Digitizing Historic Roads of the Bay Area
By Alice Avery
B.A. in History, 2012
Read about the CityNature project on the OutWest student blog. Over the summer, a team of undergraduate student researchers combined spatial analysis with an innovative mining of planning documents, photographs, social media, and published historical narratives, in order to explain why nature is unevenly distributed in and across cities.
I’ll be honest: I was a little nervous about a summer internship under the Bill Lane Center for the American West because my worst grade at Stanford was in the most introductory of Earth Systems classes. The kind of grade from a supposedly easy class that makes people ask incredulously, “Really?” Despite being very interdisciplinary, the center is housed in the environmental sciences building. As a history major, I’m used to using texts, interviews, diaries, and other static written sources to answer research questions. Given the prompt to research conservation history in California on my own, using a search engine would have been the most technological thing I did. But in July, armed with a handful of tutorials in GIS and four CDs of high-resolution historic road maps, I set out to analyze conservation history in the Bay Area through road and open space development in digital decade snapshots.
The goal of this project – the Berlo Maps project, after the man who donated the historic road maps to Stanford this past spring – is to examine the degrees to which existing roads affected the conservation of open space, and, conversely, existing open spaces prevented road and urban development, a sort of chicken and egg question. The road maps show major roads and indicate type – highway, freeway, paved road, gravel, and dirt – so we are able to track not only the growth of the road system in the Bay Area over time, but also the conversion of a gravel roads to paved roads and paved roads to highways. The first step was to digitize these road maps, creating vectors paired with name, type, and year attributes. Next, these sets of digitized roads need to be combined into one set so that we can perform analyses of the density of roads for each decade versus the number, size, and total acres of open space. There are numerous side trends we can see in the data as well, like the decrease in the average size of parcels established as open spaces during the 1960s or the change in the number of miles of gravel and dirt roads that made the cut for being a ‘major’ road on the map.
I’ve had a brush with environmental science, or at least the methods used in its research, and am proud to say that I’ve come out not only unscathed but also a lot more understanding of the richness that geographical data collection and analysis can add to a historical research question. Unfortunately I’ve already graduated so I won’t get to redeem myself through a retry at a class in Y2E2, but I am leaving with a much wider outlook on the intersections of fuzzy and techie academic realms.
Read more at the Out West Blog for Summer Interns »