Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A biweekly tour of the ever-expanding cartographic landscape.
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Of the handful of writers who treat maps as subjects, it’s not hard to name favorites. Rebecca Solnit’s imaginative series of city atlases is packed with precise observations on what cartography can reveal. The story of the map that stemmed London’s 1854 cholera outbreak and birthed the science of epidemiology reads like a thriller in Steven Johnson’s telling. Hali Felt breathes life and love into her tender biography of Marie Tharp, the under-recognized scientist who mapped the ocean floor.
Then there are Betsy Mason and Greg Miller, the pioneering science journalists known for “All Over the Map,” a long-running blog currently found on National Geographic. (It was originally called “Map Lab” when it started at Wired in 2013—an inadvertent name-repeat on the part of this newsletter!) With an eye for splendor, Mason and Miller dredge up stories of the past through the medium of maps, often with something to say about the present. Recent entries include the newspaper map that popularized the term “gerrymandering,” and the cosmological charts of the Muggletonians, a 17th century religious sect with a notable aversion to science.
Now Mason and Miller are bonafide authors. Their new book, All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey (National Geographic, $50), binds hundreds of evocative maps into one volume, stitched with approachable, illuminating prose. Loyal readers may recognize some of what’s here—Tharp’s oceanic map, for example, and that cholera study—but the majority should be unknown territory. Behold a 19th century graphic that color-codes the history of lava flows on Mount Vesuvius, a birds-eye view of Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire, and a rare look inside Hong Kong’s super dense Kowloon Walled City.
Organized into thematic chapters, this book casts a wide net in how it defines “map.” It’s not entirely historical, nor nonfictional—here there be early schematics of the brain, a praiseworthy ski map from a Colorado resort, and the floor plan of the Death Star, which apparently took some work to track down from Lucasfilm. What links them all? “There just has to be a good story behind it,” Miller said over the phone.
As Mason and Miller have built their oeuvre, they’ve thought about what distinguishes high-quality writing about cartography. In particular, they’ve learned how to ask the right questions about visual objects that read as “true” but in fact are full of subjectivities. A cartographer’s bias is sometimes plain in historical maps, but with contemporary material, Mason said, it’s best to talk with mapmakers to understand how they chose their data, colors, and projection. That allows the reader to be more critical, too.
“There is a tendency to assume that if you see something on a map, then it must be true,” Mason said. “That means we need to be especially careful with them, especially in this era when people are intentionally using information in less-than-virtuous ways.”
It helps that Mason and Miller have found a receptive audience in the mapmakers, geographers, and GIS practitioners that consume and comment on their blog. “People have been really generous with their time and helping educate us about what they do,” Miller said. Now, they hope, this book can offer something new and sharp to even the most seasoned map readers.
Write me: What are your favorite books or articles about maps? Who are your favorite map writers? I’ll round them up in an upcoming edition.
A “dark” corner of the retail apocalypse
On the heels of Amazon’s HQ2 announcement last month, CityLab published my investigation into “dark store theory,” a bizarre legal argument employed by America’s largest brick-and-mortar retailers to slash their property taxes.
In communities across the Midwest, chains like Walmart, Target, and others are effectively weaponizing the over-abundance of vacant and repurposed big box stores to reduce the value of their open, successful locations. The tactic poses a significant threat to local tax bases, and it’s spreading around the country.
To visualize the story, CityLab’s David Montgomery and Madison McVeigh mapped data I gathered from local assessors, legal filings, and interviews with tax experts. Madison’s national map of known cases is shown above, with icons depicting where legal battles between cities and retailers have gone to high courts, and which states have tried to address the issue through legislation.
Below is David’s map of stores in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, that are currently disputing their assessed value, and how much the city stands to lose. Read the full story here.
City maps for the minimalist. (Curbed) ♦ How the new NASA mission will remap the earth’s forests. (Gizmodo) ♦ The blockchain is coming for GPS. (The Atlantic) ♦ The most fragile map: American masculinity. (Washington Post) ♦ Porsche is guessing its drivers have time to “explore.” (Wired) ♦ The ACLU is making Ohio Republicans turn over redistricting data. (Courthouse News) ♦ The diverse geography of France’s gilets jaunes protests. (CityLab) ♦ America’s best and worst transit systems. (CityLab)