“Dictatorship By Cartography”

Aerial view on May 23, 2008 of the purpo

Matt Ford considers the relationship between city planning and social unrest:

In many ways, France pioneered the conscious use of urban design for political purposes. Paris in the early 19th century was essentially a medieval city, suffocating from overcrowding and poor infrastructure. Baron Haussmann’s urban renovations under Napoleon III in the 1850s and 1860s gave the City of Light a modern sewage system, beautiful suburban parks, and a network of train stations. He also took the opportunity to demolish unruly lower-class neighborhoods, banish their impoverished inhabitants to suburbs, and replace their cramped, narrow alleys with spacious, grand boulevards. In the event of an uprising, like those that took place in 1789, 1830, and 1848, French authorities hoped the wider streets would be both harder for revolutionary Parisians to barricade and easier for columns of French soldiers to march through to suppress revolts.

Similar calculations are still made today.

In 2005, Burma’s ruling junta moved the government from Yangon, a sprawling metropolis of 5 million people, to the new inland capital at Naypyidaw for security reasons. Isolated from other population centers, Naypyidaw is populated mostly by government functionaries and military officials who spend as little time as possible in the eerily desolate city. Burmese officials claim almost a million people live there, although the true population is likely far, far lower than that. When the Saffron Revolution erupted two years later, in 2007, the large-scale protests that rocked other Burmese cities never took hold in Naypyidaw, and the country’s military rulers remained in power after a brief but brutal crackdown.

Even if the city’s population had been large enough for demonstrations, where would they have taken place? Broad boulevards demarcate the specially designated neighborhoods where officials live, with no public square or central space for residents, unruly or otherwise, to congregate. A moat even surrounds the presidential palace. One journalist described the city as “dictatorship by cartography.”

Update from a reader:

Just a quick note from a working cartographer: this is dictatorship by geography, not cartography. While there are many instances of maps as tools for propaganda (Monmonier and de Blij is a good start for this), and as much as someone like me would be flattered by that type of power, dictatorship by cartography is a highly inaccurate turn of phrase.

(Photo: Aerial view of the purposefully-built capital city of Naypyidaw, Myanmar on May 23, 2008. By Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)