Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
$1:$1 MATCH happening now for ALL new and increasing sustaining gifts!

Outside/In: The Darién Gap, or the End of the Roads

Alex Torrenegra via Flickr.

There are places on the map where the roads end. The Darién Gap, or el Tapon del Darién, is one of them.

Plus, how maps change the world.

This episode first aired in October, 2020. 

The Darién Gap

By Sam Evans-Brown

There are places on the map where roads end.

The Darién Gap, or el Tapon del Darién, is a stretch of rainforest in southern Panama, right on the edge of Central and South America. From a globetrotter’s perspective, the Darién Gap might seem to exist mostly as an obstacle to tourists dreaming of a truly epic road trip from Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego.

But, while a road is one way for movement, it’s not the only way to get somewhere. What happens, or does not happen, in a place without roads?

FeaturingJorge Ahumada,Roland Kays,Hector Huertas,Ustin Pascal Dubuisson, andAlicia Korten.

For additional reading about the history of Pan-American highway and why it is still incomplete, check out The Longest Line on the Map: The United States, the Pan-American Highway, and the Quest to Link the Americas by Eric Rutkow.

Title image byAlex Torrenegra via Flickr.

On maps and projections

By Justine Paradis

Picture a map. Maybe it’s a map of New Hampshire. What is on the map?

Perhaps water bodies, like the Merrimack and Connecticut rivers. Maybe the White Mountains. Mayb e… 89 and 93, or the highways in your area?

What are the boundaries? What is not on the map? 

And, what is the map for? Is it to guide you as you navigate? Or to help you get somewhere? Or perhaps another purpose entirely: to keep track of the tree species growing in an area, or to chart the underlying geology. 

Perhaps a map exists to tell you about one specific event, a particular moment in time like a battle or a protest. 

Maybe it’s to communicate real-time data, like weather or COVID cases in the state

A map can do many things.

If you were to draw a map that communicated a story of your life, what would you include? Would you draw the neighborhood bodega, a childhood berry patch, or your best friend’s apartment? 

What would you leave out?

Maps are representations of the world and, therefore, inherently incomplete -- and sometimes, grossly inaccurate. Start from the basic fact that the world is round: a map, unless it’s a globe, is flat. A two-dimensional map is always a distorted representation of the world. 

There’s a whole genre of YouTube explainer videos specifically about the wrongness of map projections.

For instance, the Mercator Projection is a famous, and famously inaccurate, map style. While it maintains some accuracy in the relative relationships and shapes of different continents, it is absolutely terrible when it comes to size. It’s pretty accurate close to the equator, but not so much closer to the poles.

Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator developed what’s now known as the Mercator Projection for navigational purposes. The projection makes it easy to draw a straight line and get an accurate compass bearing. For this reason, it’s also the projection used for Google Maps.

But a world map drawn with the Mercator Projection depicts Greenland to be about the size of Africa, when in reality, Africa is some 14 times bigger.  

In one episode of the American sitcom The West Wing, one character posits that “the Mercator Projection has fostered European imperialist attitudes for centuries.”

So a projection is a big decision, but everything on a map is a decision.

To return to the map you pictured, to those rivers and valleys and roads and mountains and borders: what are the names of places on the map? Are they written in English? Who named them and when?  When were those borders drawn? Does everyone accept those borders and use those names?

Even if the purpose of the map is simply to provide directions, a map also communicates a lot about its maker.

And sometimes, the maker can have a big impact.

More on map projections

Vox made a great explainer video of map projections, including the Mercator.

Projection Transitions is an interactive tool that allows you to explore how different projections change the world map.

The True Size lets you drag and drop different countries to view their relative size.

How a map can shape a city

By Justine Paradis

“In elementary school, when I was learning about maps, I did not enjoy the classes at all. And often because it was focused on people like Christopher Columbus or other Eurocentric travelers who ‘discovered’ places,” said LaToya Gray Sparks.

Sparks is a graduate student at the Virginia Commonwealth University, studying urban and regional planning. Her work focuses on historical and cultural preservation as it pertains to the African-American community.

“I love mapping, so that's what I do a lot in my spare time,” she said.

Credit Courtesy LaToya Gray Sparks

For the past three years, Sparks served on the advisory council of Richmond 300, a group working on the City of Richmond’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan.

It was at those Richmond 300 meetings where she started recognizing the impact of urban planning, and how some patterns on the maps were being used to shape the vision for the city.

Sparks’ realization was informed not only by her background in history, but also her own personal story. She grew up on the Southside of Richmond, in a part of town that had been annexed from neighboring Chesterfield County in the 1970s.

This annexation changed the city’s demographics. Overnight, the city’s population dropped from 52% Black to 42%. 

“White politicians… were growing fearful of how powerful the Black political class was becoming,” said Sparks. 

The annexation was controversial, and, in fact, even went to the U.S. Supreme Court, but ultimately, for Sparks’ neighborhood, it had lasting effects.

“I’m realizing a lot of the opportunities that I did not have access to, or the reason that the Southside had just been hurting, is that it was added as part of a power play, and then forgotten and isolated for quite some time,” she said.

“Being introduced to that visual data just kind of confirmed what I'd already suspected: that I was in an underprivileged part of town … a lot of it is tied to boundaries being changed and shifted,” she said.

While the maps were eye-opening, they also gave her pause.

“I also found that the perspective was often from a white lens,” said Sparks. 

For instance, one of Richmond 300’s goals was to increase density in the city to accommodate anticipated growth. Sparks recalled one map presented early on in the process that represented Richmond during the 1950s. The map showed a dense population in the historical downtown area, which was presented as positive. But she says there was a reason that the area was so dense. 

“Black people who lived in that area during the time of Jim Crow could not live anywhere else within the city,” said Sparks.

It wasn't just redlining, a discriminatory practice of refusing loans to people living in certain neighborhoods that often prevented Black people from borrowing money and thus obtaining property. Sparks also read about housing segregation in books like The Color of the Law and about the history behind housing projects in the city.

She found that the patterns of the city were rooted in maps created in 1946 by Harland Bartholomew, a city planner employed by the city of St. Louis. Bartholomew also ran his own firm, and over his career, was appointed to positions by presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower, and created plans for over 500 cities, including Richmond.

Bartholomew envisioned a decentralized city.

“The maps that Bartholomew [drew] were to create, I guess, a more beautiful downtown. But something had to be done to get rid of people in the way,” said Sparks. “...often people of color and immigrants as well had to be displaced.”

“That planning process introduced the Richmond Redevelopment [and] Housing Authority, which was tasked with using eminent domain to compel people to court who were behind in taxes or whatever, and the taxes would be the equivalent of like $100 today. And if they weren't able to pay that amount, then their land was declared blighted and then eligible for the city to buy and then turn over to private developers, or keep.”

“That was a mechanism used to clear away that property, and it was all rooted in the plan implemented and created by Harland Bartholomew.”

“If you combine that with redlining maps, it just tells a story about how places and blocks were targeted where Black people lived. And then even if there were thriving communities … they were deemed as blighted because of the presence of Black people, and so the land was devalued and then designated for slum clearance, which of course led to the construction of highways through downtown areas.”

So, when Sparks saw that map of the density of Richmond’s downtown in the 1950s, it “bugged me to death.”

“All I wanted to do was put a redlining layer to put over the top of it, to prove my point.”

She eventually put together a project called Planned Destruction, “a brief history on land ownership, valuation and development in the City of Richmond and the maps used to destroy black communities.”

Her project allowed her to tell this history, and to layer that redlining map over the geographic data of the contemporary Black and white residents, in addition to  property value, poverty rates, and median household income.

Credit Planned Destruction by LaToya Gray Sparks
A screenshot of Planned Destruction, depicting the people and places displaced from downtown Richmond.

“We are essentially still living in those patterns... and I think there are efforts to get away from that, but as the civil unrest that we experienced over the summer indicates, we have a long way to go in untangling all of that,” said Sparks.

Plus, as the effects of climate change intensify, increasingly frequent and severe heatwaves can disproportionately affect certain zip codes, often zip codes that overlap with areas shaped by redlining  or where access to green space is more limited.

Back in the 40s, Harland Bartholomew called the areas where Black people lived “blighted” or slums. And as new maps were developed as part of Richmond 300, Sparks recalls that certain areas were labeled as “established” or “non-established,” the latter definition applied to neighborhoods that were “pretty much where people of color lived.”

“I was afraid of that language. It sounds nicer than ‘slum’ and ‘blighted,’ but it can serve as a signal for developers, like, ‘hey, this is where cheap property or inexpensive property is that you can plot or develop,’ and it would lead to the displacement of current residents,” said Sparks.

She spoke up, and the language is not being used on the Richmond 300 maps.

Now, Sparks is keeping an eye on Pine Grove, a historic and predominantly black community in Charles City County where Booker T. Washington started a school -- and where a massive landfill is now being proposed.

Sparks is interested in the stories that have gone untold in Richmond and in the Commonwealth of Virginia more broadly, especially how urban renewal impacted the Black community. 

“I had no idea just how big of a deal urban planning is. So it’s given me a greater appreciation for the process but I also realize how a lot of the people who should be incorporated in this process, they don't know about it. So I will spend the rest of my days just trying to educate people, and encourage people to pay attention to what's happening to their communities,” said Sparks.

Sparks is on Twitter @LatoyaSGray

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
Justine Paradis is a producer and reporter for NHPR's Creative Production Unit, most oftenOutside/In. Before NHPR, she produced Millennial podcast from Radiotopia, contributed to podcasts including Love + Radio, and reported for WCAI & WGBH from her hometown of Nantucket island.
Outside/In is a show where curiosity and the natural world collide. Click here for podcast episodes and more.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.