty of room for new construction – even on a busy shopping day, many of the car parking spaces were vacant – but those new buildings that are there are, um, ugly.  It was surprising to me that a country that is so meticulous about conserving its historic landmarks should be so lackadaisical about what gets built next to and within those same landmarks.  There was one piece of new construction – a brick condo building with a blank facade.  It was obviously brand-new (some of the windows still had stickers on, and there was a sales sign outside the door).  Density is a good first step, but the place just felt sort of windswept and empty.  Like there should be tumbleweeds blowing across the plazas.

All of which made a stark contrast to the actual shops, which were jam packed.  My expectations for the mall were pretty low, because the rest of it was so awkward, but the interior of the mall struck me as an incredibly sensitive and intelligent adaptive reuse.  And the entire place was bumping – you’d have thought it was December 23rd – so clearly its popular.

Basically its a pretty standard shopping mall – but a really nice one, made cooler by the fact that its a historic building.

Lauren has her say: 

The points that Franny made in this blog are difficult to address directly; I think the best way to give the reader a view of how the Railway Village is now is to give some context of what the Railway Village was.

Without going into too much detail of the works’ history, its rise and fall is a beautiful and direct parallel to the trajectory of industry in the rest of the UK. From ‘glorious’ industry in the Victorian era, to thrilling modern designs in the early 20th Century it reluctantly closed in the 80’s.

 File:GWR map.jpg

Figure 1 GWR c 1930

When the works and village were built (in 1841 to provide the trains and track from Brunel’s Great Western Railway from London to Bristol), the worker’s facilities were world leading; the Mechanics’ Institute held classes and housed the UK’s first lending library, there were 3 pubs (including one of my favourites, the Glue Pot), the Medical Fund offered health care (attributed as being the inspiration for the NHS) and houses were of good size and quality (testified by the fact that they still stand today).From its origin the GWR expanded rapidly into an efficient and prosperous industry and in the early 20th century produced thrilling designs (City of Truro was the first locomotive in the world to travel at over 100mph on 9th May, 1904). Its peak of 14000 employers was in 1920 and from there it declined (in 1960 Swindon produced British Railways’ last steam locomotive (Evening Star, number 92220)) and then reluctantly closed on the 27th March, 1986.

I have to mention the Mechanics’ Institute, (1853-55) which is by far the most beautiful building in Swindon. Today it is in ruins: it was nominated as in the top 10 most endangered Victorian Buildings, according to the Victorian Society.

Working in the railway works was a given for lots of men. My grampy (see Point Counterpoint #2) was fortunate enough to have an alternative. When he was leaving school his father posed him the question:

‘Now boy, you can either work in GWR for pittance a week, or come flog fish down the market with me for £30 a morning.’

And even stinking of fish with frozen hands and chasing live crabs around he was glad not to have the fat controller as a boss.


Figure 3 The Fat Controller, Thomas the Tank Engine

There was always social unrest in the village: Daniel Gooch, Superintendent for GWR said in 1859 “It having come to my knowledge that many of the boys of New Swindon are very unruly and mischievous in their conduct, especially during the evening when property is frequently damaged and (as on a recent occasion) life endangered, I hereby give notice that any person in the service of the company reported to me as being disorderly, firing cannons, or making an improper use of firearms in the Village be discharged (…) ”

Figure 2 Workers leaving c 1910

I recently went to a gig by the Unthanks and their melancholic song Black Trade really captured the concept of underappreciated workers: ‘all you welders and riveters… you’re just black trade…’ These men put all their energies into producing the magnificent engines, tracks, carriages, but individually they are not given much recognition.

Today, ironically, the village has a low employment rate and is 95% owned by the local housing authority. The social problems that plagued the village in the 19th century still do today. I’ll illuminate this with a couple more anecdotes from a local housing officer: The electricity meters are in large cabinets; it’s usually fine and easy enough to read the meters, but on this occasion the door opened to a waft of smoke: among the drug paraphernalia and sleeping bag poked the head of a homeless man smoking a fag! Another time the officer was taking photographs of a pile of dumped rubbish when another homeless man started shouting abuse and vitriol, thinking his drug stash was disturbed he started throwing objects, when the officer turned around she saw he’d thrown chocolate bars at her!

Swindon has always been an innovative town: more recently we were the first to have a cable TV channel in the UK, and I think it is the history of the Railway Village that puts the ‘yuppies’ off the Railway Village.  I can imagine an aspiring professional thinking ‘No matter that these houses are cute, there’s still poky ex-council houses in a dodgy area.’ For those that can afford them, there are plenty of modernized Victorian terraced houses in Old Town, or as we saw in an earlier blog, fashionable new-builds in the suburbs.

The Railway Village, while being cute, it is not the calm, quaint village it appears. It is a place fraught with social problems, and either despite or perhaps because of this, it still has one of the best pubs in Swindon.

Figure 4 The Glue Pot

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Economic Mobility –

How feasible is economic mobility, actually?  Can you move up the ladder?

This new study by Pew Charitable Trusts Economic Mobility Project examines this question, on a state-by-state basis.  The geographic pattern that emerges is pretty staggering.  Though most states do not differ in any statistically significant way, you may want to stay out of the south if you want to go from rags to riches.  Check out the interactive version of the below map at the


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This is really clever.

The Small Streets Blog, a publication I found linked from Slate, has a very cool visualization of historic villages superimposed on parking lots.  Its eye-opening, and a great way to think about how much space is actually dedicated to cars.  The first shows the park-and-ride lot of Greenbelt, MD (given that the lot feeds public transportation, choosing it is a little bit of a cheap shot), with a Swedish village plopped on top.

Image courtesy Small Streets Blog

People are really terrible at understanding scale, and anything like this that helps you see how space can be redeployed is a really good thing.  We need to splash this stuff all over the internet.

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Ethnicity and City boundaries

Last year I stumbled upon this amazing set of maps of ethnicity and segregation in US cities by Eric Fischer.   Using  Bill Rankin’s map of Chicago’s racial and ethnic divides  as a starting point, Fischer mapped over 100 major US cities.  Using dot maps, he was able to illustrated racial and ethnic segregation in a dramatic way.  Just check out the below maps (first with 2000, then with 2010 data) of Detroit where white and black populations are strictly dividing along 8 Mile Rd.  In these maps “Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Gray is Other, and each dot is 25 people”

I highly recommend you check out the full sets: 2000 and 2010 on his Flickr site.  They are pretty mind boggling, and with the recent addition of the 2010 maps it’s interesting to see how, and if settlement has changed at all.   For the case of Detroit, Wikipedia asserts:

The 2010 U.S. Census showed a dramatic shift in demographic numbers as affluent and middle class African American, Asian, and Hispanic populations surge in Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw Counties, negating the tradition of 8 Mile being the racial divide of the Metro Detroit area.

While a shift is definitely occurring in Detroit, the above illustrates the long road the city must take before it achieves racial and ethnic integration.

The New York Times has recently come out with an interactive version of this map, across the entire US.  You may find this map easier to maneuver and navigate, and it has the benefit of including smaller urban and rural areas as well.  Either way, I highly recommend you check out Eric Fischer’s Flickr for his other phenomenal map sets, which I am sure to discuss at some later point here.

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A Scale Comparison of North American Metros

From Radical Cartography via Visual Complexity

A post on shows the relative sizes of different North American subway/metro systems.  The image is much bigger there and can be downloaded as a PDF.  Who knew that Dallas’ system was so extensive? But then, I guess that makes sense.

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Alterra is the awesomest

Alterra is a local coffee roaster in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  It is the best.

The photo below shows the arm of one of Alterra’s barristas in December (the Shorewood branch).

As a bonus, she was really cool when I blurted out, “can I take a picture of your tattoo?”

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Cheer up! Chin up!

It’s easy to feel down about the state of public transportation today.

The Transport Politic has a more upbeat look, though, with their map of transit projects opening and under construction in the U.S. and Canada.   It’s good to remember that even with raising fares and, in some cases, service cutbacks, new infrastructure is still being built!  A full run down on all the projects, and links to their respective websites available here.


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Typographic Maps

Ever since typography became trendy, more and more typographic maps have been hitting the scene (scene? is there a map scene?).  Everyone appears to be so thrilled at the intersection of typography and geography, that sometimes we seem not to stop and look at these maps critically.

An example of this, for me, comes from Ork Posters (find your city here)- who provide an intersection of neighbourhoods and typography.  Most of their prints are really cool:  good design, and fun and informative neighborhood layout.

Despite their popularity, however, I don’t think Ork maps reach their full potential.  All that empty space leaves me wanting.  And where’s the lake? And where are the suburbs?  In those cities that I am less familiar with, I’m left wanting something else.

And so, I went on a search to find typographic maps that really do it for me.  Maps that can integrate typography, but that also give a sense of the city, and a sense of the geography of the urban place.  And here are some new finds, and some old favourites.

1.  Axis Maps

I love the typographic maps from Axis maps .  They focus on street names and transit routes instead of neighbourhoods and it provides a really neat graphic experience.  Perhaps sticking to the gird leaves the map a bit sterile, but I think graphically it is much more appealing.

2.   Andy Proehl

I discovered Proehl’s set of typographic maps on flickr a while back, and his map of the Mississippi really caught my attention.  I love the idea of using typography to map the natural world, rivers, lakes, mountains.  I would love to explore this idea more.

3. Seagull’s Hut

I love the use of color in these city maps coming from Seagull’s Hut.  The inclusion of a background water color really gives a good sense of the underlying geography.   I particularly like this one of Zurich. Color choice leaves a bit to be desired, though.

More Soon.

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