Infographic: How The World’s Airports And Runways Map Global Inequality

When the world is drawn by its most expensive modes of transport, much of the world fades away.

Your average map is a combination of terrain and politics. What happens if you ignore all that and view things through another lens?


“The World, Traced by Airport Runways”, by James Davenport, is a global map drawn by nothing but the points of airports, runways, and helicopter pads. So while you can easily make out the coasts of the U.S. (and begin to see continents if you squint), that’s only because they’re dotted with air transport. A majority of the world literally fades away, as global mindshare is dominated by countries with the most privilege.

“The most dramatic and surprising transition is between the U.S. and Mexico,” Davenport tells Co.Design. “America is a beehive of runways and helipads that fades gradually into Canada. [Around Mexico] the border is traced in stark detail, creating a poignant visual reminder of the dichotomy in wealth between these neighbors.”

Generally speaking, that’s quite rare, and airports do tend to correlate at least a bit with population densities. Coastlines are well-represented because much of the world lives on coasts (and surely there are some cargo reasons, too). The Sahara and the Himalayas are amongst the only true dead zones, as they’re amongst the only places where almost no one lives. But there are complete oddities, too, like the anomalous straight line up around Canada that spans all the way from Alaska to the Atlantic. Why could it be there?

“I’ve been told these are relics of missile warning sites from the Cold War,” Davenport explains. “So much history is implicitly displayed when you are tracing man-made sites!”

Davenport sees his own map as a “celebration of the incredible accomplishment of our species,” yet he also recognizes its inherent messages of global inequality. It’s a dichotomous pairing with an unexpected side effect. “While a few political boundaries are remarkably well defined, most are totally erased,” Davenport explains. And I, at least, am left looking at the world, not with a strong sense of national pride, but a sudden self-consciousness for standing out.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.