The Portrait of the Artist as Urban Planner

When he's not doing his day job, planner Neil Freeman likes to render the city in abstract and unique ways.

For all the technical expertise that goes into urban planning, there's a good deal of artistry to it as well. You might not want to drive a cab in a city designed by Jackson Pollack, of course, but it's hard to deny the chaotic kinship between city life and something like a drip painting. Planner Neil Freeman sees a natural harmony between his professional work and his creative interests.

"Anyone who has more than one thing they're passionate about — and there are a lot of people out there like that — you end up finding ways to connect them," says Freeman. "Urban planning is thinking about the built environment and thinking about social conditions and working with people. The more ways you can try to approach those problems the better, and I think art is a good outlet for working on that."

Freeman's interest in urban life goes back to his undergraduate days, when he was a double major in art and mathematics. At that time he read "as many books about cities as I could." He's also lived in quite a few of them during his 31 years: Chicago, where he was raised; Cambridge, where he earned a master's in planning from the Harvard Graduate School of Design; and now New York, where he develops planning-related web projects.

In college Freeman started a website called Fake Is the New Real — "I don't have any strong memory for why I called it that," he says — as an outlet for his artistic renderings of city life. The site now exhibits dozens of his projects and in some ways represents a dynamic work itself. Every minute the side navigation changes: on one recent visit the headers read "Pretty," "Nerdy," and "Pretty Nerdy"; on another, they read "This," "That," "Other."

"It's not quite a personal portfolio page, because everything on there is artwork," he says. "It's designed to be a little bit opaque."

Freeman's first project, called "Chicago mile by mile," created an unconventional city map of the city based on 212 photos of strategic "mile" intersections. It was inspired by Chicago's unique grid system, in which every eight blocks measures a full mile, and the city's corresponding address system, which advances (for the most part) in increments of 800. If you begin at the zero-points of Madison and State streets and go west a mile, for example, you'll reach the corner of Halsted Street at 800 W Madison Street.

"This arbitrary address system ends up defining what it means to live in Chicago," he says. "These arbitrary systems that end up underlying our built environment of our daily life are really intriguing to me."

Extract of photo selection screen for "Chicago mile by mile."

The 2010 project "All the streets, centered" also reinterprets the urban streetscape, but to far more abstract ends. Using geographic data and some basic design tools, Freeman collected all the various street lengths in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, then spiraled them around a central point. The results transform each city into a star, though Freeman says he had no idea how things would look when he started the project.

"I'm interested in revealing patterns in unexpected ways," he says. "It's not actually telling you something you could act on, but it's creating an entirely new perspective."

New York, "All the streets, centered"

The project that's attracted the most attention is an electoral college map that reorganizes the United States into 50 equal territories of roughly 5.6 million people. "Electoral college reform" illustrates the vast differences in density that exist across the country. While some metro areas remain essentially unchanged in size, vast swaths of the Mountain West and Great Plains have been unified to create new "states" with matching populations.

"Besides being a visualization, it's a tongue-in-cheek proposal to make people think a little bit about how our electoral system works," says Freeman. "If you wanted to make the electoral college a fair system, it would require this ludicrous step of totally re-drawing the states."

"Electoral college reform"

The original 2003 map has appeared in multiple McSweeney's publications, and Freeman expects to post an updated version any day now. He intends to continue making art for Fake Is the New Real even as his tasks as a professional planner become more demanding. Both worlds have their own challenges and rewards, he says, and his hope is to keep the right balance between them.

"Urban planning work is something I'm really passionate about, and creating art is something I'm also really passionate about," he says. "I don't think of one as taking a back seat to another."

All images courtesy of Neil Freeman.

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