Your Body Is a Wondermap

The cartographic utility of human appendages and the places they resemble.

Envy the Michigan Hand Map. Michiganders have been blessed with a state shaped almost exactly like a hand – well, at least, most of the state (Say sorry to da U.P., eh?).

I'm from California, but I just spent three months living in Michigan and was pleased to find that Michiganders really do regularly reference their state's geography or the location of certain cities by using their own built-in Michigan hand map. It's a surprisingly useful tool, especially when explaining to a Californian how to find places like Sleeping Bear Dunes (pinky nail) or Bay City (that wrinkled fleshy part between the thumb and forefinger). In a pinch, you could get rough driving directions.

I quickly found myself using the Michigan hand map, too. It's great when you're referencing Michigan but, as I quickly discovered, not so hot when you're talking about anywhere else. I recently ventured to St. Louis and tried to use a hand map to show some Missourians the location of my hometown of Martinez, in the eastern part of the San Francisco Bay Area. It did not work.

This failure of hand cartography made me instantly jealous of Michiganders, who've inherited a spatial information tool that has likely become even more useful over the years as mobility has evolved and more people are driving from, say, Detroit (near the bottom of the thumb) to Lansing (in the middle of the palm).

And the physiological map goes beyond the hand. Take Italy, for example, whose leg-in-a-boot shape makes it easy to point out Rome (upper shin) or Florence (below the knee) without a proper map or even much knowledge of the country. Again, it's probably really useful for locals talking to non-locals about their lesser-known cities ("It's in the ankle region"). Louisiana also has a foot-like thing going on, and Iowa sorta looks like the profile of a face.

What could be really useful would be a city with a body part shape, like a hand-shaped city even a face shaped city. Wayfinding would be a breeze: "Walk from the left nostril to the far edge of the right eyeball." Some ambitious developers were on a similar track when they revealed these plans for animal-shaped cities in the newly formed country of South Sudan. Cute, but I'd argue it's much easier to find your way around a hand than a rhino's butt. Maybe that's just me, though.

All this got me wondering, are there any body part-shaped cities out there? A Google Image search would seem a goldmine of funny-shaped city borders or leg-looking urban areas, but aside from a few ancient (vaguely) animal shaped cities, there's not much out there. So I decided to take a look at Google Maps.

As we noted back in January, Google Maps search results for cities now feature the official borders of most cities. I took a look at some of the major North American cities to see if there were any body-like resemblances.

New York, with its peninsula-peninsula-island makeup, doesn't instantly resemble much. However, there is a little hand-like resemblance if you just look at Manhattan and the Bronx:

Los Angeles is a bit of a stretch, given the string-like connection the city maintains with the port area to the south, but it sorta works:

Jacksonville awesomely looks like a nose. There's a sinus-like resemblance in its waterways, and even a nostril hole, which could make giving directions from, say, the Mandarin neighborhood to Miramar, hilarious.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Vancouver's got a cool "low five"/"gimme some money" thing going on:

Not to flame The Atlantic Cities' home office, but Washington D.C. has a bit of a thumbs-down look, no?

This one isn't really a human resemblance, but Portland looks a lot like a dog's head. The Willamette River is the mouth.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

With its oval shape, St. Louis looks like an eyeball. Downtown, for example, is near the center part of the lower eyelid, and the Central West End is in the pupil/iris area. Tough luck for anybody trying to get around the white part, though.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Santa Fe has an ankle and foot look, or maybe more like a loafer and a neatly hemmed pant.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The coolest, though, has got to be Cape Cod, which looks like a muscle man flexing his arm.

Photo credit: Reuters

And, hey, Somebody even found an easy way to do a hand map of the San Francisco Bay Area – way back in 1938, according to this post from Strange Maps:

Most cities, though, have an organic blob-like shape (Dallas, Houston), a blockish, hard-edged quality (Indianapolis, Philadelphia), or just a weird bubbly, tentacle-y form (San Jose, Austin) that you definitely don't want to see anywhere on your body.

Not everywhere is as gifted as Michigan. But other places clearly do have some anatomical connections they can tap into for spatial communications. And it behooves them to do so. Wouldn't you rather give directions on your nose than on a map?

I'm sure there are more out there. Your city could literally be somewhere on your body. If you find it, send a picture!

Maps courtesy Google. Hand photographer and hand model: Nate Berg

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.