Can Geography Be Radical?

(Photo: Norman B. Leventhal Map Center)

Guernica recently interviewed “radical geographer” Denis Wood about his work and the power of map (a topic we’ve touched on before). Here’s a particularly interesting excerpt:

But I’ve seen maps that I find completely terrifying. Maps of uranium mining and of various illnesses in the Navajo reservations—they’re just insane. They just make you furious. Bill Bunge’s map—which I still think is one of the great maps, the map of where white commuters in Detroit killed black children while going home from work—that’s a terrifying map, and that’s an amazing map. He knew that. They had to fight to get the data from the city. They had to use political pressure to get the time and the exact location of the accidents that killed these kids. They knew what they were looking for. I didn’t have anything to do with that project, so when I saw the map for the first time, it was like, “Oh my god.” It’s so powerful to see maps like that. That’s the power of maps, or one of the powers of maps: to make graphic—and at some level unarguable—some correlative truth. We all knew that people go to and from work. But to lay the two things together reveals something horrible.

(HT: The Daily Dish)

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. Andrew says:

    I think there might be something wrong with the parenthetical hyperlink…

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
    • Phil Persinger says:


      It’s a little scary, but I found that clicking on the Flickr map starts a full-screen slide show. Nice maps, but I’m too dense to see the direct connection between them and the interview w/ Denis Wood– except that they ARE maps…..

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  2. Joe J says:

    Mapping information is a powerful tool, it often helps show correlations which are not easily seen otherwise.
    One of the best and earliest examples of using mapping was from historic England. John the mid 1800s During an outbreak of cholera, he mapped the location of where people stricken by a disease worked and where they lived. These locations were centered on one water pump that was believed the source of the sickness.

    However with any powerful visual tool it can be easily misused to lead people down false paths.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0
    • James says:

      False paths, as for instance the race of people involved in traffic accidents. Now a map of the accidents (and times, etc) could be useful in identifying causes & finding ways to reduce the number of accidents, for instance improving intersections, teaching kids about looking both ways before crossing the street, etc. But what’s the point of categorizing by race, except to feed the preconceptions of those who like to blame everything on racism?

      Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3
      • Phil Persinger says:

        Hi there, James–

        For the Bill Bunge map in question, refer to Map 2.16 just a bit more than half-way down this page

        Wood is saying, I think, that maps are active constructs and not passive representations: they always purposefully made– whether consciously or not– and the purpose of an individual map has an unavoidable political aspect.

        There is a “race” dimension to Bunge’s accident map, but that’s not the same as “blaming everything on racism”– though Bunge seems to be enough of an outlier that your complaint may have some traction. Still, Bunge’s turf used to be Detroit and Detroit is what it is– however you, Bunge or me may want to slice it.

        The data don’t lie, however, and the purpose of this particular map is to highlight a manifold failure of school administration, police work and City Hall to address a problem which, while they all may not have noticed before, is now revealed to all to be remedied.

        Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1
      • Phil Persinger says:


        I apologize: my directions lead to the wrong, although similar, map. The “real” one is seven maps up, titled “Where Commuters Run Over Black Children on the Pointes-Downtown Track.”

        More traction for your complaint, perhaps, but the data is the data…

        Mind you, though: this stuff is from the 1960s, when open racism was abroad in the land.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
      • James says:

        An interesting article, which seems to be confirmation of what I had suspected. Perhaps the data does not lie, but people are perfectly capable of distorting and selecting data to be used for the purpose of actively constructing political propaganda. After all, one of the better ways to lie is to tell the exact truth, just not all of it.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2
      • Joe J says:

        “The data don’t lie, however, and the purpose of this particular map is to highlight a manifold failure of school administration, police work and City Hall to address a problem which, while they all may not have noticed before, is now revealed to all to be remedied.”

        It may show something or may not. I say this because the map appears to not be normalized.
        SOme maps are self normalizing if what you are showing is in the same area of the map. i.e. if this were trying to show 2nd street is much worse than 5th street, but this is implying it is worse than what we don’t show. The text says hints suburbia is safe, but never says that it is. The text suggests racim. and suggests that there are more deaths/accidents here, but without showing a similar suburbia area, corrected for differences in population density.
        Otherwise what the map coupd be showing is thatat there are X times more children who live in a city block than a suburban block.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  3. NZ says:

    “That’s the power of maps, or one of the powers of maps: to make graphic—and at some level unarguable—some correlative truth.”

    What “unarguable” correlative truth is Denis Wood talking about? I’d bet a map of where black children were killed by other black children would be less “terrifying” to him, simply because it’s far more common for black children to be killed by other black children than by white commuters.

    It sounds like “radical geography” really just means “finding extreme statistical anomalies and graphing them.”

    For anyone seriously interested in visual displays of quantitative information, check out Edward Tufte’s definitive book “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information,” which probably ought to be required reading in high schools and colleges.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2
    • NZ says:

      @Phil Persinger:

      I didn’t see any way to reply to your comment directly, so I’m writing my response here.

      On July 10 at 4:58pm you said: “The data don’t lie, however, and the purpose of this particular map is to highlight…”

      It’s true, I suppose, that data don’t lie–at least not about the particular values they explicitly convey. But as you said, maps are active constructs, and have unavoidable political aspects. It is possible to omit, obscure, and falsely correlate with data. This is especially true of maps, whose data-to-ink ratios can be much higher than simple data tables and are potentially much more capable of quickly and efficiently conveying (or “highlighting”) information–including misleading information.

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
      • Phil Persinger says:


        Thank you for your comment– which is entirely true. That’s Wood’s point: ALL maps need critical reception. Bunge’s map resonates with him and he knows why it does; it might not do anything for someone else, but that individual needs to have some idea why that is the case. It’s unfortunate that information comes at us in all forms and from all directions; it’s impossible for one individual to develop the critical armamentarium to deal with the broad spectrum of the bombardment.

        I’m neither geographer nor cartographer, so I’m not really geared to wade too deeply into these theoretical/rhetorical weeds. I will say this about Bunge’s maps of commuter routes: I lived on the east side of Cleveland in the early ’70s and I can attest (anecdotally) to the scary nature of the suburban commute for all persons concerned. Commuters locked their car doors, rolled up their windows and roared five- and six-abreast down the grade-level traffic arteries, pacing their progress with the timing of the traffic signals. During these hours, there was little pedestrian activity in the neighborhoods through which the avenues had been cut: it was simply too dangerous to cross the street. If the routes to the eastern suburbs of Detroit were anywhere near as frightening– for both drivers and walkers– then I don’t doubt they drew Bunge’s attention. It’s unfortunate, but probably true, that to fully appreciate his maps one needs a broad knowledge of Detroit to begin with.

        Another area to ponder is the new graphic landscape that computers have opened up to show data in previously unexpected contexts. Very seductive and too novel perhaps for us civilians to analyze critically. Maps are simply an earlier iteration of this species.

        Thank you for mentioning Tufte’s book. I would add for other readers that all four of his books in that series are beautiful, if not always direct and clear with their arguments. As I recollect it, Tufte assumes what Wood argues– that folks who make charts, maps, graphs, etc., have an intention behind their design choices– and shows instances where someone has particular success or failure in that regard. But my impression is that Tufte never seriously considers that any map or chart would be constructed intentionally to mislead: there is a wonderful digression (in “Visual Explanations”– please, someone, correct me if I’m wrong) into the art of misdirection– not that it’s wrong, mind you, but simply that misdirection gets in the way of the point you’re trying to make.

        Wood is of a different mind, I think: that all maps have the potential to mislead, that most maps are happy to mislead unconsciously and that many maps mislead deliberately. They’re all arguments, as he says in the interview.

        For a broader and more venerable tour of graphics metaphysics, I’d like to recommend the “Vision + Value” series of six books, edited by Gyorgy Kepes in the mid-1960s– just about the time Bunge was making trouble in Motown.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
      • NZ says:

        @Phil Persinger:

        Once again I don’t see a “reply” link below your comment–thanks for responding, by the way.

        I lived on the east side of Cleveland too, though it was during the 1990s and early 2000s. My experience was that there was plenty of pedestrian activity in those neighborhoods you mentioned, though little of it was trans-Cedar/Carnegie/Chester/Superior/etc. Rather, as you drove down those “traffic arteries” and looked to the right or left, you saw lots of people walking or standing (or fighting, or dealing drugs) in the middle of the side streets. For whatever reason, the vanishing of the street/sidewalk boundary is a common sight in those types of neighborhoods, so I’m guessing this might also have something to do with the map that Wood is discussing.

        Thanks for those book recommendations. I’ll have to check out the rest of the Tufte series as well as “Vision + Value.”

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
      • Phil Persinger says:


        Thanks for the recollections. Oh, absolutely there was a throbbing street life on the N-S streets in my day; you just didn’t want to try crossing the E-W arteries during rush hour. While watching the videos of the tsunamis in Thailand and Japan, I was reminded of the 4PM lane-direction change on Carnegie and the sight of all that rolling ’70s steel coming at me. A naive/careless kid or a slow-moving elder wouldn’t have had a prayer….

        Again, in my day, a kid stood a better chance of getting a nail in her foot playing in her apartment’s yard than in the street. When the whole family was on the stoop or front porch in good weather, the pavement was such a magnet for play that parents were constantly pleading their kids to get out of the street.

        But the blocks between Chester and Carnegie were relatively empty of street life and pretty much the purview of automobiles– since that was the safest way of getting there. I’m afraid I don’t recall much about pedestrians’ meeting misfortune at the time, but the Plain Dealer didn’t carry stories about stuff like that. One had to rely on the grapevine.

        Superior Ave. was a bit out of my bailiwick, but because it wasn’t so obviously scary I imagine it might have been more dangerous than Carnegie.

        One of the reasons I might seem so protective of Bunge’s project in Detroit is that something like that needed to have been done for Cleveland– and not just on the East Side.

        Enjoy the Tuftes. The Kepes series can be found @ AbeBooks and through Amazon, but the prices are all over the place.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  4. Caleb B says:

    Maps of data are like statistics….anyone can manipulate them in almost any way.

    If I were to map the number of crimes committed by white people in Harlem, it would look pretty sparse…but only because few white people live/work in Harlem. Same map, but black people in Anchorage, AK….

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. Tarrou says:

    I’m guessing this map could just as easily be titled “major commuting routes through minority neighborhoods”. And that from a Stalin apologist.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
    • Phil Persinger says:


      Please let me suggest that you and some others in this thread are concentrating too much on Bunge’s politics (though I can hardly blame you for being distracted) and not enough on his product. What he shows on those accident maps are real data; his argument is to demonstrate that pedestrian accidents happen in a predictable fashion across a certain part of the urban landscape. He may impute to racism the fact that no one seemed to have noticed this pattern (which is clear from the map) or seemed to be interested in remedying the situation, but the methodology he used to marshal his data seem to me to foreshadow the GIS crime-prediction software that many police forces have purchased over the past few years.

      Now you can complain that he doesn’t show this or that set of correlations (black kids killing black kids, relative densities of children in urban and suburban blocks,,etc.), but I can surmise that the ultimate response from Wood, at least, would be “None of those things were his argument. If you want to see that sort of stuff, make those maps yourself!”

      Joe J correctly observes that the maps in question are not self-normalizing (a wonderful term with which I had been unfamiliar) but that raises the issue of the intended audience. If Bunge’s intention was to move the powers-that-be in Detroit, the larger context of the map would have been understood since everyone would be familiar with the streets and traffic patterns involved. Bunge simply showed data that no one had gathered and organized before.

      The truly radical nature of what Bunge did in Detroit and what Wood does in Raleigh lies in their intensive focus on a particular location and the belief that something can be demonstrated by close inspection of “small” things. Most of us are so accustomed to using maps to chart a path from one place to another place that we dismiss the idea that it is a fruitful enterprise to map and describe a particular place for what it is.

      Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
      • Joe J says:

        The part that you are missing is that a map to be real information and not a bias is a frame of reference, usually this is done in accompanying text or through normalization or a comparison.
        This map does none of those.
        It is the visual equivalent of stating 30 people died after a change, in order to get people riled up against the change.
        The ‘lie’ is the omission of a comparison/normalization. Often it is deliberately left out because the argument fails or is weakened with it there.
        My statement is 30 people died is not real information because it is only half of the statement.
        And greatly varies with the unstated second half (the normalizing part):
        So is it: “30 people died when normally no one dies”
        “30 people died where normally 30 people die”
        or is it “30 people die where normally 30,000 people die”

        With that omission, what is the ” this pattern (which is clear from the map)”

        A “good” example is further on the page you linked to a red dot plot of current world fighting strength vs WW2 used armaments. It at least attempts to “normalize” the visual. Although it also does that in a bit of a deceptive way, since two variables are changing between the comparison, one is used vs potential, the other is WW2 time vs current.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
      • James says:

        “What he shows on those accident maps are real data; his argument is to demonstrate that pedestrian accidents happen in a predictable fashion across a certain part of the urban landscape.”

        I don’t think so. His PURPOSE is to construct political propaganda. He does so by injecting irrelevant information about the race of the drivers and accident victims, creating the implication that those racist white drivers are deliberately running over black kids, while they wouldn’t hit white kids on similarly-constructed streets.

        Accident location maps are nothing new (though they may have been when he did this one). The local newspaper has printed them for years, and I think the local highway departments use them to target improvements.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
      • Phil Persinger says:

        Joe J–

        Thank you for your reply. I’m sympathetic to many of your points; however, as a poor civilian that I am here amongst a clatter of quants and specialists, I’m not sure you and I are looking at this issue from the same frame of reference– even to the point of agreeing entirely what constitutes “real information.”

        I respect your invocation of normalization and comparison in understanding maps. Wood’s argument about maps, which I admit makes me a bit uncomfortable, is that they are arguments. Arguments employ rhetoric. Rhetoric requires an audience familiar and comfortable with rhetorical feints and with the basic issue at hand, otherwise the deployment of rhetoric seems to be (and, practically, is) lying. Anyone who believes that maps, charts, etc., are ideally faithful “representations” of reality will find the “maps as argument” position pretty darn unsettling.

        It’s perhaps a disservice to everyone for Freakonomics to have published links to Bunge’s maps without their full context– insofar as they now find themselves out of professional journals and blogs and into a larger public realm where maps (or Detroit politics) are less well-known. So I wonder if much of your objection to this particular map might be addressed if we had the full document (“Fitzgerald: Geography of a Revolution”) in which that map appears (along, presumably, with explanatory material) and a better idea of that document’s place in that time in Detroit.

        But to the basic argument: how is it not adequate information if the dots on Bunge’s map each mark an auto’s hitting a child at or near a particular intersection over a certain (or any) period of time? Why must that data be compared with any other data set– as if it were better that only .7 times as many kids were hit here as at another intersection on the other side of town? As I’ve said before, the data are the data. Bunge means to say that kids– in some place, many kids– were hit HERE by cars, so why isn’t the city doing something about it? If I live in Detroit and am reasonably familiar with the city, I can supply the required frame of reference myself. It’s not up to Bunge similarly to map out all the other neighborhoods in Detroit; why did the city– or Wayne State or UM– not generate its own comprehensive set of maps based on Bunge’s work? Isn’t public safety what a large city is all about? Absolutely and unapologetically, this map is an attempt to “get people riled up,” but I regret I still don’t understand how it’s deceptive– beyond how any document taken outside of its context is deceptive.

        To my mind, it’s all pretty clear from the map. And, apparently, there are many (if certainly not all) geographers and cartographers out there who think the same– and they probably all know about the problems of normalization better than a poor civilian.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2
      • James says:

        “Bunge means to say that kids– in some place, many kids– were hit HERE by cars, so why isn’t the city doing something about it?”

        Sure, and that’s a perfectly good use for a map, as a tool to identify dangerous areas of the road network. What changes it from data to propaganda is his irrelevant for any purpose other than propaganda introduction of the race of drivers and victims. That suggests that what he means to say really has nothing to do with kids getting hit by cars.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
      • Phil Persinger says:


        Thanks, again, for contributing a couple of provocative comments. It’s interesting how a little thing like a map opens a whole universe of debate.

        Propaganda, like advertising, only works well in the absence of other information. I agree with you that Bunge’s approach is overly harsh– even rude– by today’s standards in talking about race. I might go so far, based on what I’ve read, as to agree that he engages in polemics. But I must object to your assertion that Bunge’s purpose is to construct propaganda. You need to define, or at least show, what you mean by the term in the context of this discussion.

        All that said, Bunge might embrace your view of his work just to tick you off. In any event, none of us seems to have a copy of “Fitzgerald” on which to base our arguments. What we really need here is someone to pull Bill Bunge (or Denis Wood) out from behind a potted plant, Woody-Allen style, to speak for himself.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
      • Phil Persinger says:

        Joe J–

        I’ve been hurting my brain thinking about normalization– and where you and I may be passing each other in these comments.

        In reply to your 7/11, 11:24AM, list of questions: I think it’s absolutely clear from this map that Bunge is indicating that people get hit by cars at these corners compared with all the other corners on the same map where people do not get run over.

        Here is the question I believe you need to add to your list:

        Is it “people got hit where there are dots when no one got hit where there are no dots?”

        The answer to that is “yes.” So many maps have this simple construction that I just don’t see the problem– unless, of course, one suspects that Bunge is omitting information. So, yes, he is not showing a lot of stuff: where the downtown offices are, where the eastern suburbs are, which streets are the commuting corridors, etc. But anyone with a familiarity with Detroit in the 1960s would have known all that anyway– and Bunge’s intended readership seems to be Detroit– and not Daytona. He’s stripped down the map to make clear to Detroit what he wants to show.

        What I really think is that in the manner they’ve linked to this map, the Freakonomics folks have muddied the waters. The links do not show the context of the document in which the map resides; the links are clearly to web-sites frequented by geographers and cartographers (and map groupies) who are more familiar with theoretical issues than civilians– and therefore do not feel the need to provide that context; and the tree of links that can be follow is not comprehensive enough to allow civilian commenters to make intelligent, on-point comments without four semesters worth of study. Instead, we’re picking around the edges of the issue (Is it propaganda? Why should we listen to a Stalinist? What does Bunge have against white commuters? Etc., etc.) and not engaging the basic issue of the function (and limitations) of maps and mapping.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
  6. Sierra says:

    I wish there was a copy of the Bunges map referenced in the article available for view from this page. Yes, I know I can find it online, but I think the visual makes the article stronger when it’s next to original article.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0