Ph.D. Student Geoff Boeing’s Minimalistic Maps Speak Volumes About Cities’ DNA
By Michelle Robertson
19 June 2017
Photo: A square-mile map of San Francisco, courtesy of Geoff Boeing
Downtown San Francisco is a tale of two street grids. They converge on Market Street, or in Herb Caen's words, "That obtuse angle that no traffic plan can ever solve."
Geoff Boeing, a Ph.D student at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design (City & Regional Planning, ‘21), took a slice of the city and mapped it, visually demonstrating the odd convergence of two street grids. Blocks on the right of Market Street are rectangular, while those on the left appear square.
Without this background, one might assumes Boeing's map was an art project. Rather, it's a parcel of his dissertation, in which he used Python programming to create stunningly simple visualizations of city maps.
According to Boeing, the theme of his work is to characterize "urban form through a city street network" by looking at the "shape, texture, and connectedness of cities by their circulation networks."
In other words, city streets speak volumes about a city's DNA and the daily lives of its citizens.
The square-mile visualizations, which were inspired by the hand-drawn maps of renowned urban designer Allan Jacobs, clearly reveal a city's design paradigm, as well as its evolution through the years.
"It's also easy to see how cities are oriented toward different cultures or lifestyles," Boeing added.
Like many urban centers in the 19th and 20th centuries, Boeing says San Francisco was "designed around the prevailing technologies of the time" – streetcars, horse-drawn carriages, and pedestrians (certainly, modern traffic-weary drivers would agree).
San Francisco is an odd case, however, as those who traverse its steep streets have likely noticed. Most cities with a hilly topography employ circular networks, wherein the streets bend around the terrain. San Francisco's grid is laid out irrespective of its terrain — "It's gone down as a curiosity in planning," says Boeing — hence the steep hills.
Like its neighbor across the Bay, Oakland is built on a "fine-grained" grid, meaning the blocks are relatively short and densely placed. The suburbs of the East Bay are another story. According to Boeing, they were planned with a 20th-century "loops and lollipops" sensibility, featuring looping roadways and cul-de-sacs to make room for cars, backyards, and other family-friendly accommodations.
Besides illustrating the inherent differences among city street grids, Boeing hopes the maps inspire conversation about urban planning.
"It's so easy to take street networks for granted," he said. "The city was not some inevitable process, but a series of human decisions over decades and millennia."