UrbanObservatory

Metros across the world don't speak the same language. But maps can.

The power of data to visually explain cities is magnified when you put a pair of maps side-by-side. Cities across the world don't speak the same language. But comparative maps, like the ones above, can. This is the premise behind a new project unveiled this week at the Esri user conference, an online Urban Observatory that aspires to be a "live museum with a data pulse" about cities all over the planet.

The interactive tool, designed by geospatial firm Esri, the film company @radical.media, and TED creator Richard Saul Wurman, is built around an extensive comparative mapping tool that so far includes 16 cities. Click through to the platform, and you can toggle between them, pulling up navigable maps on population density, road congestion, and land use, among other data points (beware, though, that some of the cities are currently not shown at the same scale).

That series shows open space in three global cities, as defined by developed or natural areas within town that are available for public use. Los Angeles has a smattering of small local parks and plazas; Rio has whole stretches of town with no open space at all. These next two maps show land in New York and Tokyo that's dedicated to commercial use:

And a similar map of the two cities showing their industrial land use:

Another set of maps, drawn from the Lincoln Institute's Atlas of Urban Expansion, illustrates areas which have more recently been developed, between 1990-2000. Here, it's clear that most of Chicago's growth has come at its western perimeter (also, that Milan is tiny):

The promise of such comparative mapping tools – and they're growing in number – is obviously limited by the available data. As long as cities, and whole countries, measure poverty or count crime incidents differently, it will be tough to plot answers on a map in a way that enables cities to learn from each other. This is a start, though. And as urban planners already know, you can always compare street grids. The top maps of Los Angeles and Paris do just that, while factoring in the posted speed limits on local roads.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo of a WeWork office building
    Life

    What WeWork’s Demise Could Do to NYC Real Estate

    The troubled coworking company is the largest office tenant in New York City. What happens to the city’s commercial real estate market if it goes under?

  2. Uber Eats worker
    Life

    The Millennial Urban Lifestyle Is About to Get More Expensive

    As WeWork crashes and Uber bleeds cash, the consumer-tech gold rush may be coming to an end.

  3. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

  4. A man wearing a suit and tie holds an American flag at a naturalization ceremony.
    Life

    The New Geography of American Immigration

    The foreign-born population has declined in U.S. states that voted Democratic in 2016, and increased in states and metros that voted for Trump.

  5. James Mueller (left) talks to South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (right)
    Equity

    South Bend’s Mayoral Election Could Decide More than Pete Buttigieg's Replacement

    Pete Buttigieg's former chief of staff, James Mueller, is vying with a Republican challenger to be the next mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

×