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Here Grows New York visually animates the development of NYC’s street grid and infrastructure systems from 1609 to the present day, using geo-referenced road network data, historic maps, open source data, and geological surveys. The resulting short film presents a series of “cartographic snapshots” of NYC’s built-up area at intervals of every 20-30 years in the city’s history. The date of each snapshot is determined by the availability of historic maps for that year, as well as important events in the broader economic and political history of the US that influenced the development of this metropolis.

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1. The Animation

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2. Research Methodology

This film was assembled by analyzing several hundred maps in the digital archives of the New York Public Library and Library of Congress. About 25 of these maps were then selected, downloaded, superimposed, stretched, and warped in a single document to align with each other. This provided a consistent scale and allowed us to more easily compare differences between maps from different years. As the source file maps were all in different colors, scales, and designs, we created a single base map with unified graphics. “The redrawing not only facilitates the review and correction of errors in the old cartographies, less accurate, but also provides a graphic representation that is consistent throughout all the stages. This coherence allows the cartographies to be real in parallel and compare the transformations experienced by the city.”*

Click here to read the research methodology as a working paper.

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*Similar animation projects exist for Barcelona and London, from which this project is inspired.

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3. Conclusions and Data Analysis

This data visualization informs our analysis of the history of the New York City grid. And, this analysis helps answer the following question: What can the built environment of Manhattan’s streets reflect about the evolving social and economic priorities of city planners and leaders? The long phases of urban growth and shifting transportation modes have created distinctive road networks in Manhattan. The predominance of different forms of transport during each era also prompted changes to the location and dimensions of streets in response. Manhattan illustrates the evolution of these road networks over four centuries of near continuous growth. A plot can describe a street grid, as well as its builders’ story. This paper aims to tell this second plot, a story.

Click here to read the working paper.

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4. Credits and Appendix

This project would not have been possible without the support, mentorship, and patience of my parents, Anne and Zemin. Nor would this project have been possible without the historical expertise of Columbia University professors Kenneth Jackson (History Department) and Gergely Baics (Urban Studies). Thanks is also extended to those who reviewed and critiqued this project in its early stages, including Darius Sollohub, Ellen Quinn, Chris Kok, Robert Beauregard, Laura Kurgan, and the staff of the Center for Spatial Research at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, & Preservation. Most importantly, I thank my dog ChoiChoi.

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Those seeking to share this project to their website or organisation are kindly requested to please contact the authors at myles.zhang@columbia.edu before publication. Scholars and students seeking to access the source files associated with this project may contact us. We will gladly send along the graphics, maps, and image source files associated with this animation, provided recipients use this information for non-commercial purposes. Pre-production and image editing were conducted in Photoshop with post-production and audio editing in Final Cut Pro. For this project, we worked from a mid-2014 MacBook Air with 4GB RAM and 1,440 by 900 pixel display.

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Pictured below is one frame selected from Here Grows New York: an interactive map of NYC’s population and density from the year 1900. Notice the high density areas of the Lower East Side in bright red, at over 300,000+ persons per square mile. No other American city (and perhaps world city) had a neighborhood as dense in 1900. Over following decades, this area gradually lost density to arrive at its current 2010 density of 87,104 persons per square mile – a mere third of its height. Despite appearances and despite the presence of many more skyscrapers today than in 1900, Manhattan is actually less dense and more spread out than at any other time in the past century. Through projects in the digital humanities and through computer simulations of urban history like this, we can visualise concepts that otherwise remain abstract and invisible.

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Population density map of the five boroughs, from the 1900 US census here.

 

Map showing extent of industrial areas in 1919. Click here for source file.

 

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