Mapping for the Urban Humanities: A Summer Institute
A summer intensive course on digital mapping for faculty.

Mapping for the Urban Humanities is an intensive workshop on digital mapping designed for humanities faculty and advanced graduate students at Columbia University and offered through the Center for Spatial Research at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation with support from the Office of the Dean of Humanities. In 2016 and 2017 the course was taught collaboratively by Dare Brawley, Leah Meisterlin, and Eric Glass. In 2018 the course will be taught by Michelle McSweeney and Buck Wanner.

The syllabus for the course is available via GitHub here.

This hands-on workshop is intended to broaden and transform the disciplinary locations within which data analysis takes place. This workshop introduces participating faculty to open-source mapping software, QGIS, to methods of data collection and creation, and to approaches and concepts in critical spatial analysis. With support from the course’s three instructors, participating faculty will incorporate newly-acquired spatial analysis skills into course assignments and syllabi. The ultimate aim of the summer intensive is to equip faculty with tools to transform their humanities courses into places where students learn spatial data analytical skills and apply them to humanistic questions. 

The course condenses topics from a semester long introductory GIS course into a two-week hands-on intensive and one-week practicum. Skills based tutorials draw on diverse datasets relevant to investigations in the urban humanities, including: CEISEN’s Gridded Population of the World, UN Population Division national population estimates, the National Historic Geographic Information System’s historic census records, historical rail lines from the University of Nebraska’s Digital History Project, Reference USA records for music industry businesses, American Community Survey demographic data, New York State Board of Education records of schools, and scanned historical maps from Columbia University’s map collection. Course tutorials and lectures have been developed concurrently and will expose faculty to critical approaches in GIS, introductory spatial analysis methods, and modes of data creation.

Structure and Rhythm

Over the course of the first two weeks, participants learn critical methods in digital mapping and data collection through the use of open-source software (QGIS). The course meets for 4.5 hours each day in an intensive workshop and lab format. The third week focuses on how to incorporate newly acquired skills into course assignments and syllabi and on bolstering relevant skills development, using the syllabi submitted with the application to the course as a starting point. During the third week participation is optional and is scheduled as individual skill and syllabus workshop sessions. 

Departments Represented in 2016

Anthropology, Architecture, Art History and Archaeology, Classics, Heyman Center for the Humanities, History, Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, Jewish Studies, Journalism, Language Resource Center, Latin American and Iberian Cultures, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies

The courses that faculty have workshopped during the course cut across a wide spectrum of topics including titles such as: "Bombay/Mumbai and its Urban Imaginaries," "Democratizing Architecture," "Reading the multilingual city: Linguistic landscapes and urban multilingualism," "The Greek city-state in world-history 1000 BCE-400 CE," "Geopolitics." 

Syllabi developed through the course are available below. This will continue to be updated as these courses are introduced into the curriculum.

Departments Represented in 2017

Architecture, Classics, East Asian Languages and Cultures, Economics, English and Comparative Literature, History, Real Estate Development, Urban Planning, Teachers College. 

Titles of courses and research projects that participants workshopped during the course included: "The Great Syrian Revolt of 1925: A History of Biocultural Diversity and International Politics in the Post-Ottoman Era," "Harlem Stories: Archives and Digital Tools and Our Wadleigh: The Complex Struggle for Educational Justice in Harlem," "Mapping Jewish Life in Eighteenth-Century Amsterdam," "Mapping Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," "Thessaloniki Down the Ages: a City and its Many Voices," "Architecture of Colonial Modernity," "Foreigners in the 15th – 18th Century European City."

Mapping for Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities
An introduction to mapping theory and geographic information systems tools.

This course provides an introduction to mapping theory and geographic information systems tools. Through the use of open-source GIS software (qGIS) and open data (OpenStreetMap) students will learn how to critically use mapping tools and geographic data for spatial analysis and representation. In this course, students will work through a series of web tutorials and hands-on in-class exercises to gain a better understanding of how these tools and data can be leveraged to analyze, represent and study past or present urban phenomena. In addition to using existing data, students will also be able to create or bring their own sets of data and questions from other courses and will be able to work with these in our class.

No prior experience in mapping, design or data analysis is required for this course. The course is open students in GSAPP and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and others by permission.

The full syllabus is available here. 

General Topics
  • Basic mapping concepts and techniques
  • Data types
  • Census data
  • Metadata
  • Data creation
  • Geocoding
  • Georeferencing
  • Vector and raster data
  • Webmapping and crowdsourced data
Spring 2016

The Spring of 2016 iteration of this course had twenty one students from seventeen different departments across the University. 

Fall 2016

This course will be offered again in the Fall 2016 semester with course number A4122.

NYRP - The Haven Project
Analysis of New York City neighborhoods according to specific health, demographic and environmental metrics.
  • Browse by Initiative

New York Restoration Project (NYRP) is developing a master plan to renovate a network of open spaces in Mott Haven and Port Morris in the South Bronx. Over the next several years, NYRP will fund the renovations and build them. The project aims to demonstrate measurable health and social outcomes resulting from an improved physical environment at the neighborhood scale. For example, one hypothesis is that by improving access to Randall’s Island, residents’ physical activity will increase with a correlative decrease in health care costs. As a first step, we will capture baseline health data and quality of life indicators which we will track as the project progresses.

This project includes maps and charts that analyze and compare different parts of New York City according to specific health, demographic and environmental metrics. 

We used three types of measurements:

  • Environmental, which include tree and grass coverage, pollution levels (PM 2.5) and walking distance to recreational spaces measuring 6 acres or more.
  • Health, including asthma rates, self-reported exercise in the previous 30 days, and overweight percentages.
  • Demographics, which include percentage of the population living below the poverty line, percentage of the population younger than 18 and 65 or older, and percentage of the population having attained only high-school or less.

Pollution levels (P.M. 2.5)

Percentage of grass and tree coverage

Walking distance to large open spaces

Percentage of people who have had asthma

Percentage of the population with only high-school level education or less

Project Team
Name Project Role
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Change By Design
Jun 25, 2012 — Spatial Information Design Lab

We live in a data-rich world. But to drive lasting social change, data must be transformed and communicated to influencers and decision-makers in compelling, new ways. In a daylong conference on June 30, 2012 the Ford Foundation brought together leaders in design, social innovation, art and journalism to think creatively about digital storytelling and cutting-edge tools to visualize, map and create narratives that inspire action.

See more here:

Watch Laura Kurgan's talk here:


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Laura Kurgan: Human geographies
Oct 01, 2009 — Laura Kurgan

Laura Kurgan spoke at the 2009 Pop Tech Conference. 

She presented the Million Dollar Blocks project as well as Exitin a talk titled "Human Geographies."

Watch the video here:


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Review of "Close Up at a Distance"
Oct 24, 2013 — Craig M. Dalton, Geographical Review

"Kurgan's Close up at a Distance is an ingenious and exciting push at the margins of what is possible to see and understand using satellite imagery, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The book is a review of and reflection on her provocative artistic and design projects using geotechnologies since the early 1990s."

Geographical Review, Volume 103Issue 4pages 584–587October 2013

Read More.

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Review of "Close up at a Distance."
Aug 24, 2013 — UrbanTick

"What do we see, when we see the world? In today's world transcended by digital technology and flooded with representations, models and mashups the question of 'what are we looking at?' becomes more important. The many layers of data and visualisations in many cases start clouding the subject or in some cases appears completely detached from it and develop a dynamic of their own. 

The kind of critiques are nothing new and have been heard through out the past decade. How perception is manipulated with information has been discussed for example in the book How to lie with Maps by H.J. de Blij , 1992. Here de Blij presents examples of representations and how they are used to favour certain aspects. Or also indeed The Power of Maps by Denis Wood, 1992, You are Here by Katharine Harmon, 2003 or the Atlas of Radical Cartography edited by Alexis Bhagat and Lize Mogel, 2008, to name a few of the recent cartography/mapping books of the recent years. 

In a new Zone Books publication Close up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology, and Politics Laura Kurgan presents her research work and offers a theoretical discussion on the usage and employment of representations."

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"Close Up at a Distance" Review in Society & Space
Aug 24, 2013 — Columba Peoples

Columba Peoples reviews Laura Kurgan's Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology and Politics in Society and Space

"Laura Kurgan’s Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology and Politics is an insightful and innovative book that defies straightforward classification, ‘poised’ as it is “at the intersection of art, architecture, activism and geography” (page 17). Its subject matter—satellite images, satellite mapping and remote-sensing images—is by now an established concern of critical geographical scholarship in particular (see, amongst others, Cosgrove 2001; Crampton 2008; Crampton 2010; della Dora 2012; Dodge and Perkins 2009). Readers familiar with that scholarship will doubtlessly recognise many of the issues and debates broached by Close Up at a Distance: over the military origins of satellite technologies, images and mapping and the extent to which this still imposes secrecy and restrictions on their availability; on the promise and perils of ‘participatory’ cartography and the ‘democratic’ potentialities this may or may not offer; and finally, whether and how the increasingly ubiquitous use of satellite images and mapping might “transform … our ways of seeing and experiencing space” (page 14). The distinctive feature of Kurgan’s work in addressing these issues, though, is that it rejects the proposition that scholars can or should simply evaluate and respond to these at a ‘critical distance’: “[W]e do not stand at a distance from these technologies, but are addressed by and embedded within them”, Kurgan argues. Hence, “Only through a certain intimacy with these technologies—an encounter with their opacities, their assumptions, their intended aims—can we begin to assess their full ethical and political stakes” (page 14)."

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"Prison Blocks" - Atlantic Magazine
Mar 01, 2009 — Laura Kurgan

The Atlantic published an article by Laura Kurgan on SIDL's work in New Orleans:

"Hurricane Katrina Displaced hundreds of thousands of New Orleans residents; as they’ve returned, their struggles to remake their lives and communities have been well chronicled. But smaller waves of displacement, followed by straggling return, have been washing through the city, largely unremarked, for many years. In 2003, upwards of 12,000 New Orleans–area residents left the city for prison; more than half were expected to return home within three years. This destructive cycle, interrupted by the storm, is slowly reasserting itself. 

Nationwide, an estimated two-thirds of the people who leave prison are rearrested within three years. A disproportionate number of them come from a few urban neighborhoods in big cities. Many states spend more than $1 million a year to incarcerate the residents of single blocks or small neighborhoods."

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