Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
The full catalog of USGS topographic surveys is now all on one site and searchable by city.
Early Tuesday, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) launched a Historical Topographic Map Explorer, allowing cartography lovers to easily pore through the agency's expansive collection.
First, type in the location you want:
Once the map loads up, a timeline of maps appears at the bottom. Clicking on one, and it appears as a new layer on top of the default map. As a bonus, you can also download a large digital file of any map you choose to look at:
Not all the maps will layer perfectly over the area you want to observe. The 1977 map below of "Boston South" cuts off before the parts of East Boston and Cambridge already loaded up on the site:
Besides tracking a city's changes through the maps, viewers can also get a sense of the USGS's different design periods. Most notable is the period between the 1940s and 1960s, where each topographical map displays rich colors and a sans serif typeface to make for easier reading of so many layers of information.
One look at the 1958 map of Atlanta below and you know how quickly the city spills into a well-forested region.
As for Los Angeles in 1949, the map below clearly shows a sprawling pattern of freeways and urbanization winding its way around surrounding mountains.
Of course, you can also just aimlessly play around with the site. For regions that are more spread out, like L.A., not all maps cover the same ground. After clicking on a handful of maps ranging from the 1890s to the 1970s, we get a historical mishmash of aesthetics and urban expansion:
Not surprisingly, the USGS doesn't map like they used to. With so many technological advances, field checks and aerial photography are no longer a part of the land surveying process. Since 2008, the agency has been mass-producing maps with the assistance of national GIS databases. Now, each USGS map only requires a couple hours of labor to create.
While map enthusiasts appreciate the easier access and more frequent updates this approach offers, some lament the loss of design quality and detail. A 2011 article in Directions Magazine notes that the pre-automated topographical maps "show more features, have better text design and placement, better visual integration, and a more graceful overall appearance."
All the more reason to admire the many, many old maps available inside this new tool.