Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
A cartogram makes it easy to compare regional and national GDPs at a glance.
- On these maps, each hexagon represents one-thousandth of the world's economy.
- That makes it easy to compare the GDP of regions and nations across the globe.
- There are versions for nominal GDP and GDP adjusted for purchasing power.
Shanghai's skyline at night. According to the GDP (PPP) map, China is the world's largest economy. But that oft-cited statistic says more about the problems of PPP as a yardstick than about the economic prominence of China per se.Credit: Adi Constantin, CC0 1.0
If you want to rank the regions and countries of the world, area and population are but crude predictors of their importance. A better yardstick is GDP, or gross domestic product, defined as the economic value produced in a given region or country over a year.
Who's hot and who's not
And these two maps are possibly the best instruments to show who's hot and who's not, economically speaking. They are in fact cartograms, meaning they abandon geographic accuracy in order to represent the values of another dataset, in this case GDP: the larger a region or country is shown relative to its actual size, the greater its GDP, and vice versa.
So far, so familiar. What's unique about these maps is how this is done. Both are composed of hexagons, exactly 1,000 each. And each of those hexagons represents 0.1 percent of global GDP. That makes it fascinatingly easy to assess and compare the economic weight of various regions and countries throughout the world.
Did we say easy? Scratch that. GDP comes in two main flavors: nominal and PPP-adjusted, with each map showing one.
Nominal GDP does not take into account differences in standard of living. It simply converts local GDP values into U.S. dollars based on foreign exchange rates. GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP) takes into account living standards. $100 buys more stuff in poor countries than it does in rich countries. If you get more bang for your buck in country A, its PPP-adjusted GDP will be relatively higher than in country B.
Nominal GDP is a good way of comparing the crude economic size of various countries and regions, while GDP (PPP) is an attempt to measure the relative living standards between countries and regions. But this is also just an approximation, since it does not measure the distribution of personal income. For that, we have the Gini index, which measures the relative (in)equality of income distribution.
In other words, PPP factors in the high cost of living in mature markets as an economic disadvantage, while giving slightly more room to low-cost economies elsewhere. Think of it as the Peters projection of GDP models.
Who's number one: the U.S. or China?
The economy of the world, divided into a thousand hexagons.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
The difference is important, though, since the versions produce significantly different outcomes. The most salient one: on the nominal GDP map, the United States remains the world's largest economy. But on the PPP-adjusted GDP map, China takes the top spot. However, it is wrong to assume on this basis that China is the world's biggest economy.
As this article explains in some detail, PPP-adjusted GDP is not a good yardstick for comparing the size of economies – nominal GPD is the obvious measure for that. GDP (PPP) is an attempt to compare living standards; but even in that respect, it has its limitations. For example, $100 might buy you more in country B, but you might not be able to buy the stuff you can get in country A.
Both maps, shown below, are based on data from the IMF published in the first quarter of 2021. For the sake of brevity, we will have a closer look at the nominal GDP map and leave comparisons with the PPP map to you.
For the nominal map, global GDP is just over U.S. $93.86 trillion. That means each of the hexagons represents about U.S. $93.86 billion.
The worldwide overview clearly shows which three regions are the world's economic powerhouses. Despite the rise of East Asia (265 hexagons), North America (282) is still number one, with Europe (250) placing a close third. Added up, that's just three hexagons shy of 80 percent of the world's GDP. The remaining one-fifth of the world's economy is spread — rather thinly, by necessity — across Southeast Asia & Oceania (56), South Asia (41), the Middle East (38), South America (32), Africa (27), and North & Central Asia (9).
California über alles
California's economy is bigger than that of all of South America or Africa.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
Thanks to the hexagons, the maps get more interesting the closer you zoom in on them.
In North America, the United States (242) overshadows Canada (20) and Mexico (13); and within the U.S., California (37) outperforms not just all other states, but also most other countries — and a few continents — worldwide. To be fair, Texas (21), New York (20), Florida (13), and Illinois (10) also do better than many individual nations.
Interestingly, states that look the same on a "regular" map are way out of each others' leagues on this one. Missouri is four hexagons but Nebraska only one. Alabama has three but Mississippi only one.
The granularity of the map goes beyond the state level, showing (in red) the economic heft of certain Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), within or across state lines. The New York City-Newark-Jersey City one is 20 hexagons, that is, 2 percent of the world's GDP. The Greater Toronto Area is five hexagons, a quarter of all of Canada. And Greater Mexico City is three hexagons. That's the same as the entire state of Oregon.
By comparison, South America (32) and Africa (27) are small fry on the GDP world map. But each little pond has its own big fish. In the former, it's Brazil (16), in particular, the state of São Paulo (5), which on its own is bigger than any other country in South America. In Africa, there is one regional leader each in the north, center, and south: Egypt (4), Nigeria (5), and South Africa (3), respectively.
Economically, Italy is bigger than Russia
Europe's "Big Five" represent three-fifths of the continent's GDP. The Asian part of the former Soviet Union is an economic afterthought.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
Europe is bewilderingly diverse, so it helps to focus on the "Big Five" economies: Germany (46), UK (33), France (31), Italy (22), and Spain (16). They comprise three-fifths of Europe's GDP.
Each of these five has one or more regional economic engines. In Germany, it's the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and in France, it's Île de France (both 10). In the UK, it's obviously London (8), in Italy Lombardy (5), and in Spain, it's a photo-finish between Madrid and Catalonia (both 3).
Interesting about Europe's economies are the small countries that punch well above their geographic and/or demographic weight, such as the Netherlands (11) and Switzerland (9).
Slide across to Eastern Europe and things get pretty mono-hexagonal. Poland (7) stands out positively and Russia (18) negatively. The former superpower, spread out over two continents, has an economy smaller than Italy's. Three individual German states have a GDP larger than that of the Moscow Metropolitan Area (5), the seat and bulk of Russia's economic power.
China, the biggest fish in a big pond
Australia and South Korea's GDPs are about equal, and each is about a third of Japan's. But even put together, these three add up to barely half of China's economic weight.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
In the 1980s, the United States was wary of Japan's rise to global prominence. But as this map shows, that fear was misguided — or rather, slightly misdirected. It's China (177) that now dominates the region economically, putting even the land of the Rising Sun (57) in the shade. South Korea (19) and Taiwan (8) look a lot larger than on a "regular" map, but it's clear who rules the roost here.
Interestingly, China's hubs are mainly but not exclusively coastal. Yes, there's Guangdong (19), Jiangsu (18), and Shandong (13), plus a few other provinces with access to the sea. But the inland provinces of Henan (10), Sichuan (9), and Hubei (8) are economically as important as any mid-sized European country. Tibet (1) and Xinjiang (2), huge on the "regular" map, are almost invisible here.
In the ASEAN countries (36), Thailand (6), Singapore (4), and the Indonesian island of Java (7) stand out. Economically, Oceania is virtually synonymous with Australia (17) — sorry, New Zealand (3).
As for South Asia and the Middle East, India (32) is clearly the dominant player, outperforming near neighbors Bangladesh (4) and Pakistan (3), as well as more distant ones like Saudi Arabia (9), Turkey (8), and Iran (7). But that's cold comfort for a country that sees itself as a challenger to China's dominance.
The PPP-adjusted GDP world map looks slightly different from the nominal GDP one. China is the #1 country and East Asia the #1 region.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps #1089
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
Thomas Baldwin's Airopaidia (1786) includes the earliest sketches of the earth from a balloon.
- In the 1780s, as humanity mastered flight, a "balloon craze" swept across the world.
- Thomas Baldwin had just one sky-trip, but he wrote an entire book about it — Airopaidia.
- At times lyrical and technical, the curious volume also includes the world's first aerial maps.
An exact Representation of Mr. Lunardi's New Balloon, as it ascended with Himself – 13 May 1785.Credit: Public Domain Review / Public domain
On 8 September 1785, Thomas Baldwin saw something nobody had ever seen before: the English city of Chester and its surroundings from above. And then he did something nobody had ever done before: he produced maps of what he saw — the very first aerial maps in history. They're included in Airopaidia, a curious book that devotes hundreds of pages to Baldwin's one and only balloon trip.
People have been flying planes for 117 years. But the history of human flight goes back another 120 years before the Wright Brothers' first airplane ride at Kitty Hawk. On 21 November 1783, a balloon manufactured by the Montgolfier brothers took off near Paris, transporting two passengers 5.5 miles through the air in 25 minutes.
Almost immediately, the first manned flight set off a "balloon craze" throughout Europe. Balloonists travelled from city to city, attracting large crowds with their "flying circuses" (hence, the term well-known to Monty Python fans). The novel apparitions caused some to faint, others to vomit. Destruction and rioting were not uncommon.
Certainly spectacular, ballooning itself was not without danger. Pilâtre de Rozier, one of the two passengers on the first montgolfière, died in June 1785 while attempting to cross the English Channel, when his balloon caught fire.
Lamenting the "balloonomania" of his day, novelist Horace Walpole complained that "all our views are directed to the air; balloons occupy senators, philosophers, ladies, everybody." He hoped that these "new mechanic meteors" would not be "converted into new engines of destruction to the human race, as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in science."
The first British balloonist was a remarkable Scotsman named James Tytler, who on 27 August 1784 managed a 10-minute flight in a hot air balloon just outside Edinburgh.
A jack of all trades, Tytler was also a pharmacist, surgeon, printer, poet, pamphleteer, and editor of the second edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Less tastefully, he was the anonymous author of Ranger's Impartial List of the Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh, a review of 66 of the city's prostitutes.
Tytler's ballooning exploits fizzled out, and he was soon overshadowed by the flamboyant Vincenzo Lunardi, the "Daredevil Aeronaut."
The Daredevil Aeronaut
On 15 September 1784 — hardly a month after Tytler — Lunardi took off from the Artillery Ground in Finsbury on the first balloon flight in England. In attendance were the Prince of Wales and 200,000 other Londoners.
Lunardi was accompanied by a dog, cat, and caged pigeon. Flying north, he briefly touched down at Welham Green in a place still called "Balloon Corner." There, he released the cat, as he thought it had become unwell from the cold. Minus the feline, Lunardi took off again. England's first manned flight came to an end in a field near Standon Green End, 24 miles north of Finsbury. A memorial stone still marks the spot.
The next year, Lunardi toured England and Scotland with his Grand Air Balloon, drawing large crowds everywhere. Many of his flights were spectacular but not all were a success. On one of his Scottish flights, he drifted off over the North Sea and crashed into the waves. He was only rescued thanks to a passing fishing boat.
On 8 September, Lunardi's flying circus arrived in Chester, and here, Thomas Baldwin enters the play. Baldwin was a local clergyman's son and sometime curate himself. He was more interested in science than religion, though, and had lately gone completely balloon-crazy. In December of the previous year, he had proposed building a "Grand Naval Air-balloon," complete with sails, oars, and a rudder. Nothing came of it.
Nevertheless, Baldwin had a healthy belief in his own relevance for the ballooning industry. He in fact contended, at one point, that French balloonists had stolen his ideas and that "montgolfières," as hot-air balloons were then called, should rightly be known as "baldwins."
Before his take-off in Chester, Lunardi burned himself on the acid used to make the hydrogen for the balloon. Because of his injury, he couldn't make the ascent himself, so he agreed to rent out his Grand Air Balloon to Baldwin instead. And with that unbelievable stroke of luck, Baldwin lifted off from Chester Castle at 1:40 pm on 8 September 1785, for his first (and only) trip between the clouds. The new-fangled aeronaut certainly came well equipped. Baldwin brought tools for writing and sketching, a speaking trumpet, half a mile of twine, a hardboard map (which could also serve as a table), and — as apparently was de rigueur among balloonists — a pigeon.
Once aloft, Baldwin conducted several experiments. He used inflated bladders to get a sense of differences in air pressure, and he sampled various foods to find out whether they would taste differently high up in the air. (They did not, despite testimonials to the contrary reported from "the Peak of Tenerife" in Spain.)
Toward the end of his journey, Baldwin was forced to climb up on the rigging of the balloon to fix a stuck valve to release gas so he could descend. The balloon eventually came down at Belleair Farm in Rixton, 25 miles northeast of Chester, seven minutes shy of 4 pm.
A view from the balloon at its greatest elevation. In the center, the city of Chester in Cheshire.Credit: Internet Archive / Public domain.
After barely two hours in the air, Baldwin is a man transformed. He sets down his experiences in Airopaidia, which is published the next year. Filling out 362 pages, it's as much a gushing eyewitness report as it is a detailed scientific account of his trip — plus advice to future "aeronauts."
Much to his chagrin, not much has been made of Baldwin's contributions to ballooning. Yet this one-shot amateur did produce a few firsts.
The first true aerial maps
He appears to have been the first to observe the "pilot's glory," a halo that appears around the shadow of a person's head. This is the result of sunlight refracting on tiny water droplets in the atmosphere.
He was also the first to map out what he saw from a balloon. Bird's eye perspectives were nothing new in cartography. Mapmakers often represented cities from elevated perspectives in order to better show the layout of streets, for example. Leonardo da Vinci even pioneered the "satellite view," drawing a plan of the city of Imola in 1502 as if from straight above.
These, however, were works of the imagination. Baldwin's maps were the first aerial maps made from actual observation. And here, the maps say more than a thousand words could. Lunardi, when he observed London from above, had to admit: "I can find no simile to convey an idea of it."
A balloon prospect from above the clouds, showing cities, rivers, fields, and coastline.Credit: Internet Archive / Public domain.
Baldwin included three maps, two of which were colored, in Airopaidia:
- A circular view of Chester, as observed from the balloon's greatest elevation.
- A "Specimen of Balloon Geography," showing the area between Chester and Warrington from above the clouds.
- The balloon over Helsby-Hill in Cheshire.
Baldwin even gave his readers specific instructions on how to enjoy his maps to the fullest: roll up a piece of paper and peer over them as if through a telescope. For Baldwin and his fellow balloonists, flight among the clouds represented the height — quite literally — of the "Sublime," a Romantic notion that married the esthetic to the ecstatic.
As he related on pp. 37-38 of Airopaidia:
But what Scenes of Grandeur and Beauty!
A Tear of pure Delight flaſhed in his Eye! Of pure and exquiſite Delight and Rapture; to look down on the unexpected Change already wrought in the Works of Art and Nature, contracted to a Span by the NEW PERSPECTIVE, diminiſhed almoſt beyond the Bounds of Credibility.
Yet ſo far were the Objects from loſing their Beauty, that EACH WAS BROUGHT UP in a new Manner to the Eye, and diſtinguiſhed by a Strength of Colouring, a Neatneſs and Elegance of Boundary, above Descriptions charming!
The endleſs Variety of Objects, minute, distinct and ſeparate, tho' apparently on the ſame Plain or Level, at once ſtriking the Eye without a Change of its Position, aſtoniſhed and enchanted. Their Beauty was unparalleled. The Imagination itſelf was more than gratified; it was overwhelmed.
The gay Scene was Fairy-Land, and Cheſter Lilliput.
He tried his Voice and ſhouted for Joy. His Voice was unknown to himſelf, ſhrill and feeble. There was no Echo.
A popped balloon
Toward the end of the decade, the ballooning craze died down. Following a deadly accident involving an onlooker in 1786, Lunardi left Britain for Italy, Spain, and Portugal. At the mercy of the winds, balloons lacked any obvious practical application, military or otherwise. And with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, Europe had enough to occupy its attention for the next quarter century. According to one compiler, by 1836, no more than 313 people had taken to the skies in England.
By then, the flying circuses were things of the past. Baldwin died in 1804, never having flown again. But the excitement of those days still gushes from his Airopaidia, and the maps it contains remain a unique milestone in the history of ballooning — and cartography.
A map showing the route of Baldwin's flight, from Chester Castle (circled, bottom) to Rixton Moss (circled, top).Credit: Internet Archive / Public domain.
Strange Maps #1088
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Strange Maps on Twitter and Facebook
ExtendNY stretches the Big Apple's gridiron all across the globe – with some bizarre effects
- Manhattan's street grid is famously regular and predictable. What if you extended it across the globe?
- This web tool does exactly that, and in the process, turning New York into the world's first, last, and only "planetary city."
- But grids are square, and the world is not. Somewhere in Uzbekistan, global Manhattan goes haywire.
Can't afford to live in New York? Yes, you can, and it won't even cost you a penny. In fact, you don't even have to move there. The Manhattan gridiron will come to you instead!
New York, but from the comfort of your own home
A nifty website called ExtendNY has rolled out the iconic street grid across the entire planet. You can now enjoy a real New York address at the corner of Such-and-such Street and This-and-that Avenue from the comfort of your own home.
New York may no longer be the biggest city in the world – Tokyo snatched that title somewhere in the second half of the 20th century – but the Big Apple still has a better claim than most other cities to be the Capital of the World.
It's a city built by immigrants, home to people of every persuasion and complexion, speaking languages from all across the globe. Countless screens reflect the city's skyline, cityscape, and frenetic energy back to the rest of the world.
Even first-time visitors feel oddly at home between the familiar bridges, yellow cabs, and skyscrapers of Manhattan. Plenty of locally-set movies and series – in turn glitzy or gritty – have seen to that.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – born in New York, by the way – hasn't really left the city: Number 10 Downing Street also has a Manhattan-style address.Credit: ExtendNY
So it feels weirdly appropriate that ExtendNY, devised in 2011 by Harold Cooper, should allow New York to cover the entire planet and become not just the capital of the world, but a synonym for the world itself. New York is the first, last, and only planetary city the planet needs.
Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel, New York socialites
As a result, a lot of famous addresses the world over get an equally iconic New York one as well. The British Prime Minister, currently Boris Johnson, famously works out of Number 10 Downing Street in London. Ah yes, but that's also on the corner of 63,708th Street and E 10,894th Avenue in New York.
His opposite number in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, resides in the Bundeskanzleramt, overlooking the river Spree in Berlin. Or, when she daydreams of a slightly different life: the corner of 75,490th Street and E 11,126 Avenue in New York.
A new meaning to the Upper East Side
Can't get away from New York. Even the top of Mount Everest is a street corner in the Big Apple. Credit: ExtendNY
Even natural features don't escape global New York. The top of Mount Everest, on the border of China and Nepal? The corner of 96,104th Street and 67,128th Avenue. The actual North Pole? The map looks a bit funny, but the address is credible enough: the corner of 58,725th Street and 12,993 Avenue.
Similarly, the Eiffel Tower, the Ka'aba in Mecca, or your own place – all are now distant suburbs of NYC.
Uzbekistan: the nexus of the universe
The weirdest bit of global New York is a place in Uzbekistan, where a street reduced to a single point intersects with all the avenues. Credit: ExtendNY
Because the grid is rectangular and the earth is not, there are a few points where Global New York runs into bizarro territory. In remotest Uzbekistan, ExtendNY's gridiron arrives at a strange point, where the succession of streets have condensed into one that consists only of a single point – 127,001st Street – which intersects with all of Global New York's Avenues. That mind-bending street corner is mirrored by a similar opposite in the South Pacific. As Kramer suggested, this could be the nexus of the universe — in Global New York, anyway.
Although Manhattan's grid may strike us as thoroughly modern, gridded cities are by no means a recent invention. In French, a grid plan is called a plan hippodamien, after the ancient Greek architect Hippodamus of Miletus (5th century BC), a.k.a. the 'father of European urban planning'.
The loneliness of Stuyvesant Street
However, like most cities in the Old World, the oldest ones in the New World grew up unplanned. In New Amsterdam, which occupied the southern tip of Manhattan, the streets followed old native trails, cow paths, and property lines, and generally the lay of the land.
Stuyvesant Street is a poignant and lonely relic of one of several attempts to impose order on that chaos. Sitting awkwardly between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, it is one of the very few streets in Manhattan to be aligned almost perfectly east to west.
In the late 18th century, the City commissioned Casimir Goerck to subdivide its Common Lands, in the middle of Manhattan, into sellable lots. Goerck's name is now largely forgotten, quite literally. The small street in the Lower East Side that once carried his name was rebranded Baruch Place in 1933. But his plan, in the words of historian Gerard Koeppel, is "modern Manhattan's Rosetta Stone."
Goerck oriented streets 29 degrees east of due north, in order to align with the shape of the island itself, and devised a standard of five-acre blocks, two features which would come back in the famous Commissioners' Plan of 1811. Goerck's East, Middle and West Roads would become 4th, 5th, and 6th Avenues. In fact, the Commissioners' Plan is essentially an expansion of Goerck's grid laid out over the Common Lands.
An 1807 map of the Commissioners' Plan, clearly showing the planned city blocks extending from North Street (circled, left) to 155th Street (circled, right). Credit: Harper's New Monthly Magazine (June 1893), public domain.
The Plan proposed a city grid north of Lower Manhattan, from Houston Street (pronounced "house-ton" and not "hyoos-ton", by the way; then appropriately called "North Street") up to 155th Street – with two exceptions:
- Greenwich Village, then independent from New York City, was excluded – hence the visibly different orientation of the streets in "the Village."
- 10th Avenue went well beyond 155th Street, all the way up to the northern tip of Manhattan.
The Commission adopted Goerck's gridiron as the most practical layout for the city, as "straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in." In its predictability and repetition, the gridiron was a reflection of "republican" values such as plainness and uniformity, order, and equity.
In all, the Plan created about 2,000 city blocks. It took about 60 years for that grid to be filled in – but alterations were made, the biggest of which was the establishment of Central Park. Created in 1857 and completed in 1876, it runs from 59th up to 110th street, and from Fifth to Eight Avenues. It takes up 843 acres or just over 6 percent of the entire island of Manhattan.
From the 1860s onward, the grid was essentially extended northward, despite the fact that the difficult terrain necessitated some alterations.
Manhattan, Sartre's "Great American Desert"
Broadway, which originally only went up to 10th Street, was eventually joined up with other roads north, until it reached Spuyten Duyvil at the top of Manhattan in 1899. Its angled intersections with the grid helped create some of New York's most emblematic open spaces, including Times Square, Madison Square, and Union Square.
Walt Whitman (pictured here around 1870, about 50 years old) could wax lyrical about New York (see Strange Maps #842: Whitman Poem Transformed into a Map of Brooklyn), but wasn't a fan of the grid. Credit: From Henry Bryan Binns: A Life of Walt Whitman (1902), public domain.
From the start, the plan had come in for harsh criticism. In more recent times, it's been praised as visionary. Here are some put-downs by famous voices:
- Alexis de Tocqueville, the French philosopher famous for his observations of the newly independent U.S., criticized the Plan's "relentless monotony."
- Poet and journalist Walt Whitman wrote that "our perpetual dead flat and streets cutting each other at right angles, are certainly the last thing in the world consistent with beauty of situation."
- And architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who would go on to design Central Park, lamented that "no city is more unfortunately planned with reference to metropolitan attractiveness."
- "Rectangular New York," in the words of writer Edith Wharton, is "this cramped horizontal gridiron of a town without towers, porticoes, fountains or perspectives, hide-bound in its deadly uniformity of mean ugliness."
- Lamenting its "deadly monotony", architect Frank Lloyd Wright called the grid a "man trap of gigantic dimensions."
- In his essay on New York called "Manhattan: The Great American Desert," French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that "amid the numerical anonymity of streets and avenues, I am simply anyone, anywhere, since one place is so like another. I am never astray, but always lost."
Piet Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43) is "an optical vibration that jumps from intersection to intersection like traffic on the streets of New York."Credit: public domain; the picture is part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
- In his 1987 book Delirious New York, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas called it "the most courageous act of prediction on Western civilization."
- Earlier, his fellow Dutchman, the artist Piet Mondrian, had transferred his admiration for the vibrancy of the grid to canvas, as Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43).
- The Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly called it "the best manifestation of American pragmatism in the creation of urban form."
- Hilary Ballon, curator of "The Greatest Grid" on the occasion of its bicentennial in 2011, said that "New York's street system creates such transparency and accessibility that the grid serves as metaphor for the openness of New York itself."
- "It may not be every urban planner's beau ideal, but as a machine for urban living, the grid is pretty perfect," said economist Edward Glaeser.
- Not all French philosophers hated Manhattan. "This is the purpose of New York's geometry," wrote Roland Barthes: "that each individual should be poetically the owner of the capital of the world."
Welcome to / Bienvenue à Haussmanhattan
It's doubtful whether it was Barthes' words that spurred Mr. Cooper to devise his web tool; but thanks to ExtendNY, every place on earth is now a poetic extension of the capital of the world.
For another example of Manhattan's global appeal, check out Haussmanhattan, a visual project by architect/photographer Luis Fernandes that mashes up the early 20th-century architectures of New York and Paris, after the latter's renovation by Georges-Eugène Haussmann.
Manhattan's Flatiron Building fits in well at the pointier end of the Île de la Cité at the center of Paris. Credit: Haussmanhattan, by Luis Fernandes.
Check out ExtendNY here. For a slightly less ambitious plan to extend New York, check out Strange Maps #486: The Failed Plan to Build a "Really Greater New York".
Strange Maps #1087
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
A "seafood mafia" is plying the waters between India and Sri Lanka to satisfy China's appetite for an increasingly rare delicacy.
- Long a delicacy in China and East Asia, sea cucumbers are now also becoming a rarity worldwide.
- India has outlawed the trade, inaugurated a marine reserve, and put together a law enforcement task force.
- But the trade remains legal in Sri Lanka, which has become the hub for widespread "seafood laundering."
Adam's (or Rama's) Bridge between India (left) and Sri Lanka, as captured from the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1994.Credit: NASA, public domain.
The string of limestone islands slung between India and Sri Lanka was once a bridge built by Rama to retrieve his wife held hostage on the island; or, it was crossed by Adam on his flight from Eden — depending on which epic you prefer.
To the north, the shallows of the Palk Bay eventually become the Bay of Bengal. To the south, the Gulf of Mannar is the antechamber of the Indian Ocean. Formerly fertile fishing grounds, both bodies of water are now hotbeds of a relatively recent kind of marine-based misdeed: sea cucumber crime.
Crimes against sea cucumbers
As this map indicates, the number of criminal incidents in both India and Sri Lanka involving sea cucumbers has increased from no more than eight in 2015 to no less than 58 in 2020. In other words: it's a crime spree!
While most cases are concentrated on either side of Rama's (or Adam's) Bridge, the most recent wave has also touched Lakshadweep, the cluster of small islands that constitutes one of the union territories of India to the west of its mainland (and on the left on this map).
Like their terrestrial namesakes, sea cucumbers are tubular creatures. But that's where the comparison ends. Sea cucumbers are animal, not vegetal. Some grow up to six feet long. And while you can get a land cucumber for under a dollar at the supermarket, a kilo of sea cucumbers will easily set you back hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
Also known as sea slugs or sea leeches, sea cucumbers are a family of about 1,450 different species worldwide and are cousins to sea stars, sand dollars, and other echinoderms. Eyeless and limbless, they do have a mouth and an anus, and these they put to good use: by recycling waste into nutrients, they excrete key ingredients (to the tune of five Eiffel Towers' worth per reef per year) for coral reefs and help slow the acidification of the oceans.
For centuries, sea cucumbers have also been a sought-after delicacy and used as a dubious medicinal ingredient in China and Southeast Asia. Sea cucumbers are eaten dried, fried, pickled, or raw; as an accompaniment to Chinese cabbage or shiitake mushrooms; spiced and mixed with meat or other seafood; and used in soups, stews, and stir-fries. In traditional medicine, they're believed to help against arthritis, impotence, cancer, and frequent urination. They're also used in oils, creams, tinctures, and cosmetics.
An exploding sea cucumber market
In the past, sea cucumbers were the preserve of the very rich, who presented each other with ornate boxes of the luxury product in dried form. However, the burgeoning of China's middle classes since the 1980s has led to an exponential increase in demand, with ripple effects all over the world.
In the 1980s, a kilo of sea cucumbers (or bêche-de-mer or trepang, if you're into the whole culinary nomenclature thing) would set you back about $70. Now, it's closer to $300 and up to $3,500 for the rarer species — for example the Japanese sea cucumber, whose spikes make it look like a dragon.
Since then, global populations of the most expensive species have dropped by as much as 60 percent. As the net gets emptier, it is cast wider. From 1996 to 2011, the number of countries exporting sea cucumbers rose from 35 to 83. But the sea cucumber populations simply can't handle that much strain. In the sea cucumber fields off Yucatan, for example, yields dropped by 95 percent from 2012 to 2014. And between 2000 and 2016, standing stocks of various sea cucumber species near the Egyptian Red Sea port of Abu Ghosoun fell by 87 percent due to overfishing.
The sea cucumber crime wave has increased, both in numbers and area, now also reaching Lakshadweep (in the west).Credit: Phelps Bondaroff/Katapult Magazin, reproduced with kind permission.
The seafood mafia
As sea cucumbers get rarer, they get more valuable, which in turn encourages more illegal fishing. The average global price went up by 17 percent from 2011 to 2016. That drives the competition for the remaining specimens to dangerous heights — or rather, depths. According to the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute in Kochi (Kerala, India), the species dwelling in shallow waters have been depleted to such an extent that divers are now targeting those in deeper waters. Without proper gear and training, that is potentially deadly. And not just in Indian waters. Back in Yucatan, at least 40 divers have lost their lives harvesting sea cucumbers, most from decompression sickness.
The situation in the waters off India and Sri Lanka is complicated by both countries' different legal approaches to sea cucumber scarcity. In 2001, India banned the trade and export of sea cucumbers. As per Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, they now enjoy the same level of protection as India's lions and tigers.
Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, which has seen its sea cucumber grounds to the south and east collapse and shrink to just the northern side of the island, fishing for sea cucumbers remains legal but is subject to licenses to try to prevent overexploitation.
Having a legal market for sea cucumbers right next to an illegal one offers the "seafood mafia" two lucrative courses of action. First, harvest the dwindling stock of sea cucumbers right from under the noses of the Sri Lankan divers and fishermen. Second, smuggle the illegally caught ones from India into Sri Lanka, where they can be sold as if they were caught legally — a form of "seafood laundering," if you will.
As the map shows, both countries are stepping up their efforts against sea cucumber crime. Moreover, in 2020, Lakshadweep inaugurated the Dr. K.K. Mohammed Koya Sea Cucumber Conservation Reserve. Centered on the Cheripanyi Reef, an uninhabited atoll, the 239-km2 (149-mi2) reserve is the first of its kind in the world.
The union territory also set up a Sea Cucumber Protection Task Force, which has seized considerable amounts of illegally harvested sea cucumbers, including a haul of 1,716 creatures weighing a total of 882 kg (almost a ton), which could have netted as much as 42.6 million rupees ($854,000) on the market.
Save the sea cucumbers!
While conservation efforts are commendable, the increasing scarcity and rising prices of sea cucumbers will continue to prove irresistible to the seafood mafia. There is some hope in aquaculture, with projects underway in China and elsewhere. However, only a small share of sea cucumber larvae make it into adulthood, a process that can last up to six years.
Sea cucumbers recently also have appeared on the radar of multinational pharmaceutical companies. It may yet turn out that some of their reputed medicinal qualities are more than just folk tales, and some chemicals they contain could help treat cancer and joint pain. It remains to be seen whether this additional source of attention will be a lifeline for the sea cucumbers or the kiss of death.
The world's first sea cucumber reserve in Lakshadweep, off India.Credit: Government of India, Union Territory of Lakshadweep, Department of Environment & Forest.
For more great maps, and to improve your German, check out Katapult Magazin (partially available in English).
Original data for the Katapult map from a paper by Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, titled Sea cucumber crime in India and Sri Lanka during the period 2015–2020.
Strange Maps #1086
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cartography is serious business in Switzerland — but once in a while, the occasional map gag slips through.
- The Swiss are not known for their sense of humor, but perhaps we've not been looking hard enough.
- Over the decades, Swiss cartographers have sprinkled plenty of "Easter eggs" across otherwise serious maps.
- The oldest one, a naked lady, has been removed — but the marmot, the haunted monk, and others are still there.
Swiss humor. Now there's two words you don't often see together. In fact, Google Trends lists zero occurrences of the phrase between 2004 and now. Even "German humor" produces a graph (albeit a rather flat one). But not only is there some evidence that Swiss comedy does exist, it might just be that being well-hidden is kind of its thing. Find it and laugh. Or don't, and the joke's on you!
That evidence, as it turns out, is cartographic. The Swiss Federal Office of National Topography, Swisstopo for short, is a decidedly serious institution. Many serious things — time and money, for starters — depend on the accuracy of its maps. In the case of its mountain maps, actual lives hang in the balance. Yet in decades past, the austere institute's maps have served as the canvas for a series of in-jokes among its more fun-loving cartographers.
These mapmakers played a game of wits against their superiors, the ones whose duties included checking the maps before publication. Over the years, the cartographers managed to slip in — on maps that were supposed to contain only dry topographic facts — drawings of an airplane, a fish, a marmot, a mountaineer, a face, a spider, even of a naked lady. Once discovered, these humorous additions were removed without pardon. At least, that's how it used to be.
Either way, it doesn't matter. Swisstopo is defeated by its own thoroughness. Its map page allows you not just to zoom in and out of the most recent maps but also to browse historical maps and thus revisit these "Easter eggs" that prove, however obliquely, the existence of a sense of humor among the mountains of Switzerland.
The plane that disappeared — twice
The craft's first appearance on the 1994 map (circled, left), and its absence on the most recent map (2018).Credit: Swisstopo
In 1994, an anonymous cartographer at Swisstopo included an airplane in this map of Kloten, the international airport of Zürich. While it may seem only natural for airplanes to show up at airports, that is normally not the case on topographic maps.
The error remained undetected until a revision of the map in 2000, when the offending craft was erased. However, the plane reappeared on the 2007 map at exactly the same spot – the tarmac before Gate A – only to vanish again in 2013.
The Naked Lady of Künten
The abstract figure appeared in 1954 (circled, left), but she was clearly inspired by the area's actual topography (2018, right).Credit: Swisstopo
Possibly the oldest topographical Easter egg, and the current record holder for the longest-lasting one, is the Naked Lady of Künten. First appearing on the topographical map of 1954, the reclining figure wasn't discovered until 2012. Admittedly, without head, arms and feet, she is hard to spot. Her odalisque-like forms are suggested by the curvature of a stream and an elongated green patch indicating vegetation.
The world — or at least that bit between Eggenrain and Sunnenberg — was put to right again in the 2013 edition of the local map. But it's still easy to see how that particular distribution of topographic features could have inspired a lonely 1950s cartographer to pencil in something that wasn't there.
A Swiss fish in a French lake
In 1980, a giant fish appeared at the southern end of a French lake (left). By 1986, it had been caught (right, the 2018 map).Credit: Swisstopo
It was never discovered who reshaped the aforementioned landscape feature into a female form. But the younger generation of Easter-eggers is known by name.
In 1980, Werner Leuenberger even went international. He drew a fish at the southern end of the Lac de Remoray, a small lake just across the Franco-Swiss border. The fish felt right at home among the lines marking out the area as swampy. However, it was caught five years later, and has been left off the map since 1986.
Attack of the giant Eiger spider
This giant spider (left, 1981 map) survived for half a dozen years near the top of the Eiger (spider-free, 2018 map).Credit: Swisstopo
In 1981, Othmar Wyss inserted a spider near the top of the Eiger, one of Switzerland's most iconic Alpine summits, at a location actually known by mountaineers as quite dangerous.
The giant spider survived for six years in the freezing cold. The snowfield that made up the spider's body — and made the northern approach of the Eiger so hard — has apparently also disappeared in the intervening years.
Haunted monk trapped in a map
The 1979 map (left), a year before the addition of the eerie face (right).Credit: Swisstopo
A rock formation on a slope of the Harder Kulm, a mountain near Interlaken, looks like a face. This is the Hardermandli, or "little Harder man." Legend has it that he was a lecherous monk, condemned to look down on the place where he chased a girl to her death.
Cartographer Friedrich Siegfried extended the curse to cartography, for since 1980 and until this day, the Hardermandli also lives on the map.
Beats waiting for the Italians
Another case of a map gag surviving to this day. Left, the unadorned mountain flank on a 1996 map; right, the mountaineer as he can be seen climbing toward Switzerland now. Credit: Swisstopo
For the 1997 map update, Mr. Siegfried etched the likeness of a mountaineer on the Italian side of a mountain slope near Val Müstair. Reportedly, he got tired of waiting on the data for the area, which his Italian counterparts were slow to provide, so he found a creative way to plug the gap. Topography, like nature, also abhors a vacuum, apparently.
Swisstopo seems to have taken to heart the cartographer's slight against his Italian colleagues, because the mountaineer still appears on the contemporary map, in 1:100,000 scale at least.
The marmot of the Aletsch glacier
What the area of the Aletsch glacier looked like until 2010 (left), and how it's changed since (right, 2018 map). Both maps 1:25,000.Credit: Swisstopo
Swisstopo's most famous map gag — or at least the most recent one to be revealed, in 2014 — is the marmot, which has been hiding in a rock near the Aletsch glacier since it was put there by cartographer Paul Ehrlich in 2011, shortly before his retirement. The marmot is still there, and perhaps it and its fellow map oddities may be allowed to survive.
On its website, Swisstopo says that "these hidden drawings do not affect the accuracy and level of detail of our maps, nor on the safety and security of their users. They merely add a note of mystery to our nation's maps."
Are there any other gags hidden in the official maps of Switzerland? Swisstopo itself claims it has no knowledge of any other cartographic oddities. But knowing and not telling, that's exactly the kind of thing they would find funny, isn't it?
Strange Maps #1085
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
A 19th-century surveying mistake kept lumberjacks away from what is now Minnesota's largest patch of old-growth trees.
- In 1882, Josias R. King made a mess of mapping Coddington Lake, making it larger than it actually is.
- For decades, Minnesota loggers left the local trees alone, thinking they were under water.
- Today, the area is one of the last remaining patches of old-growth forest in the state.
Vanishingly rare, but it exists: a patch of Minnesota forest untouched by the logger's axe.Credit: Dan Alosso on Substack and licensed under CC-BY-SA
The trees here tower a hundred feet above the forest floor — a ceiling as high as in prehistory and vanishingly rare today. That's because no logger's axe has ever touched these woods.
Pillars of the green cathedral
As you walk among the giant pillars of this green cathedral, you might think you're among the redwood trees of California. But those are 1,500 miles (2,500 km) away. No, these are the red and white pines of the "Lost Forty" in Minnesota. This is the largest single surviving patch of old-growth forest in the state and a fair stretch beyond. And it's all thanks to a surveying error.
Despite its name, the Lost Forty Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) is actually 144 acres (0.58 km2) in total. Still, it's an easily overlooked part of the Chippewa National Forest, which sprawls across 666,000 acres (2,700 km2) of north-central Minnesota. And that – being easily overlooked – is kind of this area's superpower.
In the 1820s, when European-Americans arrived in what is now Minnesota, they found about 20 million acres (80,000 km2) of prairie and 30 million acres (120,000 km2) of forest. Two centuries on, both ecosystems largely have been depleted. Fewer than 100,000 acres (400 km2) of natural prairie remain, and fewer than 18 million acres (73,000 km2) of forest.
And today's woods are different. They're not just younger; the original pine stands have been harvested and largely replaced with aspen and birch.
To the moon and back
White pine especially was in heavy demand during the lumbering boom that had Minnesota in its grip by the 1840s — a boom driven by an insatiable demand for building materials and supercharged by the steam that powered the saws and the rails that transported the goods to market.
The two decades flanking the turn of the 20th century were the golden age of lumbering in Minnesota. At any given time, 20,000 lumberjacks were at work in the woods, a further 20,000 in the sawmills, and another 20,000 in other lumber-related industries.
Production peaked in the year 1900, with over 2.3 billion board-feet (5.4 million m3) of lumber harvested from the state's forests. That was enough to build 600,000 two-story houses or a boardwalk nine feet (2.7 m) wide, circling Earth along the equator. From then on, yields declined, albeit slightly at first. By 1910, however, the first lumber operations started packing up and moving on to the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.
Minnesota's era of Big Timber symbolically came to an end with the closure of the Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Company in 1929. At that time, a century's worth of lumbering in Minnesota had produced 68 billion board-feet (160 million m3) of pine — enough to fill a line of boxcars all the way to the moon and halfway back again.
Now spool back a few decades. It's 1882, and the Public Land Survey is measuring, mapping, and quantifying the wilderness of northern Minnesota — and its as yet unharvested north woods. Setting out from the small settlement of Grand Rapids, Josias Redgate King leads a three-man survey team 40 miles north, into the backwoods.
Mapping error becomes cartographic fact
Their job, specifically, is to chart the area between Moose and Coddington Lakes. And they mess up. Perhaps it's the lousy November weather, the desolate swampy terrain, or both. But they make a serious mistake: their survey stretches Coddington Lake half a mile further northwest than it actually exists. As happens surprisingly often with mapping mistakes, the error becomes cartographic fact, undisputed for decades.
The area is marked on all maps as being under water and is therefore excluded from the considerations of logging companies. Only in 1960 is the area re-surveyed and the error corrected. But by then, as we have seen, Big Timber has moved on from the Gopher State.
Map of the "Lost Forty" SNA (top right). Bordering it on the south is the Chippewa National Forest Unique Biological Area. Credit: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Incidentally, Josias R. King was more than the mismapper of Coddington Lake. He has another, and rather better, claim to fame. When the Civil War broke out, Minnesota was the first state to offer volunteers to fight for the Union. At Fort Snelling, Mr. King rushed to the front of a line of men waiting to sign up.
So it was said, with some justification, that he was the first volunteer for the Union in all of the country. During the war, he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. After, he returned to his civilian job, surveying. Because of his credentials as the Union's first volunteer, he was asked to pose for the face of the bronze soldier on the Civil War monument which was unveiled at St. Paul's Summit Park in 1903.
The loggers' loss is nature's gain
But back to the Lost Forty. The loggers' loss — hence the name — is actually nature's gain. The SNA's crowning glory, literally, is nearly 32 acres of designated old-growth red pine and white pine forest, in two stands, partially extending into the Chippewa National Forest proper. (In fact, much of the mismapped area seems to fall within the Chippewa National Forest Unique Biological Area adjacent to the Lost Forty.) Old-growth forests represent less than 2 percent — and designated old-growth forests less than 0.25 percent — of all of Minnesota's forests.
The oldest pine trees in the Lost Forty are between 300 and 400 years old, close to their maximum natural life span, which is up to 500 years. Similar pines in other parts of the National Forest are harvested at between 80 and 150 years for pulp and lumber. As a result, the pines in the Lost Forty are not only higher than most of the surrounding woods but also bigger with a diameter of between 22 and 48 inches (55 to 122 cm). One of the biggest has a circumference of 115 inches (2.9 m).
With their craggy bark, massive trunks, and dizzying height, these trees look like the ancient beings they are. And they exist in a cluster the size of which is unique for the Midwest. There's nothing lost about these trees; in fact, it's rather the reverse. Perhaps the area should more precisely be called the "Last Forty."
At 52 feet, only half as high as an old-growth white pine: Josias R. King's likeness atop the Soldier's Monument in Summit Park, St. Paul.Credit: Library of Congress
Get a good look at the Lost Forty in this video of the local hiking trail.
Strange Maps #1084
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.