Book Review: No Dig, No Fly, No Go (Mark Monmonier)

Feeling under the weather (aren’t we always?) so I offer you a book review written in 2012 for an assigned reading:


Monmonier, Mark. No Dig, No Fly, No Go: How maps restrict and control. 2010. Chicago, U.S.: University of Chicago Press.

In No Dig, No Fly, No Go, Mark Monmonier builds on his earlier 1996 work, How to Lie with Maps, by providing an in-depth look at one aspect of cartography the realm of so-called “prohibitive cartography.” In the book, Monmonier critically examines maps from the perspective of how they restrict and control, but provides his analysis in a language that is accessible to the layperson (in this case the non-academic Geographer). While I find Monmonier’s book refreshing and occasionally insightful, I remain wanting.

At the most basic level, Mark Monmonier explores how maps influence human behavior. More specifically, he seeks to answer how maps restrict access, mobility, and the use of spaces and places. From this standpoint alone, Monmonier’s work should be required reading for cartographers and political geographers from the undergraduate level. If we (partially) define Geography as the study of human interaction with the environment than Monmonier’s book becomes immediately important, for its subject is how maps, or rather authorities, attempt to regulate humans’ interactions with their environment. Primarily, Monmonier’s sources include news articles, legal cases, and maps (naturally). The first two provide historical and contemporary context for the various aspects of prohibitive cartography. For the most part, these sources work well for his overall purpose, which is to weave a narrative of how maps influence, and influenced, our lives at various times and at a variety of scales.

Monmonier loosely organizes the book around the concepts of theme, scale, and time. Each chapter examines a different theme of “prohibitive cartography.” Monmonier, after an introduction as to why boundaries “matter,” begins with a historical look at how maps played a role in delineating plots of land in the United States. He then takes a smaller scale look at this same theme with a look at how international states maintain their territorial integrity through maps and how maps affect governments’ view of their integrity. The following chapter takes this point to the colonial period, examining how maps justified the creation of colonies or partitions during peace. Likewise, Monmonier than examines the affects maps had on delineating maritime boundaries and exclusive economic zones. Moving back to the intra-state scale, Monmonier first examines how boundaries are set at the local and provincial (state) levels in the United States. In “Divide and Govern,” Monmonier also introduces political gerrymandering, which then forms the basis of the next chapter. An interesting discussion in this chapter is Monmonier’s suggestion of improvements to U.S. congressional districting. Following this deeper look at how politicians can utilizes maps to influence voting outcomes, Monmonier then examines how map-makers can utilize maps to influence where we do business, through the processes of redlining and greenlining. The next two chapters follow the theme of economics at the local level through discussions of zoning and rezoning plans and how maps influence changes (or not) in the built landscape, whether by rezoning industrial areas as commercial or by banishing red light districts to the far corners of a county. The first of the last two chapters focuses on the title and offers observations on how maps impact these aspects, digging, flying, going, of human activity. The last chapter examines relatively new developments in technology and how it integrates with “prohibitive cartography.” As we can see from this cursory summary of Monmonier’s book, the impact that maps have had on spatial restrictions span time from colonialism to the 2000s, scale form the parcel to international level, and in a variety of subtle and overt ways. In essence, Monmonier seems to suggest that states and governments crush us on all sides with maps attempting to regulate our existence. Offered not as a value judgment but as an objective observation, Monmonier’s book provides a valuable discussion on the impacts that maps have had but there are limitations.

The first, and most significant limitation, is the book’s scope. The limitation is immediately apparent to a critical eye examining the book’s sub-title; Monmonier purports to show us “how maps restrict and control.” However, this isn’t the case. Maps do not restrict or control access, they influence human actions. In this context, maps attempt to restrict and control. This nuance is more than a semantic argument or request for clarification; it strikes at the heart of the book. I contend that maps do not restrict at all, how could they? Maps are on paper, on a screen, or on a disk, it is impossible for it to prohibit anything. Maps are only prohibitive if individuals and communities accept them as such. Monmonier takes this basic assumption as an underlying fact throughout his book. For the most part, his examples support his thesis that maps restrict and control; however, he may be guilty of either cherry-picking his data, at worst, or unknowingly misleading his readers. Perhaps a more apt sub-title would be “how Western maps restrict and control.” For it is in the “West,” a gross and undefined generalization admittedly, that communities almost ubiquitously accept the power of the map. Monmonier provides ample evidence of this, particularly for the United States, throughout his book. Most of the evidence relates to court cases settled, in part, through the use of the map. Notable examples include a boundary dispute stemming from hydrological changes in Kansas’s Peuker v. Canter (27-29) or Florida’s right-of-way case in Enos v. Casey Mountain, Inc. (24-25). At the international level, comprised of states following the nation-state concept derived in Westphalia, Monmonier again shows how maps (or geographic phenomena) played an integral role throughout history from the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas that split the world between Spain and Portugal to the competing claims on Antarctica in the second half of the 20th century. At the local level in the U.S. context and the international context, Monmonier’s assumptions seems to hold, but does it at the local level elsewhere?

I contend that it does not. To take an extreme example, I would cite the Durrand Line that splits the Pashtun linguistic nation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. While the British certainly attempted to police this border during the height of European imperialism, at best their activities were a nuisance. In the 2000s, we find that the line is all but nonexistent as various groups, including violent ones, routinely violate it. Monmonier acknowledges that newly independent states from European imperialists “could not unify dissimilar peoples lumped together by artificial boundaries” (58). However, I find that he does not go far enough. Not only do these states not unify dissimilar communities, they could not enforce the state’s view of its territoriality, i.e. that Pakistan ends at the Durrand line. For their part, the Pashtuns, who the British had split across the border, probably perceived the world in much the same way as they had prior to the split; the Durrand Line was merely a line on a piece of paper. Referring back to the title of the introductory chapter, the boundary doesn’t matter. In addition to this significant lapse in analysis, Monmonier would also benefit from additional technical information to contextualize his comments.

Monmonier’s view on GPS devices should include additional nuance from a technical aspect. As Monmonier is attempting to steer a middle course between providing a jargon-free work accessible to cartographic newcomers and professionals, he may have inadvertently cut some useful detail. For instance, the lay person (particularly homeowner) would want to know that the “highly precise handheld GPS” that Monmonier is referring to still has quite a bit of room for error (something between 10 and 15 feet). While that circle of error may be small enough for most applications, I would hesitate on relying on a GPS to “quickly determine whether a fencepost or rosebush is on [my] property or a neighbor’s” (22). Monmonier should also have considered additional details on non-technical items in order to balance the message of the book. One possibility is how cartography played a role in the decision taken by the military commander responsible for Hawaii to not to implement the order for the relocation of Japanese Americans located in the state to the mainland (as discussed in 174-175).

A final discussion point that I believe Monmonier missed was with the issue of “greenlining” found in chapter 8. While Monmonier provides an in-depth discussion at the beginning of the chapter on “redlining,” or the process of cartographically demarcating “dangerous” areas to preclude them from various services, he provides only one half of the available discussion on “greenlining.” While Monmonier acknowledges that this process involves “mapping out areas within which firms that create jobs receive tax breaks or outright grants” in areas that he describes as “a city’s green, A-list neighborhoods,” he doesn’t discuss some of the other implications of this practice (124-125). One worth discussing at length, is the implication that this practice concentrates additional financial resources in sections of a place that already enjoy substantial financial clout. It seems puzzling, and Monmonier doesn’t discuss this apparent contradiction, that governments are utilizing public resources to combat “unemployment, underemployment, or out-migration” in areas that don’t traditionally experience these phenomena (124). This contradiction might be the source of the lukewarm outcome where these programs result in neither success nor failure.

As I noted at the beginning of this review, we should consider Monmonier’s book an important part of the political geographic and cartographic literature. However, as this review has pointed out, there is at least one glaring omission, which is a discussion of how people decide, or choose to, follow a map’s suggestions. This omission notwithstanding, Monmonier’s examination of the role maps play in delineating ownership at a variety or scales and the overt and subtle messages transmitted by maps to suggest where to go and what to do are important discussion and research points. Any work that causes us to pause and reexamine what we take for granted at a most basic level, in Mark Monmonier’s case the veracity and objectivity of a map, will always have a timeless quality to them.

In conclusion, Mark Monmonier’s exploration of how maps influence human behavior fills a gap in cartographic and political geographic literature. Drawing on historical and contemporary events and court cases, Monmonier discusses the various ways in which maps can restrict our movement, our ownership, and how they impact our worldview at a variety of scales. Despite the wide scope of the book it is incomplete. In the future, I hope to read Monmonier’s thoughts on how people prescribe importance and validity to maps and how maps can be simultaneously important or not in delineating the same area.

Book Review: The City, A global history (Joel Kotkin)

Kotkin, Joel. The City: A global history, Modern Library: New York, NY. 2006.

Joel Kotkin’s The City: A global history is a worthwhile, short read for those interested in the history and development of cities. Though he presents an overarching framework in the first chapter (more on this in a bit), he doesn’t always explicitly state the links between historical and current cities and this framework. Thus, it is useful to recall the points made in the first chapter as you read in order to evaluate Kotkin’s framework. From the standpoint of Geography, I think Kotkin does an effective job of introducing his readers to urban geography and the history of urbanity. They key word is introduction, at 160 pages of text and covering major cities from Mohenjo-daro (2600 BCE) to contemporary developing megacities like Mumbai or Shanghai Kotkin can only offer a brief introduction to each city and the trends and factors affecting each city’s development. Despite this wide-breadth in temporal and geographic scale, The City is a great introduction for high school students to the study of the city in Geography.

Kotkin’s framework is summarized in the title of the first chapter “Places Sacred, Safe, and Busy.” Joel Kotkin argues that a city’s prominence is due to three factors that determine “the overall health of cities…the sacredness of place, the ability to provide security and project power, and last, the animating role of commerce.” When these factors are present, a city can be “great,” when they are not the city can wither and fade. The first section (comprising three chapters) is devoted to the ancient cities and how they set the standard of all cities being places of sacredness, security, and commerce. In these short chapters he primarily focuses on the cities in Mesopotamia, the progenitor of modern civilizations, as he further develops his framework of scared, safe, busy with ancient examples.

Parts two, three, and four focus on what we know as classical and renaissance civilizations. Here he covers the development of cities from the Greek city states through Rome to the collapse of the “classical city.” In part three, he switches the focus from Europe to the Islamic, Chinese, and Indian civilizations, during Europe’s descent into the Dark Ages. Of particular interest to me was the rapid de-urbanization of Europe following the fall of Rome, Kotkin does an effective job of highlighting the population loss in just a few generations in a number of European cities. In part four, Europe reasserts its primacy as the hub of urbanity. Chapter Nine “Opportunity Lost” sets the stage for part four but is worth a mention because of its wider applicability.

In this chapter, Kotkin points to the “problem of prosperity” as the culprit of Asian and Islamic stagnation and ultimate decline. He points to ethno-centric attitudes borne out centuries of political, economic, and social domination. He also points to the limits of autocracy among kingdoms prevalent at this time in world history, which stifled innovation and entrepreneurship. Though Europe suffered autocracy as well, Kotkin points to the rise of the urban merchant and artisan classes as effective counterweights to the political elites, who often had the ability to influence policy.

The second chapter of part four, “Cities of Mammon,” and part five take us from Europe’s imperial cities, Venice, Amsterdam, and London through to industrialization and the creation of high rise cities (especially in New York). The industrialized city, Kotkin primarily points to the U.S. and UK as his cases, is counter-balanced in the cities’ of industrialism’s discontents, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. The problem, as Kotkin argues, with the Western industrial city was the overemphasis on commercialism. The primary conflict underpinning this discontent was also found in the “West”, the environmental and social degradation of an earlier society. Discussing the effect that the Soviet Union had on its urban architecture, Kotkin argues that the Soviet Union “stripped” city’s of their sacred function. Formed in response to the excesses and perceived lack of moral order in the industrialized “West”, the Soviet Union created cities with a “destitute urban legacy.”

The final section brings us to the rush to suburbia and the population loss (notably of whites) that Western cities endured throughout this century. Kotkin points to the automobile, mass transportation (to a certain extent), the fear of crime in the inner city, and prevailing cultural preferences for “a six room house with a big yard”. Of course, the ultimate manifestation of this kind of city is Los Angeles. While suburbanization gripped the “West”, the former colonies and imperial territories of Africa and Asia grappled with their colonial legacies. In this chapter, Kotkin highlights the impact that Europeans had on the urban landscape of conquered territories (often creating capitals despite an existing infrastructure elsewhere, like Calcutta instead of Delhi). Importantly, Kotkin also discusses the dualistic nature of many former colonial cities. This dualism is in the relative affluence for a small proportion of the population, often very visible in social and international media (think of Mumbai and Cairo) and the near destitution and poverty afflicting the vast majority of the rest of these urban dwellers. In the concluding section to this chapter he describes these socially stratified cities in the Middle East and Africa (in particular) as “social time bombs.”

I agree.

The final chapter (a brief description of the preceding chapter: it examines the growth and success of eastern cities like Singapore and Hong Kong) deals with the future of urbanity, particularly in the United States. There are three points that stuck with me, the first is the “destruction of distance” and can be seen in the rise of such modern concepts as “tele-commuting” and “tele-working”, in effect, being able to do a job that was formerly in the city, but from wherever you live (not in the city). Obviously, this sort of phenomena is primarily oriented to service-based economies in the “West”, rather than manufacturing centers elsewhere. This destruction of distance also threatens the megacities of economically developing countries, which have outrun their colonial infrastructure. In the “West”, its becoming apparent that it is no longer necessary for humanity to congregate in an area to maintain an economically viable enterprise. In response, Kotkin sees cities everywhere becoming “ephemeral” and relying on their cultural industry to set trends and to become places for tourism and wonder. Perhaps most interestingly, Kotkin sees a limit to “gentrification” by wealthy youths and relative social elites. As middle-class urban families are priced out and banished to the suburbs, Kotkin sees a loss of “economic and social vitality” characteristic of urban stagnation and decline. A word here on gentrification as Kotkin sees it, rather than urban revitilization by young families, he references “older affluents…’wealthy cosmopolites'” seeking to convert cities from “economic centers” to “residential resorts.” The final threat is the lack of a common moral vision to hold cities together. Kotkin points to the lack of religion or any other binding force in contemporary cities as a serious problem to the lack of stable communities. Most interestingly in this regard, he notes that academics and planners rarely discuss the lack of a “powerful moral vision.” In quoting Daniel Bell he says that “the fate of cities still revolves around ‘a conception of public virtue.'” Here again, I agree.

Kotkin’s The City gives us plenty of points to ponder and discuss, I’ve presented a number of the most interesting in this review. I’m inclined to agree with Kotkin’s assessment that our city’s lack a “powerful moral vision”, though I don’t think that religion is necessarily the answer, I generally believe that an overemphasis on the individual and lack of emphasis on individual responsibility for the community is a serious problem. A Washington metropolite for over a decade now, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen young men (and some women) refuse to budge for elderly women (and men) or pregnant women on public transportation. A similar symptom of the lack of personal responsibility is the wanton way in which we flout laws. Cars (taxis in particular) driving well over posted speed limits, running red lights, failing to stop at stop signs, pedestrians jay-walking or crossing against the light, bicyclists running through lights or weaving between traffic. While I don’t think we should be mindless automatons while in a city, some consideration for others (a general acknowledgement of their humanity, for instance) would be a welcome change.

Beyond the “moral vision,” I find other interesting parallels between America’s decline and the stagnation of China and the Middle East before the Renaissance. Would many of us really argue that a certain ethno-centrism is well-entrenched in the United States and that its almost celebrated here, and elsewhere in the West? While Europeans continue to struggle with its persisting irrelevance politically and economically, Americans are beginning to understand what it feels like. And yet, despite the widespread knowledge that Americans are geographically illiterate, we seem surprisingly ok with this condition. I suppose we’re content with our ephemeral fads and styles (so long as we can pay for them), confident that we’ll remain the jewel of the world. As a rule, we seem to be completely unaware of the increasingly disparate and rigid social hierarchies in our, and other societies, which occasionally explode into violent conflict.

Joel Kotkin’s The City provides a brief introduction to the geography and history of humanity’s urbanity. Using a framework emphasizing the city as sacred, secure, and commercial places, he not only highlights the myriad cities that came to dominate the surrounding landscape (sometimes the known world) but also provides useful insight into their eventual decline. It is this latter perspective that is most important for planners, politicians, and students, because as a rule, we tend to learn much more from our failures, than our successes.