Map Critique: How Map filters daily characters to make a fake utopia

Heming Zhang

In 2016 Beijing Design Week, one of the main exhibition area is Dashilar, which is also a famous renewal project from 2011. Built during the Qing density, it has been an important commercial and residential district in Beijing. However, because of its relatively poor physical living condition and very high population density, Dashilar has become a target of many developers and business owners who want to dedicate the area solely to tourism.

2Understanding this background, let’s take a look at the Dashilar online map. This map is designed as an interactive tool for tourists who may be attracted by Beijing Design Week or researchers who want to figure out what kinds of new elements appeared after urban renewal. Firstly, when opened this map, I was surprised by its beauty and detail. But the question came to my mind was: did this map really show, with precision, every construction in Dashilar? Then I opened another online map to compare several large buildings and their surroundings. Finally, I confirmed that this map, incredibly, includes each building in this neighborhood.

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Secondly, as a map whose audience is composed mostly of tourists, however, this interactive map does not prove very functional. With every store and exhibition marked on the map, many huge icons overlap together, and, because of their sizes, it is hard to distinguish which constructions they refer to. The only way to identify a location is to put the mouse on the top of each icon, then a window pops up with a photo and property’s name, which is actually very helpful in teaching tourists the appearance of their destinations.

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Although it does have an interactive bar for users to filter information, its functionality is again hampered by the icons’ size. To match the logo to the specific construction, users have to zoom in, so the map will show in a very large scale, which may lead to a feeling of “I forget where I am”. Because the selected base map was apparently chosen to feature the detail of buildings, the map filters a lot of indigenous characters such as landmarks and the color of facades. Even trees can provide visitors with some clues; those characters are very important in helping the audience to understand this neighborhood, and to figure out their location within it.

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Thirdly, there are too many basic cartographic errors: there is no scale ruler or  compass, and the map lacks basic introductions to the surrounding environment. Users can discern the location of this project only from the subway station nearby; otherwise, people have to check out the previous page on the website, which describes the background of this neighborhood. In addition, if users open the layer of suggested routes, they cannot be closed. The only means of escape is to refresh the website. In addition, there are two derivates of this online map: one is the physical map for Beijing Design Week’s exhibitions, which has a more carefully designed layout and includes every necessary element; another is an online app of Dashilar, which provides street-views for certain routes. In both products, the user cannot choose different layers, and the maps show only that information that relates to the Dashilar Project, but not to the Dashilar neighborhood.

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The last thing I want to critique is the purpose of this base map. From my point of view, by using cartoon-style models, this base map emphasizes the traditional Chinese characteristic, especially tiles. This drawing method gives me a feeling of “fakeness.” Everything feels like standardized “adorable-ness.” As a person who is not familiar with Dashilar, I would be confused if I read only this one map during my trip there. However, local residents may understand this map easily, because they know each alley, house and yard. Despite the fact that it indeed reflects each building in Dashilar, the whole beautiful isolated map actually creates a utopia, which offers no narrative about common people’s trifling matters inside, but functions more as an advertisement for tourists and business owners who want to move into Dashilar. It is more about attraction and the symbolic economy, less about service. If this map were to appear everywhere, it could, as a powerful medium, accelerate displacement in Dashilar.

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To improve this map, I suggest to abandon the monochrome scheme and tile detail, and instead to use light grey to represent roofs, light yellow to highlight streets. In addition, the cartographers can use multiple colors to show which constructions are shops or hotels, and highlight several trees to provide more indigenous characters as clues for tourists. For information of exhibition, the map-makers can still use icons with numbers to separate them from the base map, and they can remove the exhibition option when the show closes. I’d also add fundamental elements such as a scale ruler, compass, and a map of the surrounding environment.

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What this map inspires for my prototype is I can provide more characters for both pedestrians and audiences. This 3D map from Google can be the base map for on-street interviews. Since not everyone can read maps and remember the exact situation of each street, 3D models can recall more personal experience and provide more context for pedestrians. Meanwhile, I can combine the 3D map with narratives of people on the street, which will also make more sense to my audience. They can quickly understand the neighborhood fabric and have a better understanding of locals’ statements.