Spatial Histories: A Layered Look in one Location

Where are we going? Why are we getting there? Where am I coming from? Who else has gone this way? Where were they before? Where are they now?

No, these aren’t just the questions running through my mind and the heads of countless other college seniors in their spring semester on the eve of graduation… these are the questions also asked by spatial historians everyday in the creation of visual representations of spaces across time, across communities, across trends and themes in history.

Richard White in “What Is Spatial History” as part of Stanford University’s Spacial History Project describes the subject by five major indicators. Spacial history is at it’s core collaborative (much like most digital histories and archives are), dynamically visual, dependent on new technologies, continually changing and shifting, and has a defining “conceptual focus on space”. Concerned with movement not time, spacial historians pile on maps and databases to create a layered image.

These layers represent three major types of spacial histories:
spacial practice: movements from one place to another on a micro of a macro scale… think bedroom to kitchen when you’re hungry, house to grocery store when you’re out of food, and the trip that orange makes from Florida to your shopping cart when it’s being grown/produced/shipped.
representations of space: these are the bureaucratic, government organized categories of space. think zoning regulations, city planning, traditional creations of living spaces, etc. White says these spaces “conceive an order to shape what is lived and perceived”.
spacial representations: what bring the movements or spacial practices to life or the whys behind where you went… the symbolic representations of the locations like a church or a school and what defines it.

The map depicts distances to nearest McDonald’s. Throw in layer of available food resources and education, another of economic demographics, and one more with obesity rates… you’ve got yourself some serious social McSpatial history!

Altogether on a single image, you’ve found yourself with a layer for the legitimate zoning of an area, addresses of communities, local events that have taken place, and the demographics of a particular location… looking pretty similar to what Stephen Robertson and crew found in the creation of “Putting Harlem on the Map”

“Nightclubs, Speakeasies and Buffet Flats (Search Places, Location Type=”Nightclub” + Location Type=”Speakeasy” + Location Type=”Buffet Flat”, Digital Harlem, accessed August 10, 2011,”

Robertson helped create the first real digital geospace- a visualization of the Harlem renaissance including information mainly associated with addresses… think legal information about building permits and ownership, crimes of all sorts, housing demographics, but also social information such as dance halls, speakeasies, political gatherings, parades, etc. The result provided new information about an era that has been widely studied. For example, by compiling all of this seemingly dissimilar information on the basis that it shared a common space, Robertson drew new conclusions about the black community in Harlem, a greater white influence than previously thought, and different racial tensions (white owners of night clubs and private black “buffet flats”, white drivers and black victims of traffic accidents).

If you’re looking to find examples of ongoing spatial histories in your own neighborhoods, look no further than DC’s own Metro! On the WMATA planning blog, “PlanIt Metro”, Claire Williamson has written a blog on the mapping the “bike and pedestrian barriers faced in commuting to Metrorail stations. “The map on the “Chart of the Week: Hotspots for Pedestrian and Bike Access to Rail Stations” provided features absolute space indicators (miles, half-miles) as well as, relative space aspects (access levels to parking) surrounding the Redline’s Forest Glen station just outside the Capital Beltway in MD. The project has data-mined SmartTrip users’ registered addresses in addition to information gained by the 2007 Metrorail Passenger Survey Data.

Where the parking lots are… or more notably, where the cyclists and walkers aren’t…

Ultimately, Metro would like to increase the number of commuters biking or walking to their station by improving features like more bike racks or walkways, however before they do so, they need to learn more about why people aren’t already using these services. The blogs asks questions that are indicative of a spacial history project including, “Is crossing Georgia Ave. a barrier?” (both a spacial practice and a spacial representation) and Are the four Metro rail stations located within a 2-mile radius of Forest Glen drawing commuters farther away from the station? (both a spacial practice and a representation of space). Additionally, the blog and project calls upon crowd-sourcing to learn of more intimate reasons behind how people commute (calling upon a pillar of spacial history- collaboration).

While the PlanIt Metro project is interesting, I would propose a few more maps/datasets to push it further into a spacial history project. If more traffic data could be developed on or about the roads/trails taken to the stations, we could learn more about the conditions. If data on the socio-economic demographics could be gathered, we could learn about if these people can even afford to drive cars, pay for passes, etc. or if they walk/bike because it is more economically efficient. Finally and similarly, if bus usage and access could be included it would create a much more well rounded picture of Metro commutes.

What I find particularly salient about the field of Spatial History are the implications of copyright violations in the creation of these visual representations. By collecting pre-existing databases and maps and layering them on top of one another, has there been a transformation into a entirely new map? I am not entirely convinced because I feel strongly that the most valuable parts of the “new” map lie in the relationships between the maps as they exist individually. However, in layering, new answers to old questions arise in a manner that contributes academically, so is transformation even necessary?


4 Comments on “Spatial Histories: A Layered Look in one Location”

  1. Hallie B. says:

    I find it interesting that you (and many of the authors we read for today) say that spatial history is dependent/based on digital technologies. While it can definitely be made more dynamic, more collaborative, and shared with more people via new media, there seems to be a contradictions as everyone points to Minard’s 19th century map as a great example of spatial history.

  2. Meghan– I like that you pulled outside of today’s readings and connected them to Metro’s PlanIt project, I never would have thought to do this! I’m not sure copyright really applies here to Metro’s collation of data. Maps of D.C., and surrounding areas with mass transit, are free for public use.

    In response to Hallie’s post, the authors make the case that spatial history can be done with or without digital technologies. They stress, however, that digital technologies allow spatial historians to get more milage out of the data. Maps, graphs, charts and the like can be generated more efficiently. Similarly, computers allow historians to enlarge data that is hard to read (as Robertson did with the Harlem Real estate maps).

  3. Leah Shore says:

    I think you bring up something worth considering by citing the “PlanIt Metro” project. Do you know how long the project has been around? Maybe you could send your suggestions for improving the project.

  4. drdankerr says:

    Yes, the map certainly made me think about the data they collect each time I use my Smarttrip card. Interesting. The question I have is whether this information will be able to be culled to ask different kinds of questions in the future. Will it be preserved? Who will have access to it?

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