A relief worker checks road conditions on a map of Puerto Rico during aid distribution planning in San Juan. Colin Chaperon for the American Red Cross

The year's biggest stories in maps—and a few of the best maps, in stories.

There’s no one right way to make sense of a tumultuous year, but at least maps offer one kind of insight: Even in a digitally connected world, geography is still, frequently, destiny. From the effects of DACA elimination, to Hurricane Harvey’s impact on Houston, to Uber’s wild year, CityLab has reported many of the year’s top stories through the lens of physical place.

As a special edition of MapLab, CityLab’s biweekly maps newsletter (sign up here), I looked at some of 2017’s big stories in maps, and some of 2017’s best maps, in stories.

Women march

(Jeremy Pressman and Erica Chenoweth)

This map by the researchers and professors Erica Chenoweth and Jeremy Pressman hints at the estimated 2.6 million people who gathered at 673 marches, in 50 states and 32 countries, to protest President Trump’s first 24 hours in office. The largest gathering was the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., where 500,000 marched down the National Mall, possibly the largest one-day demonstration in recorded U.S. history. In solidarity against the president’s history of alleged sexual assault, many protesters wore pink “pussy hats”: A powerful start to the year that would bring the #MeToo movement.

Gentrifiers gentrify

(Soren Walljasper/CityLab)

Cities around the world grappled with gentrification, displacement, and affordability. An affordable housing crisis continued to grip the U.S., with the very poor hit the hardest: In just 12 counties can minimum-wage workers afford a modest one-bedroom unit, one report found. Millions of urban dwellers are at risk of being pushed out of their homes in gentrifying neighborhoods around the country. One sign of the wealth moving in, or, according to writer and historian Thomas J. Campanella, of “creative-class tribal space”? Edison light bulbs. CityLab mapped the march of the warmly glowing (and totally energy-inefficient) orbs down Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.

Russia snoops?

(Courtesy of John Davies/The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World)

A worrying trend in global affairs: the souring relationship between Washington and Moscow. As investigations into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election continue, Trump has begrudgingly issued sanctions against allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin—aimed chiefly as punishments for alleged election meddling, which Russia strongly denies. Of course, the Kremlin has been building intimate knowledge of the West for decades, as these intricate maps of world cities, drawn by the Soviet military and published this year, show. (Parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the East River shown above.)

Missiles move

(KCNA via Reuters)

North Korea rang in 2017 by claiming it was making “final preparations” on a missile capable of reaching the U.S. Doubts about the country’s technological capabilities remain, but the country did indeed test multiple long-range ballistic missiles (and possibly a hydrogen bomb) this year, as promised. In return, Trump threatened the country with “fire and fury,” undermining U.S. diplomatic efforts in the process. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (shown above in an undated photo, apparently measuring distances on a map with officials of the Korean People's Army) replied, “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.” The situation is expected to escalate in 2018.

Megaregions dawn

(Rae + Nelson)

For all the hand-wringing after the 2016 election, the divides between “urban” and “rural” aren’t really so clear-cut. Many planners and economists now argue that the U.S. economy is powered by “megaregions”: interlocking workforces in clusters of neighboring cities. To illustrate the point, the researchers Garrett Dash Nelson and Alasdair Rae built an algorithm to measure commuter flows and produced vibrant maps that stitch together towns like San Francisco, San Jose, and Sacramento; and Des Moines, Springfield, and Peoria. Bright lights, bigger cities.

Mass shootings accelerate

(Soren Walljasper/CityLab)

The deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history came in October, when a gunman pent up in a Las Vegas hotel tower showered gunfire on concertgoers across the street, leaving 59 people dead and more than 500 others injured. A month later, a man opened fire on churchgoers in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26. There were dozens of smaller-scale events this year. The Gun Violence Archive reports more than 14,000 people were killed and over 29,000 were injured in mass shootings (defined here) in 2017. That might make it the worst year on record. Mass shootings affect communities of all shapes and sizes: CityLab charted that geography here. (The map shown here does not include incidents after October 2.)

Cities resist

(CityLab Latino/Univision/US Climate Mayors)

In June, President Trump announced the U.S. would pull out of the Paris accord. The landmark climate agreement, signed now by literally every other recognized country in the world, established a goal of limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius by cutting carbon emissions. The accord may have never been enough to save the planet from climate disaster, but the U.S. withdrawal left many world citizens concerned about who’d fill the vacuum in leadership. One unlikely leader: an alliance of cities. The mayors of nearly 400 U.S. cities (some of which are mapped above), representing 60 million Americans, signed a commitment to “adopt, honor and uphold” the goals of the Paris agreement. Possible? We’ll see. But it was one of the year’s most powerful statements of local resistance to federal policy.

Opioids kill


Life expectancy in the U.S. declined for the second year in a row in 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported. The opioid crisis, which reached new proportions in 2017, appears to be the killer: Drug overdose deaths rose by a staggering 28 percent in 2016. In many ways, life lengths are determined by where you live. As the Atlantic reported in May, Americans can now expect to die at younger ages than their parents in 13 counties, and the eight counties with the biggest drops in life expectancy are all clustered in Kentucky, one of the top five states in the nation for overdose deaths. Still, the opioid crisis affects communities of all shapes, sizes, and increasingly, colors.

Tech’s power grows

(Google Maps/Justin O’Beirne)

The year was full of splashy tech advancements: Facial recognition software went mainstream, Hyperloop tests broke speed records, IKEA entered the solar battery business, and passenger drones took flight over Dubai. But one tech giant has been making a quieter advance: Google Maps has solidified itself further as the world’s mapping monolith, merging its 3-D building and terrain renderings with satellite, aerial, and street-view imagery, plus address, search, and commercial activity data. Justin O’Beirne, a writer who has frequently compared Google and Apple Maps data, pointed out in a widely shared blog post that Apple likely can’t begin to compete at this point. What’s Google moving toward? Sounds tin-hattish, but these maps may amount to the world’s greatest training software for self-driving cars. And, O’Beirne reflects, “Google likely knows what’s inside all of the buildings it has extracted.”

Puerto Rico goes dark


Hurricane Maria transformed life in Puerto Rico. The category 5 storm knocked most of the electric power grid and telecommunications network offline, blocking roads, stymying rescues, and kicking off the longest and arguably most catastrophic power outage in American history. Today, as waves of Puerto Ricans flee to the mainland and the island grapples with compounding health, housing, and financial issues, a third or more of Puerto Ricans are still living life in the dark. Shown above: images of the island lit by night before and shortly after Maria, based on satellite data mapped by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Marshall Space Flight Center.

A people wiped off the map

(UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs)

Nearly half a million Rohingya, the Muslim-majority ethnic group in Myanmar, have fled their homes since an unprecedented and deadly crackdown by security forces of Myanmar’s Rakhine State began in August. “Villages have been burned down, parents or relatives have been killed in front of traumatized children, and women and girls have been raped or brutalized,” reports the UN. Some have described the crisis as an ethnic cleansing. The UN Secretary General called it a “humanitarian and human rights nightmare.” Shown here is a UN map of how the number of Rohingya refugees has swelled in Bangladesh cities, where many have taken shelter. Al Jazeera has more on the crisis, in maps.

A red state goes blue

(Laura Bliss/Madison McVeigh/CityLab)

It might be hard to describe the shock of Alabama’s special election outcome to future generations. In the run for U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s vacant senate seat, Doug Jones, a Democratic former U.S. attorney known as a passionate advocate of civil rights, became the deep-red state’s first Democratic senator in 25 years. Flipping about a dozen red counties blue, he defeated Roy Moore, the arch-conservative former judge who’d been accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct and assault. Moore had been widely expected to win. Black women voters, who carried Jones to victory, seemed to draw the country’s moral line.  

Two minutes of zen

(Google/UC Berkeley)

Wherever you were when the moon edged in front of the sun this August, the total solar eclipse that crossed the continental U.S. was a rare moment of shared cosmic splendor in what was often a divisive, ugly year. There were lots of great maps charting the path of the moon’s full shadow, which was visible from Corvallis, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina (with lots of headaches and excitement for small towns in between). Not since 1918 had a total solar eclipse been visible from a large swath of land. Step back into the umbra (or penumbra) with this joint effort by UC Berkeley and Google, which shows how and when those two minutes of darkness hit every zip code.

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