A Rice University mapping project seeks to illustrate “the social and urban evolution” of the city since its birth.

Rio de Janeiro is “a city of multiple and contradictory layers, at once exposed and hidden by its beauty and complex topography,” writes Sandra Jovchelovitch, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science. What she means is that, on one hand, this dense Brazilian city boasts some world’s most iconic architecture and monuments—it’s a cidade maravilhosa or "marvelous city," as Uri Friedman notes. On the other, it’s home to a sea of favelas—urban shantytowns ridden with poverty and lawlessness that are the most visible evidence of the city’s acute inequalities.

But how did it come to be this way? That’s what a new mapping project by Rice University seeks to illustrate. “The platform imagineRio is a searchable atlas that illustrates the social and urban evolution of Rio de Janeiro over the entire history of the city, as it existed and as it was often imagined,” the project’s description reads.

The main map is laid over a timeline spanning from 1500 to 2016, and incorporates urban projects, city plans, and architectural sketches of the city and its various components that were created along the way. Here’s a screenshot of the city overlaid with a city plan from 1869, for example:

And here’s one from 1923. Clicking on any one site on the map brings up more details about it:

The creators also added in images that visiting artists had made of the city. “Every image that we could geolocate, we geolocated,”Alida Metcalf, the chair of the history department and one of the forces behind the platform, told a Rice University news blog in 2015. “Once you geolocate the image, you click on the map and see what the artist saw—kind of like time travel.”

Rio’s urban history is particularly suited to this kind of digital treatment, according to imagineRio’s creators:

To make Rio what it is today, mountains were leveled, swamps drained, shorelines redrawn, ridgelines altered, and islands joined to the mainland, while the adjacent Tijuca Forest was first cleared for planting coffee and extracting charcoal only to later be replanted for the protection of the city's water sources. Such a changing physical and social landscape, with all its political consequences, lends itself to being spatially contextualized in a digital platform that maps and illustrates transformation over time.

The platform is a pretty cool way for historians, literary scholars, cartographers, architects, urbanists, tourists, and even locals to explore Rio in the context of its rich and complex urban history. Take a trip back in time here.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A self-driving Volvo SUV in Scottsdale, Arizona. The company has halted testing of its autonomous vehicle program in the wake of a fatal crash on Sunday.

    How the Self-Driving Dream Might Become a Nightmare

    What will happen if we just accept that a certain number of pedestrian deaths are an inevitable part of adopting autonomous vehicles?

  2. Maps

    America's Loneliest Roads, Mapped

    An interactive map highlights the least traveled routes in the country—and some of the most scenic.

  3. POV

    The Gateway Project Doesn't Need Trump's Approval

    The $30 billion rail tunnel project may be a victim of President Trump’s feud with Democrats. But New York and New Jersey could still save it.

  4. A young refugee from Kosovo stands in front of a map of Hungary with her teacher.

    Who Maps the World?

    Too often, men. And money. But a team of OpenStreetMap users is working to draw new cartographic lines, making maps that more accurately—and equitably—reflect our space.

  5. Equity

    The Austin Bombings Were Terrifying. But Were They 'Terrorism'?

    Absent a motive, the serial bombing attacks in Texas hadn’t been labeled with the term. Now, police say the suspect has been killed.