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Spatial History and the Mannahatta Project
Alex Steffen, 11 Aug 08
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Time's insights flow in both directions: anticipating the future can help us remove contemporary blinders to understand the past in new ways, and delving into the past can give us fresh perspectives on what might be possible in the future. Or, as I wrote earlier, when trying to explain the importance of environmental history, "The past is still doing its work in the present, and understanding that past gives us leverage on the problems we face today."

A key challenge in the study of history, especially as it relates to place, is putting the pieces together. If, for instance, we hit the archives in an attempt to know the history of a particular watershed, we might well find ourselves confronted with masses of information, including old maps, journals and letters, scientific observations, photos, business records and government files. Making sense of such a large array of sources is difficult.

But as we've discussed before, dealing with floods of data is not a situation unique to history, and historians are finding their way towards the same set of solutions that designers and scientists are moving towards: information visualization.

The field has come to be known as spatial history, and there's an explosion of projects and tools in that field right now, lead by Stanford's Spatial History Project.

The project, lead by Richard White, Zephyr Frank and Jon Christensen (disclosure: White is a former teacher of mine) is bringing together approaches from history and geography, employing GIS and other technologies to find new ways of understanding how the past unfolded in different places:

"The overarching goal of the Spatial History Project is to create dynamic, interactive tools that can be used across the spectrum represented by these research projects-from economic and technological changes, to social and political changes, and changes in science and the environment-and bring them all together to enable the creation of new knowledge and understanding of historical change in space and time and the possibilities for our present and future that may be found in the past."

It's a terrifically exciting undertaking, with all sorts of possibilities for introducing changed thinking into contemporary discussions. Better still, they're approaching the whole thing in a spirit of openness and tool-sharing, and have launched as well a spatial history wiki, Tooling Up for Digital Histories, a collaboration with the Stanford Computer Graphics Lab to "compile and create new tools for digital and spatial research in the humanities."

The wiki is already filling in nicely, and I have no doubt that it's going to be a great resource for those in the field. If I had one suggestion, it might be that it would be nice to see these tools explained and packaged in a manner that would be more accessible to intelligent people from other fields, and usable by non-academics to understand and describe their own spatial histories, and perhaps even imagine their own futures.

Spatial history stories can be powerful. Take the Mannahatta Project, which is using spatial history tools to mentally strip back the years and imagine Manhattan before the arrival of Europeans:

"The aim of the Mannahatta Project is to reconstruct the ecology of Manhattan when Henry Hudson first sailed by in 1609 and compare it to what we know of the island today. The Mannahatta Project will help us to understand, down to the level of one city block, where in Manhattan streams once flowed or where American Chestnuts may have grown, where black bears once marked territories, and where the Lenape fished and hunted. Most history books dispense of the pre-European history of New York in only a few pages. However, with new methods in geographic analysis and the help of a remarkable 18th-century map, we will discover a new aspect of New York culture, the environmental foundation of the city."

The project has already become a bit of a hit, getting written up in the New Yorker and elsewhere, and becoming the subject of a new book (disclosure: Deb Aaronson, who's editing the book, is also my editor).

Being a Westerner, being a 6th-generation Californian and having lived close enough to the Pacific to taste salt in the air for most of my life, the fascination with everything New Yorkish is sometimes baffling to me. But having gone to high school just outside NYC, and talking with New Yorkers who are excited about the idea, I think I can understand a bit of the Mannahatta Project's appeal.

Where I live, nature didn't go anywhere. Though I live in a city of 600,000 people, I can walk to a park where bald eagles hunt. Coyotes have been seen in my neighborhood. Salmon and orcas swim in the waters that surround my town. In the West, the wilderness isn't somewhere else, it's under your feet, it's in your view, it's on your plate. The degree to which it is eroding away is a major conflict point in our politics and culture.

But in New York, despite some amazing parks and green spaces, hundreds of years of city-building stand between residents and the ground they walk on. Stripping back that mass of concrete and asphalt and people and stories to get back to the natural systems that underlie it all must be an especially powerful experience for those who aren't used to thinking of where they live as being part of nature at all.

And that sort of insight, that sort of changed thinking, is exactly what we need more of if we're going to make better choices about the future we're building all around us.

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Dear Alex,

Will WorldChanging please discuss the global challenge posed by the human overpopulation of Earth with the kind of concentrated and sustained attention this looming threat to humanity deserves?

The widely shared and consensually-validated belief in the overall decline in absolute global human population numbers in our time, leading to population stabilization worldwide in 2050, is simply and straightforwardly a specious, inadequate product of preternatural thought as well as a colossal misperception. Many too many powerbrokers inside and outside the manmade global political economy have actively supported the unrealistic belief in population stabilization because it has proven to be politically convenient, economically expedient and supportive of their selfish interests.

According to new, unwelcome, unchallenged and apparently unforeseen scientific evidence of the human overpopulation of Earth, we can understand the growth or decline of the population numbers of the human species primarily as a function of global food supply. This means that human population dynamics of the human species is essentially common to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species. From a global or species perspective, more food equals more people; less food equals less people; and, in any case, no food equals no people.

Please consider this request. Alex, could you or someone else at WorldChanging at ask top-rank scientists to carefully and skillfully examine the emerging science of human population dynamics and report their findings?



Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on the Human Population, established 2001

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony on 12 Aug 08

Dear Alex,

Thanks for the kind words and the gentle poke. Your suggestion for improvement is a terrific one. We've just begun. And I hope that by opening up the toolbox we will get the larger community -- which you so rightly point out can use spatial histories -- will help us find, describe, and review these tools so that we can all identify those tools most useful to all of us. In the meantime, we'll take your tip to heart as we continue to assemble this toolbox.

Yours truly,


Posted by: Jon Christensen on 12 Aug 08

Alex, another way to look at population is to take up this challenge: ( I ask this of the Industrial Design students in my class called Energy and Ecology for Designers at CCA in San Francisco. " Name a business that would not profit by a rise in population". JB

Posted by: Jay Baldwin on 16 Aug 08

Many thanks to Jay Baldwin.

Jay, I have a question that you and Alex might consider. Perhaps it is a question to which you would care to respond. Three responses from me follow the question.

How could one generation go so wrong? Here are some of the ways.

First, the leaders in my generation of elders wish to live without having to accept limits to growth of seemingly endless economic globalization, of increasing per capita consumption and skyrocketing human population numbers; our desires are evidently insatiable. We choose to believe anything that is politically convenient, economically expedient and socially agreeable; our way of life is not negotiable. We dare anyone to question our values or behaviors.

We religiously promote our widely shared and consensually-validated fantasies of `real' endless economic growth and soon to be unsustainable overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities, and in so doing deny that Earth has limited resources and frangible ecosystems upon which the survival of life as we know it depends.

Second, my not-so-great generation appears to be doing a disservice to everything and everyone but ourselves. We are the "what's in it for me?" generation. We demonstrate precious little regard for the maintenance of the integrity of Earth; shallow willingness to actually protect the environment from crippling degradation; lack of serious consideration for the preservation of biodiversity, wilderness, and a good enough future for our children and coming generations; and no appreciation of the vital understanding that humans are no more or less than magnificent living beings with "feet of clay."

Perhaps we live in unsustainable ways in our planetary home; but we are proud of it nonetheless. Certainly, we will "have our cake and eat it, too." We will own fleets of cars, fly around in thousands of private jets, live in McMansions, exchange secret handshakes, frequent exclusive clubs and distant hideouts, and risk nothing of value to us. We will live long, large and free. Please do not bother us with the problems of the world. We choose not to hear, see or speak of them. We are the economic powerbrokers, their bought-and-paid-for politicians and the many minions in the mass media. We hold the much of the world's wealth and the extraordinary power great wealth purchases. If left to our own devices, we will continue in the exercise of our `inalienable rights' to outrageously consume Earth's limited resources; to recklessly expand economic globalization unto every corner of our natural world and, guess what, beyond; and to carelessly consent to the unbridled global growth of human numbers so that where there are now 6+ billion people, by 2050 we will have 9+ billion members of the human community and, guess what, even more people, perhaps billions more in the distant future, if that is what we desire.

We are the reigning, self-proclaimed masters of the universe. We enjoy freedom and living without limits; of course, we adamantly eschew any talk of the personal responsibilities that come with the exercise of personal freedoms or any discussion of the existence of biophysical limitations of any kind.

We deny the existence of human limits and Earth's limitations.

Please understand that we do not want anyone presenting us with scientific evidence that we could be living unsustainably in an artificially designed, temporary world of our own making....a manmade world filling up with gigantic enterprises, virtual mountains of material possessions, and boundless amounts of filthy lucre.

Third, most of our top rank experts appear not to have found adequate ways of communicating to the family of humanity what people somehow need to hear, see and understand: the rapacious dissipation of Earth's limited resources, the relentless degradation of the planet's environment, and the approaching destruction of the Earth as a fit place for human habitation by the human species, when taken together, appear to be proceeding at breakneck speed toward the precipitation of a catastrophic ecological wreckage of some sort unless, of course, the world's colossal, ever expanding, artificially designed, manmade global political economy continues to speed headlong toward the monolithic `wall' called "unsustainability" at which point the runaway economy crashes before Earth's ecology is collapsed.

Who knows, perhaps we can realistically and hopefully hold onto the expectation that behavioral changes in the direction of sustainable production, per human consumption, and propagation are in the offing.....changes that save both the economy and the Creation.

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony on 16 Aug 08

Thanks Alex. As usual lots of great thinking there. I appreciate the notion of technology taking the relay of human memory. Because so many of us are now displaced, we unfortunately no longer feel connected to the place we live in, the place we were raised at. I believe this loss of a sense of place is one of the hurdles we need to overcome when trying to engage people in climate change and biodiversity loss solutions. This is coming up in some of the recent discussions on La Marguerite blog, as in here:

Also, I agree with you that tools such as the Stanford wiki tool you mention, need to be adapted and made more user friendly, so that more people can access the information. Blogs are a lot friendlier than wikis. Maybe it would be good to have a blog associated with Stanford wiki?

Posted by: marguerite manteau-rao on 18 Aug 08



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