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Mapping the city, taming the city

Updated Tuesday, 17th May 2011

As people come to live in urban spaces, how do they come to terms with their surroundings? Gillian Rose explains some of the ways we make sense of our modern surroundings.

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A map of London Creative commons image Icon jntolva under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
jntolva's "geographically acurate map of London"

  Copyright The Open University


Gillian Rose

Hi, I'm Gillian Rose and I'm a Professor of Cultural Geography at the Open University and a member of the Open Space Research Centre. 

Talking in very broad brush terms, we might see through the 19th century perhaps lots of efforts going on to make the city more and more understandable, because of course during the 19th century cities were growing, in many parts of the world, were growing at such an incredible pace that they were almost completely new forms of social experience, so there was enormous amounts of literature and arts and emerging social sciences and anthropologists, and all sorts of people trying to make sense of what were really extraordinarily new ways of very large numbers of people coming together and having to live together.  

I remember that there’s a, the historian Asa Briggs wrote a very interesting account of the 19th century and pointed out that, for example, when the railways were invented it was a completely new kind of mobility technology, railway stations had to be invented too, so somebody had to sit there and think right well, what kind of building does a railway need, you know, so completely new things needed to be created to make sense of this place. 

And many of the technologies that were brought to bear to make sense of these new places were visual, so we can think certainly in the early and mid 19th century, a lot of efforts to map cities, producing all sorts of different kinds of maps, kind of birds eye view, painted panoramas, down to the more, I guess, kind of cartographic and technically skilled maps that we still work with today in things like Google Maps and so on, that kind of mapping genre.  And the purpose of a lot of those mappings was to get some kind of birds eye view of the whole city. 

One of the classic examples is the late 19th century philanthropist Charles Booth conducting what was one of the first kind of large scale social science projects, trying to look at the extents of wealth and poverty across London, and he produced extraordinarily detailed house by house maps, coloured according to the wealth or poverty of the household, that were one of the very first systematic surveys of particularly the east end of London, which until then had been seen as this kind of mysterious and terrible place, full of the residual as they were called, you know, the very, very poor slums and so on. 

Photography of course, invented in the mid 19th century, also used by intrepid travellers in the colonies in the 19th century but also, again, taken into cities, particularly into areas that the kind of middle class who wanted to look at these kind of images didn’t usually go, into very poor areas.  And there are classic collections of photographs, again of the east end of London but also in Glasgow, in Edinburgh, in Manchester, a whole range of different archives where photography was used again to kind of shed light into these dark places as they were often described, and then to bring pictures of those places back to a bourgeois audience that wouldn’t have experienced them at first hand. 

And then moving into the 20th century, and again I'm extremely conscious this is very broad brush, but we could look at, for example, a lot of film history which would suggest that a lot of the histories of different kind of film traditions, a lot of them were concerned to picture cities in more or less kind of realistic sorts of ways, really until quite recently I think. 

So there’s a sort of series of ways in which particular sorts of visual technologies, I think particularly cameras, either for still or moving pictures, were used to picture the truth of a city, to kind of go into places in the city and bring back, to record and then bring back to other audiences what that city really looked like.


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