A biweekly tour of the ever-expanding cartographic landscape.

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Orient yourself: The art and science of urban structures

Cities are the frequent subject of scientific research in biology, health, environment, and lots of other mainstream fields. But the science of cities themselves—as holistic systems and networks, as “organisms” that function in particular ways—has always been a little more fringe. Also, mind-bending.

Some researchers look for the patterns that make cities grow. For example, Geoffrey West, a senior fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a distinguished professor of physics at the Santa Fe Institute, has shown that a set of simple mathematical principles, very similar to those found in nature, govern the structure and growth of cities, as well as corporations and other human-based entities. “Whether you are insects, fish, mammals or birds, you get the same scaling laws,” he told Edge.org in 2011.

Stephen Marshall, Streets and Patterns, Routledge , 2004 (PDF)

Others study street patterns as ledgers of the urban past. (The historic grid makes Boston feel more “European” than other American cities, French researchers believe.) Others look at street layouts as predictors of a healthy population or robust economy. This is what Stephen Marshall, an urban planning researcher at University College London, is doing with the concept of “urban taxonomy”—his 2004 book Streets and Patterns catalogs cities by the shape of their street grids. “Good urban structure is necessary to create good urbanism,” he writes in the introduction to that book.

Geraldine Sarmiento, a cartographer formerly of the now-defunct firm Mapzen, is developing resources that contribute to this field. “Morphology,” her digital drawing and map-making tool, separates and reduces urban forms to highly abstract figures. Real-world airports, bridges, buildings, farms, parking lots, and many other places around the world are here as line-drawn shapes. Play with the layers and scale to see their shapes shift. “The forms reveal to me the endless pattern and variation at all scales, on living and non-living objects,” Sarmiento said via email, patterns that can be hard to see in regular maps that mush these shapes together, she added.

Sarmiento has started to print her “morphologies” into mini-field guides. Follow her here.

Geraldine Sarmiento/Mapzen

Send me your answers: The image above shows the morphology of 15 of the busiest airports in the world. Can you guess which ones?

More on the science of cities: My 2014 CityLab article. A Geoffrey West TED talk. What urban morphology means for noise.


Compass points: The persistence of redlining

CityLab’s Kriston Capps teamed up with the data journalist Kate Rabinowitz for an eye-opening look at how the Fair Housing Act failed black homeowners, 50 years after the federal government passed the historic law. Formerly redlined areas in and around downtown Jacksonville are still where most black residents live, Capps writes. “They are also places where the lowest number of the conventional mortgages are made in the city.”

(Kate Rabinowitz/CityLab/Center for Investigative Reporting)

Mappy links

Go Trees: Stanford University students are mapping the legacy of campus activism. ♦ Go trees: a University of Alabama undergrad is cataloguing every pine, willow, and oak on her campus. ♦ Good dog: A Shiba’s adorable chase after a Google Street View car is now digitally enshrined. ♦  “When I walk across a map with only some ugly trees or nothing but brown ground then I get bored”: a lover of video games is taking “walks” across their fantasy universes. ♦ How the West looked East: historic maps of India. ♦ Admire this headline: literally just maps of proposed rail extensions for London. ♦ Where smoking kills: the global impact of Big Tobacco.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this special brain-candy edition of the newsletter. Your friends need a dose: sign up for MapLab here.

—Laura

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