Atlanta looks like a dragon sigil. London resembles a sloppy Rorschach test. Tokyo could be a giant fish mouth engulfing the sea. These are what some of the world’s biggest metropolises actually look like. They’re mapped, not based upon political boundaries, but by human populations–charting where the people have actually settled within the city limits.
It’s the work of Antoine Paccoud for the LSE Cities Project, which is studying the 129 urban areas that represent 35% of the human population–or about 1.2 billion people worth of compressed landmass as of 2010.
“I was looking for a way to measure metropolitan density in a way that did not need to rely on heavy computations or sophisticated machinery: I simply traced over satellite imagery by hand in a systematic way,” he tells Co.Design. “The result is an intuitive and organic sense of the city, as I have connected contiguous settlements and given them a shape.”
The maps themselves began as Google Earth satellite photography. Paccoud highlighted the densest areas with black, the medium densities with grey, and surrounding periphery in white. The result is an instantaneous snapshot of the human footprint, a simplified visual compared to confusing topographical photos.
It’s also a scalable vector graphic, which “allows us to represent metropolitan regions of very different geographical areas at the same scale and thus to highlight the myriad forms urban living can take around the world,” Paccoud explains. Furthermore, with UN population information in hand, one can quickly assess just how dense these inky branches are in one city compared to another, and maybe even learn something from it all.
“The fact that 23 million people in Manila occupy a space one eighth the size of the same number of New Yorkers, or that Atlanta in the USA is 25 times larger than Hong Kong with roughly the same population, says something about the capacity and resilience of urban form as well as physical and geographical constraints,” Paccoud writes in a post on his research.
While LSE Cities may draw some grander conclusions from it all, the average onlooker still gains a sort of abstract knowledge by looking through Paccoud’s collection–a deeper understanding of the world that can only be captured through a map itself. And for Paccoud, that’s entirely the point.
“From my end, maps should allow for relationships to emerge visually, without any conscious effort on the part of the receiver,” Paccoud tells Co.Design. “This means that there is a specific type of knowledge that is well suited to maps. For me, this knowledge is inherently comparative … The 12 metropolitan footprint maps need to be looked at together–individually they are only interesting shapes. Together they show us how demography, topography, and wealth levels interact. I feel the possibilities that have been opened up for mapping are both a threat and an opportunity: anything can be mapped, but only some things really need to be mapped.”