Maps can help us find where we're going, but they can also help us understand where we are. Beyond providing simple directional information, maps can be filtered to let us know, for instance, that there's a good sandwich shop down the street, or that a fire once burned down an entire neighborhood.
A newly released set of maps takes this idea down to the neighborhood level – one specific neighborhood. In "Mission Possible," undergrad students in the Cartography and GIS Education Lab in UC Berkeley's Geography Department have created 22 maps exploring the Mission District in San Francisco. The maps offer a detailed look at geographical elements of the neighborhood, from the locations of cupcakes and gang territory to low-income housing, to the contaminated underground sites of former gas station storage tanks. The maps are now available as a printed atlas.
Darin Jensen is the UC Berkeley professor behind this project, and he argues that the maps provide distinct lenses through which the neighborhood can be experienced or understood.
"One's perception of a place is guided or framed by the thing they're looking at. So if you're looking at the coffee map, that's what you think is going on in the Mission, because that's the map you have in front of you," Jensen says.
"What we wanted to do in this series is show people that, yes, there are coffee shops and you can pick a coffee shop based on its price per cup. But turn the page and you'll also see that there's gang territory in the mission or you can turn the page again and you can see how many children under six years old live in the Mission," Jensen says. "It's a way to show all these parallel universes, if you will."
One map features the sounds heard in different parts of the neighborhood. Sounds were captured with an analog sound pressure meter and are mapped with pink circles denoting the different decibel levels. Another reveals now-buried historical creeks. Yet another shows the geography of Craigslist "Missed Connections" personal ads and their relation to the lunar cycle.
This map shows the locations of various elements of the city that are above ground: billboards, tree canopies, overhead bus power lines, cell phone towers.
It's noteworthy that almost all of these maps are oriented with west at the top, as opposed to the traditional north. Jensen says north-oriented maps reinforce a kind of northern hemisphere centrism, and that orienting this set of maps to the west was a deliberate choice to break with that convention.
The maps were created in the spring of 2011 by first-time cartographers. Jensen says he wanted his students to make not just a map, but to read their environment and engage with it and hopefully learn something from it.
The collection of maps together creates a thorough profile of the Mission, but as Jensen notes, not a comprehensive one.
"We did what we wanted to do. That doesn’t mean that this is an exhaustive atlas," he says. "There are innumerable subjects that we could have addressed."
Maps courtesy Darin Jensen