Professor Mark Whitehead, Aberystwyth University takes part in our #LoveMaps Campaign.
Why I don’t always love maps!
It is customary when writing a blog of this kind to begin with an account of one’s personal devotion to maps and the wider cartographic sciences (particularly when you are geographer by profession, as I am). However, if I am to be candid, I have never really been “in to maps”. I don’t collect Ordinance Survey sheets, nor do I spend a lot of time reading maps—I am even a little fuzzy about the particular virtues of different mapping projections. The invitation to write this series of blogs has thus involved a certain degree of soul searching, as I ponder why I am not always inspired by maps. Asking this question has inevitably also helped me articulate more clearly why at other times I find maps just about the most interesting things there are to read.
This blog focuses on a map sequence of the Birmingham and Black Country Conurbation. These three maps depict urban development in the West Midlands from the 19th Century through to 1962. When considered in isolation these maps are fairly unremarkable. The first map shows Birmingham as a small town, flanked on the north west by a series of isolated industrial communities including Wolverhampton, Bilston, and Walsall. Between these early industrial settlements are large tracts of open space and farmland. The second sheet shows Birmingham in the first half of the twentieth century, now much expanded and beginning to merge with Oldbury and Smethwick to the west and Erdington to the north east. By 1962 we find a fully-fledged, multi-centred urban agglomeration stretching down to communities as far south as Redditch and fully integrated with the industrial centres of the Black Country. These three maps chart the transformation of small urban communities (each probably no more than 2 miles in diameter) into a continuous agglomeration of some 15 miles in width. For me, this is when maps become most interesting.
I think one of the reasons I have never been a cartophile is because when taken in isolation maps can appear to offer very settled depictions of the human and physical worlds. As a Marxist geographer by training I have always been encouraged to think of the world, and its constituent parts, not as things, but rather as processes. This distinction between things and processes is captured nicely in the distinction between the individual maps of Birmingham and the Black Country and the sequence of three maps taken together. In isolation, each map provides only a static snapshot of urban geography in the West Midlands. But in sequence these maps offer insights into the processes of urbanization. These are processes of geographical change that appear to be connected to the emergence of modern industrial capitalism in the West Midlands that attracted ever more migrants to the emerging economies of the area. They are also processes that concern the emergence of suburbs and the often overlooked, but increasingly powerful, land economy of cities.
Each year I take my third-year urban geography students to Birmingham. I begin the field activities atop the Library of Birmingham from where it is possible to get a sense of the vast scale of this modern conurbation. This year, as ever, I will encourage them to think of the city less as a thing and more as a set of ongoing processes. When understood in this way, it is possible to connect the processes of industrial urbanization that began in Birmingham with the historically unparalleled rates of urbanization that are now evident in China, India and Nigeria at the moment. Now that is why I love maps.
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