The urban fabrics of cities tell a lot of stories. From roman roots to monarchs and dictators who shaped cities according to their will to the consequences of WW2 bombings to all the different approaches to building and structuring a city that emerged since the 19thcentury. Being a trained urban planner, I know a lot of those stories by heart and have explained them, pointing at a city plan to friends and family many times. For this story, my colleague Anna-Lena Kornfeld and I took all those experiences and condensed them into a map/visualization-heavy storytelling for a broader public.
We’ve luckily received a lot of positive feedback from our readers. Ranging from ordinary readers to experts (geographers, historians and urban designers). One expert is now using our story as teaching material in his university urban planning history course.
This story wouldn’t have been possible without the fantastic work of the OpenStreetMap community in Germany. There is an official data set of all buildings in Germany, but it’s unaffordable (roughly 100.000 $). Luckily OpenStreetMap has great coverage and is under an open license.
For data processing we’ve used the national OSM raw data extract and filtered out all buildings with GDAL. Some further processing was done with QGIS, beofre the data was uploaded to Mapbox (via Tippocanoe) and rendered as static and interactive maps in MapboxGL.js.
The additional graphics were produced with AI2HTML.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Getting our hands on the data (see above) and researching the urban design history of the manifold examples. It took as a lot of time to find meaningful, and at the same time visually appealing examples for each epoche.
Finding a style for our story wasn’t hard. Figure ground diagrams were predestinated as key visualization elements. Just the way they help urban planners reading the urban fabric we used them to reduce what’s being displayed to a bare minimum. The alignment of buildings (with some very lightly shaded roads and waterways) is all it needs to give readers orientation and tell the story of the built environment. But this also meant that we had to find archetypical examples that emphasize the characteristics of each epoche. This was easier said then done, since most German cities are rather a dense mix of different stages of development then a homogenous urban landscape.
What can others learn from this project?
If you can’t get your hands on public data, give it a try with open data. There are many fileds where OpenStreetMap, Wikipedia and the like offer great quality and are a suitable ground for reporting.
Also, try to develop a strojng design idea for your story and stick to it. This helps a lot to keep readers emerged in stories with longer reading time.
Finally, keep an eye out for what others are building. In our story we gave credit to “A map of every building in America” (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/10/12/us/map-of-every-building-in-the-united-states.html) by Tim Wallace, Derek Watkins und John Schwartz, published in the NYT in 2018. Visually the story was an inspiration to us. Even though, we have to admit, that in our eyes it fell a little short in explaining patterns and circumstances. Something we ended up spending a lot of research and editing time on.