September 4, 2008

Maps old and new

Filed under: maps, travel — Tags: , — podtourz @ 5:01 pm

I’ve just written a piece for in-flight magazine Velocity on the way digital mapping is affecting our view of the city. It’s interesting – because we can now map in real time, so we can map flows, not just stasis.

That means we can now map, for instance, San Francisco’s nightlife – where is everyone going? We can map the city as the sum of its citizens’ movements, creating a picture like a long exposure photo of car light trails.

And it may mean  that maps are becoming more specialised. More useful if you are interested in a particular thing  – but perhaps less generally useful. That reflects some of the comments I’ve heard in media circles about how media are becoming more specialised,  more targeted, and there are fewer and fewer media providing a common agora and common content for everyone. Society is pulling apart, becoming fragmented, and we see that in digital maps as well as in the media.

There’s an eloquent piece about maps in the San Francisco Chronicle. I’m not an apologist for ink-on-paper – I was one of the early web heads, on the internet in the days when Compuserve gave you email addresses like 100541.3656@compuserve.com (I can still remember mine!), CSS hadn’t been invented, and there were no graphics on web pages. But what’s alarming is that although digital mapping can do so much, the real repositories of geographical knowledge (Ordnance Survey, the IGN in France) haven’t made the transition to digital – and digital mappers aren’t producing high quality. Googlemaps is great for navigating a housing estate – and rubbish at showing you trig points or contour lines.

John Flinn points out that the Ordnance Survey map is a repository not just of geographical information, but of history. Barns, village names, field boundaries, different types of woodland reflecting different styles of forestry development, Roman roads and deserted medieval villages. Read a good map and you’ll find yourself travelling in time as well as space. (And I had one OS map that really was a Tardis. It was bigger on the inside than the outside, and once unfolded, I could never, ever get it folded back into its cardboard spine…)

I’d love to see some digital mappers incorporating this kind of historical information into their work. In fact, you could quite easily create something like one of my very favourite maps, a marvellous and very detailed map of Roman Britain . Even better, with digital, you could roll over from Roman to early medieval Britain and watch the changes in population distribution,  while seeing the continuity of many of the trade routes over time…


February 21, 2008

Tube maps redefined

Filed under: london, maps, railways — Tags: , , — podtourz @ 8:07 pm

The straight lines and elegance of the London tube maps has often been admired. Clean lines – like Eric Gill’s typography and Edwin Lutyens’ architecture; simple, manly, clean, all the values of a world fit for heroes (and colonialists).

But we’re living in a more rainbow coloured age – one that doesn’t necessarily respect logic and manliness, but prefers the right-brain,  the creative, the feminine. We might prefer flow to rules, synthesis to taxonomy. Beck’s map is lovely but perhaps it’s time for a rethink.

And to my great joy I find someone has been doing that rethinking and come up with a wonderful map that throws its tentacles in wild abandon to the outer rearches of Metroland like some mad outer space sea anemone  looking for David Tennant… Glorious, isn’t it? I particularly love the not quite heart shaped finial on the eastern end of the Central Line, and the way the centre of London comes out not as a ring, a doughnut, or a rough rectangle, but as a squashed and wavy irregular form which reminds me of a prehistoric earthwork or a puddle of viscous liquid.

Elsewhere the splendid Max Roberts, designer of this intriguing new map, shows the accurate (in its day) tube map produced by London Transport in the 1930s and 1940s. What I find really lovely about it is that it shows the way the railway lines relate to watercourses, parks and forests – the manmade and the natural in relationship to each other. You never get that idea from the standard tube maps, which see the actual fabric of London and its boroughs as an irrelevance.

November 30, 2007

Filed under: England, london, maps — podtourz @ 6:40 pm

Another wonderful piece by Simon Jenkins in the Observer, on London’s maps.  Unfortunately the web version doesn’t come with the fine pictures.

One of the most striking pictures for me was the Rhinebeck panorama – a view of the City in about 1810. What’s lovely is the way the view is dominated by the spires of the City churches, soaring above the grid like streets of plain houses; now, with the gherkin, the Shard, and other skyscrapers being built, that view has gone for ever. (In fact, though, it’s not really the new generation of high buildings which are destroying the City’s skyline – it had already been done by an increase in the overall height of buildings over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a way, the Gherkin and its peers are reviving the idea of a view dominated by towers – they are the new spires.)

The geological map of the Thames basin gives you a completely different feeling for place. It’s like seeing a dissected body – what lies beneath the skin – and it gives the same sense of shock. The loops of the meandering Thames are instantly recognisable, but the greens and pinks and blues of the geological strata are strange, unknown.

Of course we make maps not only  to represent reality, but to organise it in our minds. So I was interested to see the 1908 tube map – one which shows the underground railway lines as they really lie, not in a tidied up, regularised way like the current map. The District Line wiggles between Earls Court and West Brompton (and Fulham Broadway is shown as ‘Walham Green’); the eastern end of the railway system is all squished up, coming to a point at Aldgate, with Moorgate and Liverpool Street all crushed up together; and the colours are wrong – the Central Line (now red) is purply blue, the Metropolitan is red instead.

We hit the twenty-first century with a house price heat map from myhouseprice.com – hot red areas of privilege in the west of London and in the suburbs,  and dark cold blue in the eastern corridor where prices are low.  Mind you, since the prices only appear to run up to one and a half million, this map has to be several years old….

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