Mapping the City: A Stranger's Guide

How to Read a Map

Who is creating the map and under what circumstances?

Cartographers, especially earlier in mapping history, rarely created works alone. Individual patrons, the state, and even the contemporary market can influence the creation of a map and what it shows. Vulnerable to censorship, used as propaganda, able to wield imperialist intentions, and readily manipulable for any sort or purpose, every map falls subject to some sort of distortion. Even though readers often take maps as scientific, objective representations of geography, maps act as subjective rhetoric - telling stories, conveying intentions, making arguments, and carrying relevant messages, and the authors and contributors must be analyzed in such a context.

What does the map depict? What borders does it draw?

Geographic maps also construct political entities. By creating borders, the thin lines and colors on maps can separate the United States from Canada while uniting England and India. For example, French and British maps of early colonial America show conflicting claims of American lands, each assuming an inherent truth in their depictions. Maps can make claims about certain regions through borders and themes.

How is the area mapped?

Every map uses a scale that affects how its subject is perceived. A world map of poster size, due to the massive geographic area it presents, cannot show as much detail as a poster size city map. Because smaller scaled maps have less space to show features than larger scaled maps, the smaller scaled maps appear to have fewer important features than larger scaled maps. Technology and methods of representation also add a subtle underlayer of map messages. More technologically advanced countries can display power through satellite and GIS -produced maps, even though the maps might not necessarily be any more accurate than those produced through more traditional methods in a less advanced country.

What is on the map?

Symbols also contribute to the subjective nature of maps. Symbols can perpetuate social structures, and by showing readily available resources and conduits to exploration and further conquering of territories and inhabitants, maps often served important purposes for imperial conquests. Maps also leave off, or “silence” aspects of regions, and often times the features they silence can speak just as much as the included features. For example, maps of the United States often depict state borders and state capitals, however, for many states the state capital is neither the largest nor the most important city, whether economically, culturally, historically, etc. The symbols on maps usually create a larger theme of the map on the whole, and these themes can affirm practices from feudalism to segregation.

How is the area projected?

Different map projections each carry different implications for how it projects an area. Since it is impossible to project a three dimensional world on a flat surface, mapmakers must choose which projection will best serve their purpose. In addition to projections, mapmakers also choose the centricity of the map. Maps from the United States typically project the Atlantic Ocean or the US as the central area of the world. Conversely, mapmakers from China or Europe might be more ethnocentrically inclined to project their respective geographic area as the central area of the world.


Cumming, William and the Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography. British Maps of Colonial America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Harley, J. B. The New Nature of Maps. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Morrison, Joel. “The Revolution of Cartography in the 1980s.” In Cartography, Past, Present, and Future, edited by D.W. Rhind and D.R.F. Taylor, 169-185. London: Elsevier Applied Science Publishers, 1989.

Wood, Denis. Rethinking the Power of Maps. New York: The Guilford Press, 2010.