MAPHIS: Mapping History – What historical maps can tell us about urban development

What are the forces that shape the structure our cities? How do pollution and slums impact urban development in the long run? By studying maps spanning almost a century, this project will explore these questions to understand how our future cities might be more sustainable.

With the profound changes brought by industrialisation to the nature of urban living came powerful forces that altered the way our cities are structured and shaped the course their development took over the decades. Industry brought pollution, which in turn caused a shift in the value of land, so that in the place of farmland we saw the growth of factories and slums. This legacy still underlies the development of our cities today, as we attempt to counteract its effects.

What did the project involve? 

By combining computerised analysis of nineteenth and twentieth century maps and records with the oral histories of two Bristol neighbourhoods, this research project aimed to better understand how pollution and the clearance of slum housing has shaped and continues to shape urban development. With the development of an interactive map of Bristol and other resources that incorporates the team’s findings, the team sought to offer a deeper insight into these forces to communities and urban planners as they move toward a more sustainable future for our cities.

The project combined a systematic approach based on indicators such as atmospheric pollution and neighbourhood composition with a narrative approach based on interactive reconstruction of stories. The research sought to produce:

  • An open source visual recognition algorithm for historical maps.
  • High resolution vectorised maps of cities of England and Wales over 5 time periods (1870-1960).
  • Interactive maps of the city of Bristol, combining heritage records and oral testimonies with maps of pollution imprints, neighbourhood composition and urban renewal activities, with a focus on Barton Hill and the Dings/St Philips.
  • A series of walk-about workshops.

These outputs added data on industrialisation, pollution and slum clearances to the existing website “Know Your Place” and helped connect it to communities for urban planning.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Dr Yanos Zylberberg (Economics, University of Bristol) specialises in urban economics and economic history and has contributed to the first systematic analysis of historical pollution on neighbourhood sorting. He was responsible for the data construction and the systematic analysis of long-term urban development.
  • Peter Insole (Bristol City Council) is an archaeologist and historian who has developed the Bristol’s Historic Environment Record and Know Your Place.
  • Natalie Thurlby (Jean Golding Institute) is a data scientist specialised in deep learning approaches and visual recognition and was responsible for the development of a visual recognition tool for manuscript maps.
  • Emma Tournier (Land Contamination Officer at Bristol City Council) specialises in environmental disamenities.
  • Robert Bickers (History, University of Bristol) specialises in the history of colonialism, and in particular of the British empire and its relations with China and the history of Shanghai, he has extensive experience in interdisciplinary projects with large-scale public engagement.

What were the results?

Aside from the contribution of their data to the website “Know Your Place”, other outputs include the academic paper ‘East-Side Story: Historical Pollution and Persistent Neighborhood Sorting’ in the Journal of Political Economy in 2021, co-authored by Stephan Heblich, Alex Trew, and Yanos Zylberberg.

Substantial funding was awarded to the project in 2020, continuing under the name: Mapping History – What historical maps can tell us about urban development. This was followed by an even larger ERC grant shared by 3 teams across the country.