“What does the world look like when you map it using data? Social geographer Danny Dorling invites us to see the world anew, with his captivating and insightful maps that show Earth as it truly is — a connected, ever-changing and fascinating place in which we all belong. You’ll never look at a map the same way again.”
This was a great TED talk that is firmly in my wheelhouse and hits many of the key big ideas that I want my undergraduates to learn (importance of human geography, using statistics to update people’s world views, fun and intelligent cartography…the list goes on). I wish I had seen this a few years ago when I was preparing my TEDx talk in 2019, which was just one of many talks that day about geography education.
I’d like to interject two geographic terms/concepts not mentioned in the video below about New Orleans: site and situation. I would argue that in New Orleans has a horrible site (the features of a given location) but a very attractive situation (the connection and relationship to other places and resources). The first 4.5 minutes of this video nicely highlights the contrast of an incredible situation on a horrible site; this would be a great clip for a general audience (human geography or regional geography). The remaining portion of the video is still good, but more narrowly focused on the increasingly negative environmental context of New Orleans’ urban ecology.
Geographers make a distinction between site and situation as they consider the underlying foundation of a place. Few cities represent such a wide chasm between these two aspects as does New Orleans. The situation, or the answer to why does a place exist, was imperative. The Mississippi River was a major artery for the North American continent. As first the Europeans and then the Americans assumed control of the area, a port was essential at the mouth of this river. But the site, the response to where a city is placed, continues to confound. Few environments were or are more inhospitable to human habitation. Poor soil, disease, floods, and hurricanes are constant threats that have plagued the city for over three centuries. But the why trumped the where and hence the paradox of New Orleans persists.
“In a time of great powers and empires, just one region of the world experienced extraordinary economic growth. How?” SOURCE: Aeon
As a global region, Europe has the great amount of wealth and sustained growth over the last 500 years. Geographically and historically, are there reasons for this or is this just an accident historical geography? This essay by an economics and history professor delves into the political, economic, intellectual, geographic, and technological setting within which European economic ascendance took place. Some key geographic concepts played a huge role in explaining why Europe today was able to grow so drastically during the Great Enrichment (the diffusion of ideas across borders, vibrant competition within intellectual marketplaces, applied technological innovations built upon previous scientific scholarship, etc.)
My family loved watching the full Jim Gaffigan special “The Pale Tourist.” This is an except from that, and while some of it is obvious not correct (often the punchlines), there is a great deal more Canadian geography in this sketch than I ever expected to see in by a bona fide comedian. Like with all things, but especially comedy, know your audience(s) and know that I don’t 100% endorse all statements, but boy, I wish there were more geographically-themed humor.
Value-added agricultural products are all around us, but many students aren’t accustomed to thinking about commodity chains and recognizing the agricultural component of a product if it is not directly consumed. This video about the production of soap in the Palestinian West Bank is an excellent example of an older way of using olive oil and creating what hipsters might refer to as artisanal, craft soap (after watching this one about West Bank soap, you can watch a very similar video about traditional Syrian soap production). I really like this video for a S.P.E.E.D. (Social, Political, Economic, Environmental, Demographic) / E.S.P.N. (Economic, Social, Political, eNvironmental) type of an activity were you provide/show the resource to the students, and have them identify and then discuss the geographic themes from the given resource.
I really went down a Youtube rabbit hole with this one, because once you learn about olive oil soap production, you might need to know more about how olive oil is produced. I’ve really enjoyed TrueFoodTV over the years, and below, I’ve embedded an excellent clip from them that nicely shows the the geographic context of the Mediterranean agricultural region (and if you want some culinary tips on olive oil, I’m officially now out of my depth, but here is a clip from TrueFoodTV).
“Texas, Florida and North Carolina are among the states that will gain congressional seats based on new population data from the U.S. census, a shift that could boost Republican chances of recapturing the U.S. House of Representatives from Democrats in next year’s midterm elections. The overall U.S. population stood at 331,449,281, the Census Bureau said on Monday, a 7.4% increase over 2010 representing the second-slowest growth of any decade in history. The release of the data, delayed for months due to the coronavirus pandemic, sets the stage for a battle over redistricting that could reshape political power in Washington during the next decade. States use the numbers and other census data to redraw electoral maps based on where people have moved.” SOURCE: Reuters
It is constitutionally mandated that the U.S. government conduct a census every ten years. There are many benefits for all that data, but the original purpose was to allot congressional seats in the House of Representatives. Today the number is locked in at 435, so as states’ populations grow or (relative to others) shrink, a given state many gain or lose seats in the House. This ends up being very consequential, especially in a two-party country that is pretty evenly divided.
New York and California (two of the largest states with the most seats) are the most upset since they are seeing their relative political power in the House of Representatives wane for the first time in decades while Texas is smiling big with 2 added seats. Little Rhode Island is letting out a huge sigh of relief, since it was projected that Rhode Island would be losing 1 of their 2 congressional seats along with federal funding that is attached to that seat. However, Rhode Island managed to retain their two seats. The census only says how many seats a given state will have, but it is up to the state government to reapportion the districts. Redistricting can be very contentious and when it gets overtly and unfairly partisan, that’s when regular old redistricting can become gerrymandering.
Things to Consider: What demographic shifts have led to these new political patterns on the map? Will these shifts lead to gerrymandering? How will this impact the states gaining (or losing) seats?
“A year into the Covid-19 pandemic, after much speculation about emptied downtowns and the prospect of remote work, the clearest picture yet is emerging about how people moved. There is no urban exodus; perhaps it’s more of an urban shuffle. Despite talk of mass moves to Florida and Texas, data shows most people who did move stayed close to where they came from—although Sun Belt regions that were popular even before the pandemic did see gains.” SOURCE: Bloomberg’s CityLab
A year ago, some of the most dire warnings about COVID-19 related migration pointed to the collapse of major metropolitan centers and an existential threat to urbanization as we know it. True, high density settlements have been heavily impacted but the fears that New York City would cease to be “The City” were a bit overstated.
Outside of NYC and the Bay Area, most of the migration inside the United States has been WITHIN metropolitan statistical areas, and usually from the more dense core to the outer fringe. So edge cities, suburbs, exurbs, and micropolitan areas have seen an increase, but many of these moves were simply accelerated by the pandemic. The interactive charts and maps are what make this article an exceptional teaching resource.
Questions to Ponder: How has your area’s demographic profile changed during the pandemic? What are the areas of your state that have been most heavily impacted? When people move from your county, where do they go? Where do migrants into your county come from? What patterns do you see and what explains these patterns? What push and pull factors influence these choices?
While I try to keep things nonpartisan, sometimes objective truths become partisan issues, and often the study of human geography can improve our collective political dialog. Department of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg (a.k.a. Mayor Pete) said “there is racism physically built into some of our highways.” Online detractors noted that rebar, concrete, and asphalt can’t be racist, etc. You see the over-literal interpretation, but I want to discuss his bigger point—how has racism shaped the building of infrastructure and urban landscapes?
The term redlining has a specific definition and a broader application. First, the narrower definition; redlining was a historical practice in the early to mid-20th century where banks and other decision-makers used city maps that marked low-income neighborhoods (pre-dominantly African American), and would deny potential home-owners’ loans to purchase in these neighborhoods. In an era of legalized segregation, African Americans were in a bind; they could not move into the white neighborhoods, but they could not get loans to purchase a home in their own neighborhood. The maps literally used a red line to mark the neighborhoods where the banks would not provide any home-lending services to the residents. Explore this fantastic interactive map, Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America. You can use this to find redlining close to your home, or the city where I teach, Providence, RI.
More broadly speaking, redlining is not just about the denial of home loans. Many practices such as this meant African Americans in the United States could not get access to the full range of services, utilities, resources, and planning to see improvements in their neighborhoods.
The era of redlining also coincided with the era of the private automobile and the beginning of large freeways on the American landscape. The major freeways in urban centers weren’t placed on conveniently open spaces, but by tearing down (typically) poor neighborhoods that had less of a political voice. This happened in African American neighborhoods in Baltimore, Oakland, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati…the list is far too long. Read this piece in the Guardian for some images and examples.
So, when Mayor Pete says that “there is racism physically built into some of our highways,” he means it, and it’s a part of our historical geography. The road itself might not be racist, but the institutions that plowed through poor Black neighborhoods is, and leaves a legacy on the built environment. Redlining is obviously illegal today, but the neighborhoods they shaped, divided by railroad tracks or highways or both, these communities are still impacted by the policies of yesteryear.
For generations, New York City urbanists have adored Jane Jacobs as the champion for local communities and her opposition to the soulless, neighborhood-destroying urban planner, Robert Moses. This is partially true, if simplistic, because hating one individual (Robert Moses) for inserting oppressive elements into the landscape misses the bigger point that he was simply in charge of the system, and if it weren’t for him, there would have been another to take his place. Let’s use one famous NYC, Robert Moses example of racism in the built landscape:
Action: Robert Moses designed Long Island bridges and highways with low overpasses.
Result: Long Island beaches are inaccessible through mass transit.
Purpose: Limit access of NYC poor from the affluent beaches of Long Island.
What are the implications of these facts? One instance of this type of infrastructural planning might be a coincidence rather than a sign of racial bias, or class-based bias, but the preponderance of evidence across the country from this era leads to the obvious conclusion that U.S. infrastructure, especially the highways, were shaped by racist policies that continue to have racial impacts. The evidence is there; for any honest observer, the conclusion that racism shaped U.S. infrastructure is not controversial.
Examine examples in your own community to see how these practices have shaped your local neighborhoods. Once you’ve seen how your community has been shaped, look at at other examples across the U.S. to see that your neighborhood is a part of a broader spatial pattern that shows how racism has shaped U.S. infrastructure.
Smooth sailing in logistics is never newsworthy; the media will never report on a non-accident. We take for granted that many transportation and communication systems run in and incredibly efficient manner and the exception proves the rule. The March 2021 accident that shut down the Suez Canal was major news; think about the largest freeway near your community. An accident makes for a huge traffic jam…now but imagine that on the Suez Canal, which facilitates roughly 10% of ALL global trade. This negatively numerous global supply chains and impacted stock markets prices of oil and other commodities as it brought Mediterranean/Indian Ocean trade to an absolute standstill. The critical nature of choke points to the entire system are revealed on the rare occasions when things go wrong. The CNN video in the the tweet below explains the economic ramifications of a choke point “choking off” trade. SOURCES: BBC, BLOOMBERG, NPR, AP.
Below, is a video that shows the inauguration of the 2015 expansion of the Suez Canal. This gives some solid context for the importance of the Suez Canal. Completed in 1869, with the new expansion the canal is over 200 meters wide and 24 meters deep. This was made to accommodate the largest of the ocean-going vessels, which when turned sideways (as we have learned in this incident) can be over 400 meters and block the entire canal.
The Incident was also great for the online meme creators.