In early August, Wired.com featured “Maps of unrealized city plans reveal what might have been”. Written by Joe Hanson, the post offered examples of several historical maps, including:
- A San Francisco highway plan from 1948
- 1945 plans for a mass transit extension in Boston
- In New York, the 1929 plan for a Second Avenue subway
- Also in New York, a 1966 plan to straighten out downtown
- A 1941 plan for the area around the Capitol in Washington, DC
- A plan from 1925 to expand mass transit around Los Angeles
The maps are drawn from a collection built by Andrew Lynch, who shares these and other maps on Hyperreal Cartography & The Unrealized City, a Tumblr site. Lynch tells Hanson:
Old plans are always so optimistic. There are these beautiful, sometimes utopian visions of what these cities could be.
I like maps, and for that reason alone I’d be happy to write about them. But Hanson makes two observations that are useful for publishers retooling for a digital age. The first captures a modern perspective on some of these older plans:
Of course, while a car for every home and a highway through every neighborhood seemed charming at the time, such an idea would make a modern urban planner shudder. One era’s Utopia is another’s hell.
Hanson continues with an equally important point: these maps “serve as a reminder that every city is built on the past while keeping an eye on the future.”
It’s not useful to reduce every example to a set of workflow analogs, but the parallels here are helpful. Decisions made in a print-based era are the equivalent of an earlier Utopia, when optimizing for a single format made sense.
For traditional publishers, workflows are too often that “city built on the past”, limiting our view of what is possible. Once the grid is laid out, the highway built, the buildings erected, it becomes hard to reimagine our future.
That’s where these visionary maps, “an eye on the future”, serve a purpose. But even that purpose has to be questioned from time to time.
The 1945 plan for a mass transit system around Boston actually came to pass. The conception, though, was still limited: it assumed that traffic would naturally flow into and out of the city. The technology corridors around Route 128 were a generation away, and the road that supported suburban traffic soon became taxed beyond salvation.
That leads me to a third observation: renewal never ends. That’s true of cities, and it’s true of publishing workflows.