Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
These maps of intersecting waterbodies will make you think twice about where yours comes from.
The work of Wisconsin-based cartographer Daniel Huffman strikes a particular chord in the map-lover’s heart. On an Internet brimming with sleek, sharp geo-visualizations, Huffman’s maps offer a sweetly idiosyncratic view of the world. The signatures of historic figures turn into street vectors. Oregon’s wine country gets the ‘90s computer-game treatment. A simple bike path becomes a work of calligraphy.
“What it really probably comes down to is a desire to do things differently than others,” he says in an email. “I crave variety, and so it often leads me to thinking of weird ideas and saying, ‘I wonder if I can do X[.]’"
Lately, a trend has emerged out of Huffman’s impulses towards novelty—an idea he calls “Modern Naturalism,” in which his maps present natural features in the type of “highly-abstracted, geometrically precise visual language that we often apply to the constructed world on maps,” according to his website.
In this mode, Huffman has created a series of maps in which American river systems are visualized as subway maps (specifically, like Harry Beck’s 1930s London Tube maps), with nodes representing connections between streams and tributaries. More recently, he’s experimented with a map of the state of Michigan, where the edges of land and water are straightened out into 45 and 90 degree angles, and perfectly circular green dots represent vegetation. His Escher-esque map of U.S. land cover also plays with nature-as-geometry; grasses, shrubs, trees, and crops fit together as mutely colored tiles.
By sharpening and abstracting the natural features we’re accustomed to seeing in organic, curvy shapes, Huffman forces readers of his maps to pause and really think about what’s on them. There’s real social value in a map that subtly forces us to look closer at where our water comes from, or at the way we use land. And these works also press us to consider our assumptions about what maps can do.
“We look at maps all the time, and I think we take much of what they do and much of what they show for granted,” Huffman says. “If I present things in a new way, I hopefully push people into paying more attention to, for example, the rivers around them, which they might otherwise glance past.”