How a Cartographer Drew a Massive, Freehand Map of North America

This has been one of my favorite AO spotlights so far and Thomas’s work got me thinking about the art of maps.

Looking up artwork that depicts aerial views of cities, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most iconic cityscapes are those defined by some natural feature like a river (London and that fun little squiggle that is the Thames) or coastline (Vancouver and NYC, taking up islands, peninsulas and rivers).

London Colorful Vector Map by Knut Hebstreit, en Flickr

With inland cities like Madrid and Sao Paulo, mostly defined by wide roads, they just seem to not live up to the others aesthetically. What do you think?

madrid by karen o'leary, en Flickr

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Long life with many careers here: a fellow cartographer and I were talking about air travel and recognizing cities or islands or other features from above. Beltways and rivers are the two features we’d pick out quite readily. When it comes to old cities, we compared how we would pick out downtowns or greenbelts or sprawling universities. I am quite partial to seaports, he really liked railroads. Maps are tools of course, but they also are communication on many levels. You and I might see a lovely greenbelt along the river or lake front, but local historians might know that the area was all landfill and still managed to flood. Someone with a sociology bent might intuit where the poor people lived from where the affluent lived, or the agrarian nature of the center of town.

In the 70’s, there were these popular comic maps made of some cities (Boston and NYC, et al.) that showed the city’s more desirable aspects and relative size in outlandish proportions to the rest of the region. All maps do that to some degree.

Any map can be made more artistic or more aesthetically pleasing, if the cartographer wants. Before GPS, there were little nuances and sometimes big choices to be made in map design. There were copyright traps, sometimes “paper streets” that existed only in blueprint at the time of publishing, choice of font and placement to give preference, and use/non-use of some data. When I sketch out a quick map for anyone, I almost always include a “Here there be dragons!” warning off the edge of the map.

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