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.
A biweekly tour of the ever-expanding cartographic landscape.
Welcome to the third edition of MapLab. Sign up to receive this newsletter in your inbox here.
The special election in Alabama seemed like a parable of contemporary U.S. politics. Perhaps the moral is to listen to black women.
Doug Jones, the Democratic former U.S. attorney known as a champion of civil rights, won Jeff Sessions’s open seat in the U.S. Senate over Roy Moore, the ultra-conservative former state supreme court judge accused of sexual misconduct and assault by multiple women, many of whom were teenagers at the time of the alleged events. Jones will be the state’s first Democratic senator in 25 years. The map of the results—with once-deep-red counties turned blue—is striking.
Jones faced an unusually unpopular candidate in Moore, whose misdeeds and legal violations kept many Republican voters home, and pushed some to cross party lines. But black Alabamians carried the Democrat’s victory, making up nearly 30 percent of the electorate Tuesday night—higher than their share of the overall population and a higher turnout than in the 2012 presidential election, according to preliminary exit polls. Among ballot-casters, some 93 percent of black men and 98 percent of black women supported Jones, compared to 26 percent and 34 percent of white men and women.
The divide was also dramatic between urban and rural areas. Jones beat out Moore by 71 percent in areas with urban populations of 50,000 or more. It was Alabama’s urban centers, namely Birmingham and Montgomery, that clinched Jones’s win. And about a dozen counties that went for Trump in the 2016 election turned blue.
Media coverage of Alabama’s decision focused, rightly, on whether voters would send an alleged child molester to the U.S. Senate, as many pollsters predicted would happen. Yet Moore’s defeat is also about voters overcoming barriers along geographic lines. Black Alabamians have long faced insidious challenges to their right to vote by legislative and judicial branches of government. Notably, in 2013, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder allowed states to revive voter ID laws and other disenfranchising changes. In Alabama, the districts most affected by subsequent polling place and DMV closures are where black voters are most heavily concentrated. To send Jones to the Senate, black Alabamians, and especially women, not only turned out in force—many traveled longer distances, and carried extra documentation, to do it.
Compass points: Where fires rage
The blazes that broke in and around Los Angeles last week were some of the worst Southern California has ever seen. Although wildfires are part of the region’s natural ecology, most blazes in urbanized parts of the U.S. start with people.
Jill Hubley, a Brooklyn-based artist and web developer, has mapped, charted, and ranked the last 36 years of fires across the U.S. by cause, number of fires, and acres burned. Using Federal Wildland Fire Occurrence Data from 1980 to 2016, Hubley turned thousands of blazes into bright points of color. Lightning predominates as a cause, nationwide. Closer to cities, human-caused fires are described in many ways: dump fires, grease fires, and neighbor-to-neighbor “grudge fires.” What casts first sparks varies a lot state by state: In Indiana, it’s brakeshoes. In Minnesota, it's field burning. Speaking of Alabama, the main igniter there is pyromania.
Humans are causing fires in another way, which goes unspoken in this map: Climate change is turning the West into a tinderbox.
Hubley is known to CityLab readers for her maps of street trees and toxic spills. I’m a big fan of her abiding interest in urban nature, choice of super fine-grained datasets, and painterly attention to color. So we delved deeper for the next segment:
Startographer of the week
Hubley and I exchanged emails about the wildfire map. (The correspondence has been condensed.)
LB: Rather than reduce the data to, say, the “five leading causes” of fire, you've taken care to give every specific factor its due. Why?
JH: By nature, I like exploring things in detail, looking at things object by object, gaining a sense of a whole from the accumulation of details, absorbing a full situation slowly. There are benefits to summarizing data for users (which happily is the case when you zoom far enough out of a point map), but I guess I like to present the kind of experience I enjoy myself, where you can really dig in and see every tiny thing.
LB: Would this kind of ultra-fine-grained data mapping have been technologically possible, even two to three years ago? What kinds of tools did you use?
JH: Probably not. I used WebGL shaders to draw all of the points to a Leaflet map, and was aided greatly by Robert Lee Plummer Jr.'s glify library (which I then mucked up with my own functions). I added a Carto tile layer that appears once a user zooms in.
LB: Any mapmaking heroes, historical or contemporary?
JH: My favorite map is probably this one [excerpt shown above]: "Botanical profile representing the forest trees along the route explored by Lieut. A.W. Whipple, Corps of Topl. Engrs. near the parallel of 35° north latitude, 1853-1854: from Fort Smith to San Pedro." I like it because of the detail and content, and also the character it gets from the hand-drawn symbology.
Bill Rankin's dot maps of race in Chicago and other cities showed me how important this map type can be in telling a full story. I also love John Nelson's work. There are also loads of early USGS maps that I love for their beauty and detail.
Map apps that route drivers into quiet neighborhoods have awakened wrathful, traffic-creating NIMBY monsters, reports New York magazine. Solution? Delete the app. ♦ Alternatively, communities could build DIY, open-source, localized versions of Waze, as Palestinians have done. ♦ Which way’s the North Pole? The New York Public Library has cute “cartifacts” for Christmas. ♦ Monoglots need not apply: Researchers are mapping the uses of Beirut’s many languages. ♦ They really are Great: The lakes of America’s “Third Coast” have a gorgeous new atlas. (Sample shown above.) ♦ It’s all in the glue: a supposedly super-rare early map of the Americas is off the auction block at Christie’s, after map dealers questioned its authenticity. ♦ Some maps are fake, but some real maps have fake places.
We’ll see you in 2018! MapLab will be off for the holidays.