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Historical GIS: Using Modern Methods to Unearth the Past

Historical GIS: Using Modern Methods to Unearth the Past

The concept of Historical GIS (HISGIS), the geocoding (and often digitizing) of spatial historical data for visualization or analysis, has existed for at least a decade. One of the most simple but effective examples that I know of is UCLA’s Hypercities project. Another is Welikia. Both have superimposed historical maps onto a Google-type current map

The concept of Historical GIS (HISGIS), the geocoding (and often digitizing) of spatial historical data for visualization or analysis, has existed for at least a decade. One of the most simple but effective examples that I know of is UCLA’s Hypercities project. Another is Welikia. Both have superimposed historical maps onto a Google-type current map to demonstrate the past in contrast to current landscape and urban conditions.

In the Netherlands, HISGIS has been a subject of many research teams. A Friesland group has effectively geocoded a mass number of parcels to describe historical land ownership (and use) across the country. A more recently formed consortium of institutions, including VU in Amsterdam, aims to create a platform for storing, sharing, and structuring data collected on the history and heritage of the Dutch landscape.

HISGIS Utrecht Historical GISWhile academia has utilized this method for a long time to, for example, depict outcomes of traditional knowledge of land use or reveal causes of spatial justice or environmental issues that have existed for decades, municipalities and urban planners are still figuring out the benefits of HISGIS.

The City of Nijmegen has a publically accessible HISGIS project depicting geocoded maps and even photos of historical buildings. Any resident (or outsider) can access and get a taste of what the city was like in an earlier time. In a country where no landscape has been untouched by man, the power of depicting such urban history to inform heritage planning and sense of place should entice municipalities.

Heritage planning, a substantial component of city branding these days, serves to tell a story about an urban space and help form a sense of place among residents. Correctly utilizing such digital data merges current mediums with historical information to aid in the rediscovery of our past and give a new (old) meaning to place.

Municipalities most likely do not have the personnel to do such time-consuming geocoding and archival research, but with plenty of projects already happening in the Netherlands, there should be opportunities to utilize existing shapefiles and data from universities.

Would such efforts towards influencing sense of place in a community be utilized by residents online or should they be executed through signage and public information?

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

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Ellen Schwaller is a former GRID blogger and graduate of Arizona State University's master's program in Urban and Environmental Planning. Spending most of her life in the sprawling sunbelt, it was a recognized desire for human-centered rather than au...

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