The Built History of the U.S.

New York Times special section maps every built structure in the U.S.


A special section in the Oct. 14 Sunday New York Times contained a unique series of maps that do more than show the route from point A to point B. Printed under the title “Where We Live,” these maps display in black and white every built structure in the United States. The maps reveal regional patterns of city development, urbanization, and residential trends up close and side-by-side.

The idea for the section was conceived in June, when Microsoft released 124 million U.S. building footprints as open datasets for the OpenStreetMap community. Microsoft used a neural network to trace structural outlines in satellite imagery. Times editors transformed these outlines into a minimal black and white graphic and stitched it together as a vector tileset with Mapbox’s Tippecanoe tool, resulting in the first comprehensive dataset of the nation’s building footprints.

Regionally targeted newspaper covers were delivered to readers in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Dallas/Fort Worth. Included was a four-page panoramic spread of the metropolis nearest to the reader’s location. Another two-page spread was identical in all versions, showing a miniature map of the entire U.S. along with six intriguing city slices that demonstrate provincial trends of American construction and hint at how nature, politics, and history influence the ways we build. For example, the Times reports “long lot development” on Louisiana bayous is a reminder of the state’s history under French rule.

These maps are meant not for navigation but for exploration and learning. Local readers can search the fold-out panorama for childhood homes, schools, and other personal landmarks, and in doing so may stumble upon something new and fascinating. Those who live outside the chosen cities can investigate the digital cover, which includes the complete and interactive map of the U.S., searchable by zip code.

Here, transportation networks and non-built land is represented only as negative space, stripes of white dividing clusters of homes and businesses. Though it appears empty, the white space reveals as many insights as the dark buildings. It emerges as slashes and striations around rural mountain towns in Appalachia, marking the environment’s uninhabitable ridges and valleys. Zoom out, and the expansive whiteness of the Midwest reflects the region’s dedication to vast farms and sparsely populated cropland. And differing building densities in adjacent cities may indicate restrictive zoning policies in some areas.

The maps are spectacular to look at, but investigating this type of building data in greater detail could be beneficial for both city planners and the residents they serve, especially in understanding the implications of city design on neighborhood socio-economics. Matching these maps with other data (such as Census) could draw connections between residential layout styles and average housing rents, local income, and more. This information would better enable public officials to deliver services like public transportation to taxpayers who need them most.

Photo Credit: New York Times/Mapbox

Posted in: got geoint?   Tagged in: Civil, Data, Human Geography

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