Sticky problems with mapping historical New York City

Author’s time-lapse of Lower Manhattan’s street network development from 1609-2020

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With help from digital and spatial mapping software, urban historians and geographers are examining city growth over time. Time-lapse evolutions are proliferating online of street network development in cities like New York City, Barcelona, London, and Berlin.

In most time-lapse studies, geographers encounter problems with lack of data. The older the city, the less data there exists about pre-modern population densities, demographics, and street networks. This lack of data is a problem when mapping the geographies of older cities.

A way around this problem is to look at street network development as a proxy for population size. The more streets there are built, the more people this city should have, the logic follows. In theory, this seems to work because cities with larger populations require more streets and occupy more built-up area. Knowing how much surface area a city occupies, coupled with knowing the average size and number of occupants in a typical block or building, allows a simple calculation of total population (people/acre x surface area). In addition, more historical data exists about street networks (from maps) than exists about population and demographics (from the census).

The problem with this method of using streets as a proxy for demographics is that cities that occupy more surface area and with more streets do not necessarily have more people. There are several reasons for this:

  • Available land: Some cities are built in harder geographies where acquisition of new land for development is prohibitively difficult to acquire, such as Venice. Manhattan’s high density and land values descend, of course, from a demand for housing that far exceeds supply on an island bordered by water.

    For instance, Oklahoma City covers 621 square miles with a 2018 population of only 650,000. New York City covers 302.6 square miles (half the area of Oklahoma City) and has a 2018 population of 8.4 million (thirteen times the population of Oklahoma City). Despite the major differences between these two cities – in population and surface area – the sum total of all streets if they were lined up end to end to form a continuous road is about the same for both cities. Similarly, the Manhattan grid is identical with the same street widths and block sizes from end to end of the island, even though population density in buildings within this gird varies from zero people per acre to over 200 per acre. Flexible street networks support any variety of housing types and densities.

  • Zoning: Some municipalities are stricter than others in enforcing discrete and different land uses for residential, commercial, industrial, and mixed-use. The legal landscape of Manhattan has evolved significantly since the first zoning laws in 1916 restricted building height and density. Since then, city government has more clearly articulated rules about minimum apartment size, ventilation, fire escapes, and water supply. City government has also pulled industrial (and often more polluting) land uses away from residential areas in the name of safety and health.

    Although few of these legal and zoning changes are explicitly imprinted on the street network, they have a tangible and important impact on the quality of urban life. This zoning has largely resulted in lower population density because of restrictions on landlords cramming hundreds of people into the smallest space possible for the maximum profit. Now, over 40% of all buildings on Manhattan could not be built today for violating NYC’s zoning code for at least one reason. For instance, most buildings in neighborhoods like West Village and Lower East Side have not changed in a century; there is limited demolition and reconstruction every year. However, population density has significantly fallen as apartments grow larger and rooms formerly designed for multiple people in one room now only have one or two occupants. Even if the buildings and streets don’t change, the ways they are occupied can and do.

  • Transportation patterns: This is the biggest factor encouraging extensive and rapid street network development with low population density – i.e. sprawl. Before the nineteenth-century inventions of railways and streetcars, and the twentieth-century’s auto-based suburbanization, transportation and commuting were prohibitively difficult. People needed to live near to where they worked in what was largely a pedestrian and walking city on unpaved streets. Transportation challenges caused urban growth to be dense and built-up near to places of employment. As a result, many cities like Paris and London might appear small on maps and occupy only a few square miles pre-1800, even though their population and economic importance were far larger than their surface area on maps leads one to assume.

Before the introduction of subways in the early twentieth-century, this difficulty with traveling greater distances over land and water drove a uniquely dense form of New York City urbanism. Manhattan, by 1900, had over 2.3 million residents in comparison to only 1.6 million in 2020; these people were crowded into dense blocks with upward of half a million people per square mile. In decades following, although Manhattan has lost 700,000 people in ~100 years, the street network is today almost identical to a century ago – no smaller and no larger despite major shifts. These shifts in density and demographics simply do not show up on conventional street maps.

My animation below shows the evolution of Manhattan’s built-up area population density from 1800 to 2010. Notice the steady upward march of street development versus the sudden spike in population density on the Lower East Side in 1910 at over 300,000 people per square mile (in contrast to less than 90,000 in 2010). For every decade after the construction of subways allowing easy access to Manhattan jobs from the outer boroughs, the island’s population density has fallen. Notice how fluctuations in population density and total population on the island operate semi-independently of street-network growth.

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Modified from Shlomo Angel and Patrick Lamson-Hall’s NYU Stern Urbanization Project, here and here.

The animation on the left tells one story of continuous and upward development, while the animation on right tells a more nuanced story of population density. The challenge is to find a graphic representation that tells both stories, as neither captures all the nuances of urban history.

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Possible Solutions:

Discussing this problem of street networks with professor Kenneth Jackson, he suggested looking at building Floor Area Ratio (abbreviated FAR), which is the building height and size relative to the amount of land the building occupies. This method of representing urban growth would, in theory, produce three sets of maps: 1) a map of street network development; 2) a density map of people living per square mile; 3) a map of building height and size. This would complicate things but produce a far more accurate representation of urban growth – how to represent this and if the data exists is another matter.

These three factors – streets, FAR, and population density – act semi-independently of each other. Different urban typologies will share a different mixture of these three factors. Only through analysis of the relationship between these three factors can one begin to understand the underlying demographic, economic, zoning, and historical differences between neighborhoods. For instance:

  • Downtown commercial district like Lower Manhattan: low population density but high FAR. In this case, FAR operates in inverse proportion to residential population density. Buildings can be dozens of stories but have no residents.

  • Slum like South Bronx in the 1980s: extensive (though poorly-maintained) street network development, high density, but low FAR because slum dwellings are typically informal without the construction quality required to build high. Buildings might be fewer than six stories and without elevators, as in the Lower East Side, but can contain hundreds or thousands of residents over the tenement’s lifespan. In this case, FAR and population density do not have an immediately correlated relationship.

  • Suburb like Forest Hills, Queens: extensive (and well-maintained) street network development, low density, and low FAR. In wealthier suburbs, in particular, FAR is kept prohibitively low. Restrictions on minimum lot size required to build, minimum house size, and legal hurdles on subdividing larger lots into smaller ones all serve to enforce a certain quality and price of residential construction that often prices-out lower-income communities of color.

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Left: NYC population by day. Right: NYC population by night. The population doubles by day.

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Density maps above are one illustration of FAR and help flesh out some of the nuances of Manhattan’s historical growth. Areas with the highest FAR tend to be commercial areas with daytime office workers and commuters. The left map shows the daytime population density of the over two million commuters. The areas with highest worker density neatly map onto the same areas of Lower Manhattan and Midtown with skyscrapers clusters. The right map shows nighttime population density of residential areas, which also neatly map onto areas with generally lower FAR. Notice the gray-colored zones in Lower Manhattan and Midtown with an almost zero nighttime population density, incidentally the areas with highest daytime density and highest FAR.

In twenty-first-century New York City, it is quite easy to examine the relationship between these three factors – street network, population density, and FAR – as the datasets are readily available from NYC Open Data. Yet, this all becomes more difficult, perhaps prohibitively difficult, for historical mapping. Calculating FAR for historical Manhattan is certainly possible through scrutinizing digitized historical Sanborn fire insurance maps that go so far as to specify building footprint, materials, and height. At the moment, this data does not comprehensively exist for the entire city, as building footprints and FAR must be calculated through manually scanning, tracing, and inputting building footprints from the New York Public Library’s collection for thousands (even millions of buildings) over hundreds of years. However, as technology improves, it may be possible in a few decades through advances in machine learning to translate historical maps into geographic shapefiles. If historical maps could be scanned and immediately transformed from image files to geospatial data files, the possibilities of using historical mapping to inform research are endless, as well as thousands of hours of tedious work would be saved. If and when there is the data on historical FAR, it may be possible to create a new paradigm and understanding of urban history.

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New York City Population Density in 1900

Author’s illustration based on population per municipal ward from 1900 Federal census

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St. Paul’s Cathedral Dome

Animated Construction Sequence

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St. Paul’s Cathedral features an innovative triple dome structure. On the circular drum, the inner dome rises and is visible from the cathedral interior. Above this inner dome, a brick cone rises to support the 850 ton lantern. This brick cone also supports the wood rafters and frame of the outer dome, which is covered in wood and lead.

This three dome system allows the cathedral to support such a heavy lantern, all the while maintaining the great height needed to be a visible London landmark.

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Created in Sketchup and animated in Final Cut Pro
Developed with input from James Campbell at Cambridge University
Music from the organ (William Tell’s Overture) and bells of St Paul’s (recorded 2013)

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Virtual Reality Model

Click to Play

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This scale model is created from measured plans of the structure, and is accurate to the foot. The dome of St. Paul’s consists of four interlinked structures:

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  • The Inner Dome – visible from the cathedral interior and purely for show; height = 225 ft (69 m)
  • The Middle Dome – a brick cone that is invisible from below but supports the 850 ton lantern above; height = 278 ft (85 m)
  • The Outer Dome – a wood and lead-roofed structure visible from the cathedral exterior; height = 278 ft (85 m)
  • The Lantern – an 850 ton stone lantern and cross, whose weight rests on the Middle Dome = 365ft (111 m)

The Inner and Outer Domes are decorative, while the Middle Dome is the true weight-bearing support system.

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Eastern State Penitentiary Digital Reconstruction: 1836-77

Presentation

Paper delivered 6 March 2020 at the University of Cambridge: Department of Architecture.
As part of my dissertation for the MPhil degree in Architecture and Urban Studies.

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Digital Reconstruction

Created in Sketchup. Based on original drawings and plans of the prison. All measurements are accurate to reality.

With ambient music from freesound.org

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Eastern State Penitentiary was completed in 1829 in northwest Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by architect John Haviland. It was the most expensive and largest structure yet built in America.

The design featured a central guard tower from which seven cell blocks radiated like a star. This system allowed a single guard to survey all prisoners in one sweep of the eye. A square perimeter wall surrounded the entire complex – thirty feet high and twelve feet thick. The decorative entrance resembled a medieval castle, to strike fear of prison into those passing. This castle contained the prison administration, hospital, and warden’s apartment.

As we approach the central tower, we see two kinds of cells. The first three cell blocks were one story. The last four cell blocks were two stories. Here we see the view from the guard tower, over the cell block roofs and over the exercise yards between. Each cell had running water, heating, and space for the prisoner to work. Several hundred prisoners lived in absolute solitary confinement. A vaulted and cathedral-like corridor ran down the middle of each cell block. The cells on either side were stacked one above the other. Cells on the lower floor had individual exercise yards, for use one hour per day. John Haviland was inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. (Don’t know what the panopticon is? Click here for animation.)

Over its century in use, thousands visited and admired this design. An estimated 300 prisons around the world follow this model – making Eastern State the most influential prison ever designed.

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360° Panoramic View from Guard Tower

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Virtual Reality Computer Model

Shows prison as it appeared in the period 1836 to 1877 before later construction obstructed the original buildings.

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Research Paper

When visiting Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, author Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in his 1831 report to the French government on the state of American prisons:

This Penitentiary is the only edifice in this country, which is calculated to convey to our citizens the external appearance of those magnificent and picturesque castles of the middle ages, which contribute so eminently to embellish the scenery of Europe. [1]

This penitentiary was, at its 1829 opening, the most expensive and largest structure ever built in the United States. Costing $432,000, this building covered a square area 670 feet to a side with walls 30-feet-high by 12-feet-thick and 23-feet-deep at the foundations. Inside, there was: “an entire seclusion of convicts from society and from one another, as that, during the period of their confinement, no one shall see or hear, or be seen or heard by any human being, except the jailor.”[2] About 400 prisoners were equipped with running water, steam heating, individual exercise yards, and (later) gas lighting.[3] These were “luxuries” that newspapers claimed not even the city’s wealthiest citizens could afford, and in an era when the U.S. White House lacked internal plumbing. The Register of Pennsylvania described in February 1830:

The rooms are larger, viz. containing more cubic feet of air, or space, than a great number of the apartments occupied by industrious mechanics in our city; and if we consider that two or more of the latter frequently work or sleep in the same chamber, they have much less room than will be allotted to the convicts [who live one to a room and] whose cells, moreover will be more perfectly ventilated than many of the largest apartments of our opulent citizens.[4]

Given the modern standards of service, technology, and location of this prison, it seems an odd choice to employ the external appearance of a medieval castle. American society lacked the medieval heritage of “old Europe.” The external castle appearance looked to history, while the internal facilities and technology all spoke of a modern future. Robin Evans explained the frequent use of castle imagery as follows: “It was the idea of the prison, not the fact of the prison, that was to engage the architect’s imagination, and the idea of the prison was built up from historical associations.”[5]

Of the several thousand visitors, tourists, and school children who passed through this attraction and the millions more who merely saw it from a distance, the imposing castle appearance was inescapable. In 1866, 76,000 visited, a large number considering more people visited as tourists than as prisoners.[6] In this same era: “The governments of Great Britain, France, Russia, and Belgium, followed each other in quick succession in these missions; and the printed official reports was subsequently issued, accompanied as they were by illustrative drawings, spread through Europe the fame of what was then generally regarded as a remarkable example of reform.”[7] Architect John Haviland (1792-1852) – known to contemporaries as the “jailor to the world”[8] – was a neo-classical architect by training and designed few other Gothic buildings over his 40-year career.[9] He intended these medieval battlements, narrow-slit windows, and portcullis gates to “strike fear into those who passed,” an instructive lesson to those contemplating a career in crime. Unexpected still is the fact that half the $432,000 construction cost was spent on the semi-decorative perimeter wall and external ornament, features not linked to reforming felons within and, in fact, invisible to the felons.[10] Yet, according to de Tocqueville, “It is of all prisons that which requires least a high enclosing wall, because each prisoner is isolated in his cell, which he never leaves.”[11] Why were Philadelphia’s political leaders and prison reformers so concerned with keeping up appearances?

This essay will present reasons for employing medieval imagery. Through analyzing the secular, cultural, and political reasons for this choice of style, we can understand the moral and educational agenda embedded in Eastern State’s appearance.[12] By analyzing the appearance and practice of solitary confinement taken here from 1829 to 1877, we can, by extension, understand more about the hundreds of radial prisons derived from Eastern State.

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Acknowledgements

I am indebted to my supervisor Max Sternberg, to my baby bulldog, and to my ever-loving parents for criticizing and guiding this paper.

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Click here to continue reading paper.

Opens in new window as PDF file.

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[1] Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, “Construction of the Prisons,” in On the Penitentiary System in the United States: And its Application in France; with an Appendix on Penal Colonies, and also, Statistical Notes (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, & Blanchard, 1833): 74.
[2] W. Roscoe, “Prison Discipline: Letter II,” National Gazette and Literary Register, 20 September 1827. From the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Historical Newspapers Collection.
[3] Richard E. Greenwood, “Nomination form for Eastern State Penitentiary,” United States National Park Service, https://npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/NRIS/66000680 (accessed 25 January 2020). This is the application submitted to protect this prison as a listed structure.
[4] Samuel Hazard, “Description of the Eastern Penitentiary of Penn’a,” The Register of Pennsylvania: devoted to the preservation of facts and documents and every other kind of useful information respecting the state of Pennsylvania 5, no. 7, 13 February 1830, 105.
[5] Robin Evans, “The Model Prison,” in The Fabrication of Virtue: English prison architecture, 1750-1840 (Cambridge University Press: 1982): 382-83.
[6] Jeffrey A. Cohen, David G. Cornelius, et al., “Construction and Alterations, 1822-65,” Eastern State Penitentiary: Historic Structures Report (Philadelphia: Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force, 1994): 88.
[7] “County Prisons,” in The Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline 10, no. 2 (Philadelphia, 1855): 60.
[8] Norman B. Johnston, “John Haviland, Jailor to the World,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 23, no. 2 (1964): 101-05, doi:10.2307/988164.
[9] John Haviland (author) and Hugh Bridgport (artist), The builder’s assistant containing the five orders of architecture, selected from the best specimens of the Greek and Roman (Philadelphia: John Bioren, 1818-1821).
[10] Julie Nicoletta, “The Architecture of Control: Shaker Dwelling Houses and the Reform Movement in Early-Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 62, no. 3 (2003): 374, doi:10.2307/3592519.
[11] Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, “Construction of the Prisons,” in On the Penitentiary System in the United States: And its Application in France; with an Appendix on Penal Colonies, and also, Statistical Notes (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, & Blanchard, 1833): 74.
[12] 1829: prison opened. 1877: prison significantly expanded and operations restructured. “Timeline,” Eastern State Penitentiary, https://www.easternstate.org/research/history-eastern-state/timeline (accessed 25 January 2020).

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Related Projects

Master’s Dissertation on this Prison
Animation of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
Computer model of panopticon in virtual reality
Lecture on problems with the panopticon

The Berlin Evolution Animation

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Abstract: The Berlin Evolution Animation visualizes the development of this city’s street network and infrastructure from 1415 to the present-day, using an overlay of historic maps. The resulting short film presents a series of 17 “cartographic snapshots” of the urban area at intervals of every 30-40 years. This process highlights Berlin’s urban development over 600 years, the rapid explosion of industry and population in the 19th century, followed by the destruction and violence of two world wars and then the Cold War on Berlin’s urban fabric.

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Animation der Wandlung Berlins

Zusammenfassung: Auf der Grundlage von historischen Karten visualisiert die „Animation der Wandelung Berlins“ die Entwicklung des Straßennetzwerks und der Infrastruktur Berlins von 1415 bis heute. In diesem kurzen Video wird eine Serie von 17 „kartographischen Momentaufnahmen“ der Stadt in einem Intervall von 30 – 40 Jahren präsentiert. Dadurch wird die Entwicklung der Stadt Berlin über 600 Jahre, das rapide Wachstum der Industrie und Bevölkerung im 19. Jahrhundert, die Zerstörung und Gewalt der zwei Weltkriege und abschließend des Kalten Krieges auf Berlins Stadtbild verdeutlicht.

German translations by Richard Zhou and Carl von Hardenberg

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Year, Event and Estimated Population
1415 – Medieval Berlin – 7,000
1648 – Thirty Years War – 6,000
1688 – Berlin Fortress – 19,000
1720 – Rise of Prussian Empire – 65,000
1740 – War with Austria – 90,000
1786 – Age of Enlightenment – 147,000
1806 – Napoleonic Wars – 155,000
1840 – Industrial Revolution – 329,000
1875 – German Empire – 967,000
1920 – Greater Berlin – 3,879,000
1932 – Rise of Fascism – 4,274,000
1945 – Extent of Bomb Damage – 2,807,000
1950 – Germania – World Capital
1953 – Recovery from War – 3,367,000
1961 – Berlin Wall – 3,253,000
1988 – A City Divided – 3,353,000
Contemporary – A City United
Census year
Jahr, Ereignis und geschätzte Anzahl von Bewohnern
1415 – Berlin im Mittelalter – 7,000
1648 – Der Dreißigjährige Krieg – 6.000
1688 – Die Festung Berlin – 19.000
1720 – Der Aufstieg des Königreichs Preußen – 65,000
1740 – Der Österreichische Erbfolgekrieg – 90.000
1786 – Das Zeitalter der Aufklärung – 147.000
1806 – Die Koalitionskriege – 155.000
1840 – Die industrielle Revolution – 329.000
1875 – Das Deutsche Kaiserreich – 967.000
1920 – Groß-Berlin – 3.879.000
1932 – Der Aufstieg des Faschismus – 4.274.000
1945 – Die Spuren des 2. Weltkrieges – 2.807.000
1950 – Germania – Welthauptstadt
1953 – Deutsches Wirtschaftswunder – 3.367.000
1961 – Die Berliner Mauer – 3.253.000
1988 – Eine geteilte Stadt – 3.353.000
Heute – Eine wiedervereinte Stadt
Jahr der Volkszählung

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Methodology and Sources

I chose not to represent urban development before 1415 for three reasons: Firstly, there are too few accurate maps of the city before this time. Secondly, I needed to find accurate maps that had visual style consistent with later years, to enable easier comparison of development over time. Thirdly, the extent of urban development and population is limited (fewer than 10,000 Berliners).
There are numerous maps showing Berlin’s urban growth. Yet, few of them are drawn to the same scale, orientation and color palette. This makes it more difficult to observe changes to the city form over time. Fortunately, three map resources show this development with consistent style.
  1. The Historischer Atlas von Berlin (by Johann Marius Friedrich Schmidt) published 1835 represents Berlin in the selected years of: 1415, 1648, 1688, 1720, 1740, 1786. This atlas is available, free to view and download, at this link.
  2. After the year 1786, I rely on three books from cartographer Gerd Gauglitz:
    Berlin – Geschichte des Stadtgebietsin vier Karten
    Contains four beautiful maps of Berlin from 1806, 1920, 1988 and 2020. Read article.
    Berlin – Vier Stadtpläne im Vergleich
    Contains four maps from 1742, 1875, 1932 and 2017. Read article.
    Berlin – Vier Stadtpläne im VergleichErgänzungspläne
    Contains four maps from 1840,1953, 1988 and 1950. The last map from 1950 is purely speculative and shows Berlin as it would have looked had Germany won WWII and executed Albert Speer’s plans for rebuilding the city, named “Germania.” Read article.
    Gerd Gaulitz’s three map books can be purchased from Schropp Land & Karte.
  3. I also show the estimated extent of WWII bomb damage to Berlin. This map is sourced from an infographic dated 8 May 2015 in the Berliner Morgenpost. View original infographic. This infographic is, in turn, based on bombing maps produced by the British Royal Air Force during WWII (and Albert Speer’s c.1950 plan for Berlin).
Below is an interactive map I created of the Berlin Wall’s route and the four Allied occupation areas:

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Population statistics in the 17 “cartographic snapshots” are estimates. The historical development of Berlin’s population is known for a few years. For other years, the population is estimated with regards to the two censuses between which the year of the “snapshot” falls.

New York City Water Supply Animated History

New York City has some of the world’s cleanest drinking water. It is one of only a few American cities (and among those cities the largest) to supply completely unfiltered drinking water to nine million people. This system collects water from around 2,000 square miles of forest and farms in Upstate New York, transports this water in up to 125 miles of buried aqueducts, and delivers one billion gallons per day, enough to fill a cube ~300 feet to a side, or the volume of the Empire State Building. This is one of America’s largest and most ambitious infrastructure projects. It remains, however, largely invisible and taken for granted. When they drink a glass of water or wash their hands, few New Yorkers remind themselves of this marvel in civil engineering they benefit from.
This animated map illustrates the visual history of this important American infrastructure.

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Sound of water and ambient music from freesound.org

New York City is surrounded by saltwater and has few sources of natural freshwater. From the early days, settlers dug wells and used local streams. As the population grew, these sources became polluted. Water shortages allowed disease and fire to threaten the city’s future. In response, city leaders looked north, to the undeveloped forests and rivers of Upstate New York. This began the 200-year-long search for clean water for the growing city.

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Credits

Gergely Baics – advice on GIS skills and animating water history
Kenneth T. Jackson – infrastructure history
Juan F. Martinez and Wright Kennedy – data

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Interactive Map

I created this animation with information from New York City Open Data about the construction and location of water supply infrastructure. Aqueduct routes are traced from publicly-available satellite imagery and old maps in NYPL map archives. Thanks is also due to Juan F. Martinez, who created this visualization.
Explore water features in the interactive map below. Click color-coded features to reveal detail.
Watersheds   Subsurface Aqueducts   Surface Aqueducts   Water Distribution Tunnels   City Limits

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▼ For map legend, press arrow key below.

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Sources

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For such an important and public infrastructure, the data about this water supply, aqueduct routes, and pumping stations is kept surprisingly secret in a post 9/11 world. However, the data presented here is extracted from publicly-available sources online, and through analysis of visible infrastructure features on satellite imagery when actual vector file data or raster maps are unavailable from NYC government.
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Contemporary Maps
NYC System and Shapefiles – Juan F. Martinez
Watershed Recreation Areas – NYC Department of Environment Protection (DEP)
General System Map – NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)
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Historic Maps
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Texts
Water Supply Fast Facts – NY State DEC
Encyclopedia of the City of New York – Kenneth T. Jackson
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Animation music – Freesound
Audio narration – Myles Zhang

What’s wrong with Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon?

Postmodernist thinkers, like Michel Foucault, interpret Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, invented c.1790, as a symbol for surveillance and the modern surveillance state.

This lecture is in two parts. First, I present a computer model of the panopticon, built according to Bentham’s instructions. Then, I identify design problems with the panopticon and with the symbolism people often give it.

Related Projects

– Computer animation of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
Essay on problems with the panopticon design
View panopticon model in virtual reality
Explore the related panopticon prison of Eastern State

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: A Computer Model

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To say all in one word, it [the panopticon] will be found applicable, I think,
without exception, to all establishments whatsoever, in which, within a space not too large to be covered or commanded by buildings, a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection.

– Jeremy Bentham

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Since the 1790s, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon remains an influential building and representation of power relations. Yet no structure was ever built to the exact dimensions Bentham indicates in his panopticon letters. Seeking to translate Bentham into the digital age, I followed his directions and descriptions to construct an exact model in virtual reality. What would this building have looked like if it were built? Would it have been as all-seeing and all-powerful as Bentham claims?

Below is my animation. Click here to view the panopticon in virtual reality. Click here to download and edit this model (requires software). This model is open source and free to download.

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c.1791 plans of panopticon, drawn by architect Willey Reveley for Jeremy Bentham

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The panopticon in theory vs. the panopticon in (virtual) reality

Central to Bentham’s proposed building is a hierarchy of: (1) the principal guard and his family; (2) the assisting superintendents; and (3) the hundreds of inmates. The hierarchy between them literally maps onto the building’s design. The panopticon, quite literally, becomes a spatial and visual representation of the prison’s power relations.

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To his credit, Bentham recognizes that an inspector on the ground floor cannot possibly see all inmates on the upper floors. The angle of view was too steep and obstructed by stairs and walkways. To this end, Bentham proposes that a covered inspection gallery be erected for every two floors of cells.

By proposing these three inspection galleries, Bentham addresses the problem of inspecting all inmates. However, he creates a new problem: From no central point would it now be possible to see all activity, as the floor plans below show. The panoramic view below shows the superintendent’s actual field of view, from which he could see into no more than four complete cells at a time. The view from the center is not, in fact, all-seeing. Guards would have to walk a continuous circuit round-and-round, as if on a treadmill.

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The intervening stairwells and inspection corridors between the perimeter cells and the central tower might allow inspectors to see into the cells. Yet these same architectural features would also have impeded the inmates’ view toward the central rotunda. Bentham claims this rotunda could become a chapel, and that inmates could hear the sermon and view the religious ceremonies without ever needing to leave their cells. The blinds, normally closed, could be opened up for viewing the chapel.

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Bentham’s suggestion is problematic. The two cross sections above show that, although some of the inmates could see the chapel from their cells, most would be unable to do so.

In spite of all these obvious faults in panopticon design, Bentham still claims that all inmates and activities are immediately visible and controlled from a single central point. When the superintendent or visitor arrives, no sooner is he announced that “the whole scene opens instantaneously to his view,” Bentham writes.

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Despite Bentham’s claims to have invented a perfect and all-powerful building, the real panopticon would have been deeply flawed were it built. Although the circular form with central tower was chosen to facilitate easier surveillance, the realities and details of this design illustrate how constant surveillance was not possible. It is, therefore, no surprise that the English parliament and public rejected Bentham’s twenty year effort to build a real panopticon.

However flawed the architecture, Bentham remained ahead of his time. He envisioned an idealistic and rational, even utopian, surveillance society. Without the necessary (digital) technology to create this society, Bentham fell back on architecture to make this society possible. The failure of this architecture and its obvious shortcomings do not invalidate Bentham’s utopian project. Instead, these flaws with architecture indicate how Bentham envisioned an institution and society that would only become possible through new technologies invented hundreds of years later.

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Related Projects

View panopticon model in virtual reality
Explore the related panopticon prison of Eastern State Penitentiary

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Credits:

Supervised by Max Sternberg
Audio narration by Tamsin Morton
Audio credits from Freesound
panopticon interior ambiance
panopticon exterior ambiance
prison door closing
low-pitched bell sound
high-pitched bell sound
The archives and publications of UCL special collections

The Kaaba in Mecca

The Kabba (Arabic: ٱلْـكَـعْـبَـة “The Cube”) is a building at the center of Islam’s most important mosque: the Al-Masjid Al-Ḥarām in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. This is the most sacred site in Islam. Muslims consider it the “House of God,” and it has a similar role to the Tabernacle and Holy of Holies in Judaism. Wherever they are in the world, Muslims are expected to face the Kaaba when performing prayer.

One of the Five Pillars of Islam requires every Muslim to perform the Hajj. Parts of the Hajj require pilgrims to make Tawaf circumambulation seven times around the Kaaba in a counter-clockwise direction. Pilgrims also perform Tawaf during the ‘Umrah (or Lesser Pilgrimage). However, the most significant times are during the Hajj, when millions of pilgrims gather to circle the building within a five-day period.

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View or download this model from Sketchfab.

Two years ago, I was unhappy with the available quality of 3D digital models of this important building for Muslim culture. I could find no models that were detailed enough or accurate enough to reality. So, I created this accurate-to-the-inch model based on architects’ drawings and photos, with guidance from my professor of Islamic art and architecture at Oxford University. The background audio is the call to prayer, as recorded in Istanbul, Turkey.

California Waterscape

California Waterscape animates the development of this state’s water delivery infrastructure from 1913 to 2019, using geo-referenced aqueduct route data, land use maps, and statistics on reservoir capacity. The resulting film presents a series of “cartographic snapshots” of every year since the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913. This process visualizes the rapid growth of this state’s population, cities, agriculture, and water needs.

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Music: Panning the Sands by Patrick O’Hearn
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Text from animation is copied below:

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Each blue dot is one dam, sized for the amount of water it captures. Each blue line is one canal or aqueduct. These infrastructure features become visible as they near completion.

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The challenge: to capture and transport water to where water is needed hundreds of miles away. To grow food where there was once desert.

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Notice the sudden growth spurt in construction during the 1930s Great Depression… And again during the 1950s through 1970s.

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The longest aqueducts that run from mountainous areas to the cities mostly deliver drinking water. The shorter aqueducts in the Central Valley mostly bring water to farms.

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Here we see dams in the Sierra Nevada Mountains gradually come on line. Many prevent flooding. Or they seize winter snow and rain for when this water is needed in summer.

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Since the 1970s, construction slows down, but population continues growing.

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In 2010, about six hundred fifty dams and four thousand five hundred miles of major aqueducts and canals store and move over 38 billion gallons per day. This is the most complex and expensive system ever built to conquer water.

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How will man’s system cope with climate change?

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2. Research Methodology and Sources

The most important data sources consulted and integrated into this animation are listed here with links:

– Fire Resource and Assessment Program → Land use and urban development maps
(a pdf file imported as transparent raster into QGIS)
– California Department of Water Resources → Routes of aqueducts and canals
(shapefile)
– Bureau of Transportation Statistics → Dam and reservoir data
(csv with lat-long values)
– USGS Topo Viewer → Historic aqueduct route and land use maps
– U.S. Census Bureau → Estimated California population by year

Consult the research methodology and bibliography for complete details.

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Spotted an error or area for improvement? Please email: [email protected]
Download and edit the open source dataset behind this animation.
Click this Google Drive link and “request access” to QGIS shapefile.

3. Source Data on Dams and Reservoirs

^ Created with open data from the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics and visualized in Tableau Public. This map includes all dams in California that are “50 feet or more in height, or with a normal storage capacity of 5,000 acre-feet or more, or with a maximum storage capacity of 25,000 acre-feet or more.” Dams are geo-referenced and sized according to their storage capacity in acre-feet. One acre-foot is the amount required to cover one acre of land to a depth of one foot (equal to 325,851 gallons or 1.233 ● 10liters). This is the unit of measurement California uses to estimate water availability and use.

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4. Source Data on Aqueducts and Canals

^ Created with open data from the California Department of Water Resources, with additional water features manually added in QGIS and visualized in Tableau Public. All data on routes, lengths, and years completed is an estimate. This map includes all the major water infrastructure features; it is not comprehensive of all features. This map excludes the following categories of aqueducts and canals:

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  • Features built and managed by individual farmers and which extend for a length of only a few hundred feet. These features are too small and numerous to map out for the entire state and to animate by their date completed. This level of information does not exist or is too difficult to locate.
  • Features built but later abandoned or demolished. This includes no longer extant aqueducts built by Spanish colonists, early American settlers, etc.
  • Features created by deepening, widening, or otherwise expanding the path of an existing and naturally flowing waterway. Many California rivers and streams were dredged and widened to become canals, and many more rivers turned “canals” remain unlined along their path. Determining the “date completed” or “date built” for these semi-natural features is therefore difficult. So, for the purposes of simplicity and to aid viewers in seeing only manmade water features in the animation, this category is generally excluded.

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Those seeking to share this project to their website or organization are requested to contact the author before publication. We will gladly share all source files associated with this animation, provided recipients use this information for non-commercial purposes. Pre-production and data editing were conducted with QGIS and Tableau. Visualization and animation were conducted Photoshop and Final Cut Pro. For this project, we worked from a mid-2014 MacBook Air with 4GB RAM.

24 Hours in the London Underground

This animation visualizes the number of riders in the London Underground over two weeks in 2010. Each dot corresponds to one station. Dot size corresponds to the number of riders passing through each station. Big dots for busy stations. Small dots for less busy stations. Dot color represents the lines serving each station. White dots are for stations where three or more lines intersect. Each dot pulsates twice in a day. Once during the morning commute. And again during the evening commute.
If you like this, please watch my animation of weekday vs. weekend commuting patterns in the NYC subway.

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This animation does not pretend to be scientific. This is the representation of movement – a way to visualize the rhythmic pulsing of people through the London Underground as analogous to the breathing human body. The passage of red blood cells through the body’s veins is analogous to the movement of people through trains. The red blood cells bring oxygen and remove waste from the cells. Each semi-autonomous cell (with nucleus, membrane, etc.) is analogous to a workplace or home (with kitchen, walls, etc). Much like the cars and trains that move people and distribute their wealth from places of work to places of leisure, the red blood cells are the vehicles that link the heart and lungs (i.e. Central London) to the rest of the body (i.e. the London Metropolitan Region). This analogy of human form to city plan is a longstanding theme in urban studies.

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Methodology:

No algorithm or dataset could capture the true complexity of London’s rhythmic breathing during the daily commute. Stations like King’s Cross St. Pancras, Waterloo, and Victoria rank among the busiest because they are multimodal transfer points between long distance trains, taxis, cars, and buses. So, although this animation visualizes these busiest stations with the largest dot size, this does not necessarily mean more people work or live in the vicinity of these stations. Admittedly, aspects of dot size are determined by immeasurable external factors – namely transfers from other transport modes to the London Underground.

This animation is based off of open-access data collected in November 2010. According to transport for London: “Passenger counts collect information about passenger numbers entering and exiting London Underground stations, largely based on the Underground ticketing system gate data.” Excluding London Overground, the Docklands Light Railways, National Rail, and other transport providers, there are 265 London Underground stations surveyed in this data set. For data collection purposes, stations where two or more lines intersect are counted as a single data entry. This is because at complex interchanges of multiple lines (e.g. Paddington), it is difficult to track which of the lines (e.g. Bakerloo, Circle, District, Hammersmith & City) a passenger is boarding. To complicate matters, passengers are often granted free transfers between lines at interchanges.

Every fifteen minutes, the numbers of passengers are counted from gate entry data, that is, four times per hour. This yields 96 time intervals over each 24 hour period. Multiplying the number of time intervals (96) by the number of stations (265), we get the number of data points represented in this animation: 25,440. Each of the stations was also assigned its corresponding latitude and longitude coordinate, so as to appear on the map in its appropriate spatial location. In the data analysis software (Tableau), we assigned each station:

  • A spatial location → derived from latitude and longitude coordinates coordinates
  • A color → according to the lines extant in 2010: Bakerloo, Central, Circle, District, Hammersmith & City, Jubilee, Metropolitan, Northern, Piccadilly, Victoria, Waterloo & City.
  • A size → scaled to reflect the passenger count in each 15 minute interval. The smallest dot corresponds to the rate of: zero passengers per 15-minute interval. The largest dot corresponds to the rate of about 7,500 passengers per 15-minute interval. This is the range applied to dot size: 0<X<7,500 where X represents “passengers/time.”
  • A time of day → each time interval represents one frame in the animation. We exported each frame from Tableau, conducted slight edits to background map opacity and texture, and then stitched the frames back together again – to create a flip book of sorts. With a rate of 12 frames per 1 second, or 96 frames per 8 seconds, a single day with 25,440 data points is compressed into 8 seconds of animation. This 8 second sequence is then looped.

By syncing the audio volume and background color with the data and time of day, the animation becomes more visually legible. The audio volume rises and falls to mirror the growth and contraction of each colored dot. The background color also shifts from black to gray to mirror the time of day. This was achieved by manually adjusting the background opacity in Adobe Illustrator from 100% to 50% for each of the 96 frames – as modeled with a cosine formula. The visualization was created in Tableau with post-production audiovisual editing in Final Cut Pro.

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The eight second sequence played on a loop as a .gif file.

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The Data:


View this infographic in Tableau Public.

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Powered by TfL Open Data. Contains OS data© Crown copyright and database rights 2016.

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Sources:

Lat Long Coordinates for Stations: Bell, Chris. “London Stations.” doogal.co.uk. doogal.co.uk/london_stations.php (retrieved 21 April 2019).
Ridership Statistics: “Our Open Data.” Transport for London. tfl.gov.uk/info-for/open-data-users/our-open-data (retrieved 21 April 2019). To access data, scroll down to the section entitled “Network Statistics,” then click where it reads “London Underground passenger counts data.”
“List of Busiest London Underground Stations.” Wikipedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_busiest_London_Underground_stations (retrieved 21 April 2019).
“London Connections Map.” Transport for London. tfl.gov.uk/corporate/publications-and-reports/london-connections-map (retrieved 21 April 2019).
Audio effects for animation: “Heartbeat.” Freesound. https://freesound.org/search/?q=heartbeat (retrieved 23 April 2019).