Nearly six thousand hours to make the best map of the United States

Here is some insight into what it takes to create maps and particularly the hard work needed to create the “best American wall map”:

So what makes this map different from the Rand McNally version you can buy at a bookstore? Or from the dusty National Geographic pull-down mounted in your child’s elementary school classroom? Can one paper wall map really outshine all others—so definitively that it becomes award-worthy?…

According to independent cartographers I spoke with, the big mapmaking corporations of the world employ type-positioning software, placing their map labels (names of cities, rivers, etc.) according to an algorithm. For example, preferred placement for city labels is generally to the upper right of the dot that indicates location. But if this spot is already occupied—by the label for a river, say, or by a state boundary line—the city label might be shifted over a few millimeters. Sometimes a town might get deleted entirely in favor of a highway shield or a time zone marker. The result is a rough draft of label placement, still in need of human refinement. Post-computer editing decisions are frequently outsourced—sometimes to India, where teams of cheap workers will hunt for obvious errors and messy label overlaps. The overall goal is often a quick and dirty turnaround, with cost and speed trumping excellence and elegance.

By contrast, David Imus worked alone on his map seven days a week for two full years. Nearly 6,000 hours in total. It would be prohibitively expensive just to outsource that much work. But Imus—a 35-year veteran of cartography who’s designed every kind of map for every kind of client—did it all by himself. He used a computer (not a pencil and paper), but absolutely nothing was left to computer-assisted happenstance. Imus spent eons tweaking label positions. Slaving over font types, kerning, letter thicknesses. Scrutinizing levels of blackness. It’s the kind of personal cartographic touch you might only find these days on the hand-illustrated ski-trail maps available at posh mountain resorts.

A few of his more significant design decisions: Your standard wall map will often paint the U.S. states different colors so their shapes are easily grasped. But Imus’ map uses thick lines to indicate state borders and reserves the color for more important purposes—green for denser forestation, yellow for population centers. Instead of hypsometric tinting (darker colors for lower elevations, lighter colors for higher altitudes), Imus uses relief shading for a more natural portrait of U.S. terrain.

I’ve always loved maps but I can’t imagine spending this much time on hand-crafting a map of the United States. It would be interesting to hear why Imus pursued this: a hobby? Is he a professional cartographer? Did he want to win a prize? Is there money in this? Was he simply irritated with existing maps?

The second half of the article goes on to talk about the continued need for large maps even in an era where many people have maps in their phones and computers. I tend to agree with this view: as a kid, I would spend a lot of time simply browsing through an atlas or looking at a wall map because it is interesting to know where everything is in relation to everywhere else. A close view of the world, say with Google Maps on my phone, has difficulty displaying this interconnectedness. Several features of Imus’ map also add to the imaginative possibilities of maps: the topography and cultural attractions.

One question I have: supposedly map-making companies include little mistakes so that they can tell if someone has simply copied them. Did Imus do something similar or does he even have these same mistakes (this gets at where he got his geographical knowledge from)?

Bonus: Imus responds in the comments section. Here is one interesting comment: “If a map doesn’t depict the uniqueness of the places on it, to me that map is merely a spatial arrangement of data. I wanted to give my readers more than data. I wanted to give them the sense of place that has been missing from our maps. The USA is a place, not a space.”

A Houston Chronicle editorial pushes for historic preservation districts

When sociologists talk about urban zoning, Houston is often cited as an example of a city that has had and has little zoning. However, there is a recent debate about instituting the city’s first six historic preservation districts. The Houston Chronicle wrote an editorial supporting these districts as they only affect a small part of the city:

In a council meeting earlier this month, one council member compared city restrictions on property rights to Gestapo tactics.

People, please: We’re not talking about seizure of private property. We’re talking about bungalows, Victorians and Dutch colonials. The new rules don’t say that you can no longer build McMansions or townhouses in Houston — just that you can’t plop them into a historic district. That leaves 99 percent of Houston wide-open.

Tomorrow, council will vote whether to accept the maps for the six most controversial districts, all of which are in the Heights and Montrose.

All six districts survived a postcard referendum that could have obliterated their historic status completely; the only change to the maps is the removal of a single commercial property from Montrose Commons.

Opponents have argued that historic designation will hurt neighborhood property values, but that strains credibility.

It sounds like this battle over historic districts is quite similar to other historic district battles: are there limits to what property owners should be able to do? And as is often the case, these historic districts are proposed because some of these older homes are being torn down to make way for newer homes, the larger ones which are dubbed McMansions.

But the larger issue may be neighborhood change: just how much should any neighborhood be allowed to change in a short period of time? Buildings in a historic district are protected because they are older (perhaps at least 50 years old?). But these questions can also pop up in newer neighborhoods: should a religious building or a park or a gas station be allowed to be built on the corner at the edge of the neighborhood? Should a set of townhouses be built the next street over? What happens if more traffic starts driving down the main street in the neighborhood? The same people who would want the right to build a McMansion in an older part of town after tearing down an old home would also probably not desire an apartment building constructed next door or a garbage facility built a block away.

Where exactly you draw the line between these competing interests is not an easy decision but one that must be made by individual communities.

Reaction to Newsweek’s list of “dying cities”

Search for “dying city” and “Newsweek” and what you will see in the Google results is not the original article but rather reactions from some of the listed cities. Newspapers in South Bend, Rochester (NY), and Grand Rapids have voiced their displeasure.

This recent list from Newsweek is based on Census data and the cities that experienced the greatest population declines from 2000 to 2009:

We used the most recent data from the Census Bureau on every metropolitan area with a population exceeding 100,000 to find the 30 cities that suffered the steepest population decline between 2000 and 2009. Then, in an attempt to look ahead toward the future of these regions, we analyzed demographic changes to find which ones experienced the biggest drop in the number of residents under 18. In this way, we can see which cities may have an even greater population decline ahead due to a shrinking population of young people.

Here are the 10 cities that had the steepest drop in overall population as well as the largest decline in the number of residents under the age of 18.

Some thoughts about this data:

1. All of these cities, except two (one in FL, one in CA), are in the Rust Belt. Many of these cities are not surprises.

2. The local reactions seem to be expressions of civic pride. People in these cities can’t ignore the population loss but they are right in saying their cities are not going completely to waste. There are some good things going on in these places but broader population trends are working against them.

3. “Dying city” does not equal “dead city.” Dying doesn’t mean that everybody is leaving, just that these cities lead the country in percentage population loss. A real “dead city” would have no population left. These cities are from that point.

4. Perhaps what angers locals most is that articles like these can further negative stereotypes. These places already suffer from perception problems and lists like this do not help. For example, it is any surprise that Detroit continues to lose population after years of commentators saying how bad of shape Detroit is in? People probably leave places like Detroit for reasons more important than punditry (reasons like jobs, opportunities, etc.) but it could play some role.

National Geographic amateur photo contest pictures

I wonder how many Americans would count photography as a hobby. In today’s world, it is easy for the average person to buy a decent camera and shoot some decent photos. To see some of the best of these photos, check out this photo collection of 13 pictures from National Geographic’s annual amateur photo competition.

I have always enjoyed the photographs in National Geographic, pictures of nature, places, and people. In this particular photo collection, I like #13 the best, the picture of a supercell thunderstorm. That thunderstorm looks like some weird spaceship has just lifted off.