The value of using maps to see the rise and fall of Detroit

Here is a series of maps that show both the growth and decline of Detroit over its history. When looking at these maps, I’m reminded that it is quite difficult to talk about either the rise or decline of a major city just by discussing raw numbers, such as population increases or losses or economic figures, or photographs. For example, we could talk about the rise of Houston in recent decades and contrast this to the sharp population decrease in Detroit. Moving past statistics, we could include photographs of a city. Detroit has been photographed many times in recent years with often bleak scenes illustrating economic and social decline.

In some middle ground between numbers and photos and in-depth analysis (of which there does not seem to be much about Detroit recently – the mainstream media has primarily focused on short snippets of information) are maps. A good map has sufficient information to provide a top-down approach to the city and give some indication of the city’s infrastructure. Additionally, it is much easier today to provide multiple layers of mapped information based on Census data and other sources. Growth is relatively easy to see as new streets and points of interest starting showing up. On the other hand, decline might be harder to show as the streets may be empty and the points of interest might be decaying. Still, a current map shows the scope of the problem facing Detroit: it is population and economic decline plus a large chunk of land and structures that is difficult to maintain.

All together, I’m advocating for more widespread use of maps in reporting on and discussions about cities, whether they are struggling or thriving. Maps can help us move beyond seeing vacant houses or economic developments and take in the big picture all at once.

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