Blog Post

London's History Of Mapping

Every weekend, Londoners stream out of their homes and visit the city’s many markets: long stretches of street (off-limits to cars) teeming with stalls of all types of delicious food, trendy clothes, and quirky trinkets. This past weekend, while strolling through one of these markets, I happened upon a booth selling some lovely prints of old London maps.

My project for the Fulbright National Geographic Fellowship involves mapping the digital data of groups of Londoner’s relationships, so my excitement at seeing the prints came as no surprise. And of course, I’m not the only one who cares about maps. They’re generally beloved both as visual objects and communicators of spatial details, and though I’ve given a twist to their original function by using them to convey less obvious information, I still have lots of appreciation for their conventional offerings.

On a past trip to Manchester, I encountered maps drawn by community members in the Manchester Art Gallery. Photo credit to Mimi Onuoha.

But my excitement sprang from the fact that bumping into map prints during a casual weekend walk reminded me of just how fortuitous it is to be here in the UK working on my project. The word “fortuitous” implies that it was a stroke of luck, and that’s not the case--London makes the most sense as a site for my project as a result of many unique characteristics (including high levels of smartphone use and stunning amounts of diversity, in all senses of the word).

But on a more basic level, when it comes to the methodology of my project, and specifically the map-making aspects of it, there are other reasons why London is particularly relevant as a city with a rich tradition of mapping.

One of these reasons dates back to the 19th century and the infamous Charles Booth poverty maps. In the late 1800s, Booth made a series of maps of London produced through careful perusal and documentation of all of London’s streets. By correlating each street to social class, Booth created some of the first infographics, and his maps now serve as time capsules, insights into historical social stratification, and aesthetic objects.

One of Booth's Maps, courtesy of London School of Economics.

The pioneering mapping work that Booths did has been continued in a variety of ways. These days, the tools and types of information being portrayed have changed, but the essence of curiosity and desire to codify and document visual particulars remains the same. From innovative initiatives like the Phantom Terrains project, where Frank Swain and Daniel Jones (with the help of Stefanie Posavec) are attempting to correlate wifi with sound and then generate maps of those wifi audio soundscapes, to recent books like London: The Information Capital, in which geographer James Chesire and designer Oliver Uberti have created over one hundred maps and portraits of London that display various information about it, it’s clear that the mapping convention remains alive and well in the city.

For me, it’s comforting to know that the project that I’m working on is situated in good company, and I feel lucky to count myself and my project as a piece of that narrative. London charmingly has one foot in modernity and another in its thickly storied past, and it seems appropriate that even its relationship with mapping should stretch to accommodate both characteristics.

Caught in a rare moment outside of the market chaos. Photo credit to Bridget Kiley.

If you would like to contact Mimi, feel free to get in touch with her via Twitter or through her personal website or project site.

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