Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
An ongoing project visualizes segregation data in urban areas.
In Kansas City, Missouri, living east of Troost Avenue is a loaded a geographical signifier. East of Troost, abandoned houses are abundant. Schools are failing. Pizza shops won’t deliver because crime is so common. “East of Troost” is also, arguably, a racial euphemism: The street was enforced as a legal segregation line during the Jim Crow era. And today, nearly three in four people living east of the avenue within urban Kansas City are black.
That’s where Jim Vallandingham was living back in 2011—just on the eastern side of Troost—when he came up with one of the most powerful visualizations of urban segregation I’ve seen yet. His rendering of Kansas City is shown above.
“I could easily walk to this very affluent shopping mall, while still being right next door to what was perceived to be a dangerous part of town,” Vallandingham, who is white, says. “I had the realization that physical location was not what mattered. It was that these dividing lines broke apart pieces of the city, in terms of the problems they were dealing with. I wanted to find a visual form for that phenomenon you experience in a lot of cities.”
His project, “Visualizing the Racial Divide,” maps the proportion of white and black residents in 13 U.S. cities. (Though the project is several years old, Baltimore and Memphis were added just a few weeks ago.) Then it shatters them apart. Vallandingham explains on his website:
Each city is made up of tracts from the 2010 Census. Census tracts are pushed away from neighboring tracts based on the change in proportion of white and black populations between each neighboring tract.
Tracts that have a similar racial mix as their neighbors form groups. Spaces occur where there is a significant change in the racial makeup between neighboring tracts. The space is proportional to the change in racial composition between neighbors.
It is a startling, disorienting evocation of the gaps so commonly found between majority-black and majority-white neighborhoods: In many U.S. cities, economic segregation is associated with the share of black, Latino, or Asian residents. This project can, of course, only offer a limited view of urban inequalities, and Vallandingham is frank about the project’s caveats. It only shows black and white populations—all other racial demographics are left out. And a similar map based on income brackets might be even more revealing. Vallandingham says he’s also tempted to try something using vacant housing data.
“The great thing about data visualization is being able to show these phenomena and connect to people in a way that can be visceral and emotional, or at least relatable,” he says. And, though “Visualizing” isn’t a perfect project, “it’s a learning experience. There’s still a lot more that can be done,” he says.