Radical Cartography Maps Chicago’s Racial Divides and Nuclear Explosions

by Matt Forcey

Radical Cartography is the website of historian and cartographer, Bill Rankin.  Currently working on a PhD at Harvard, Rankin has done considerable research on the changing technologies of cartography (map making) and navigation in the twentieth century.   His mapping activity is focused on reimagining everyday urban and territorial geographies by pushing techniques of statistical information design and rethinking everyday cartographic conventions.

Rankin’s maps help us visualize racial divides in Chicago (as featured below), university campuses surrounding Boston, building heights in Manhattan, the spread of agriculture over the past 300 years, and the location of every nuclear explosion around the world since 1945.

Any city-dweller knows that most neighborhoods don’t have stark boundaries. Yet on maps, neighborhoods are almost always drawn as perfectly bounded areas, miniature territorial states of ethnicity or class.  This is especially true for Chicago, where the delimitation of Chicago’s official “community areas” in the 1920s was one of the hallmarks of the famous Chicago School of urban sociology. And maps showing perfectly homogeneous neighborhoods are still published today, in both popular and academic contexts alike.

The alternative is to use dot mapping to show three kinds of urban transitions. First, there are indeed areas where changes take place at very precise boundaries — such as between Lawndale and the Little Village, or Austin and Oak Park — and Chicago has more of these stark borders than most cities in the world. But transitions also take place through gradients and gaps as well, especially in the northwest and southeast. Using graphic conventions which allow these other possibilities to appear takes much more data, and requires more nuance in the way we talk about urban geography, but a cartography without boundaries can also make simplistic policy or urban design more difficult — in a good way.

The map below was originally published as part of an essay in the Spring 2010 issue of Perspecta, the journal of the Yale School of Architecture.

Visit Radical Cartography to view Rankin’s other amazing maps, including Boston, New York City, Washington D.C., an the Universe.


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