Animations Visualize the Evolution of London and New York: From Their Creation to the Present Day

If you’ve ever lived in a metrop­o­lis like Lon­don or New York, you know the some­times-dis­ori­ent­ing feel­ing of expe­ri­enc­ing sev­er­al decades—or centuries—at once in the dizzy­ing accre­tions of archi­tec­ture, street, and park designs. Or, at least, if you’ve toured one of those cities with a long­time res­i­dent, you’ve heard them loud­ly com­plain about how every­thing has changed. Whether you study urban life as a his­to­ri­an or a city dweller, you know well that change is con­stant in the sto­ry of big cities.

The ani­ma­tions here illus­trate the point on a grand scale, with a satellite’s‑eye view of New York, above, from 1609 when the city was first built on Lenape land to its cur­rent con­fig­u­ra­tion of five bor­oughs, dense thick­ets of high-ris­es, a mas­sive, com­plex trans­porta­tion sys­tem, and 8,600,000 res­i­dents. It ends with a quote from E.B. White that sums up the geog­ra­phy and vibran­cy of Man­hat­tan: “The city is like poet­ry: it com­press­es all life, all races, and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accom­pa­ni­ment of inter­nal engines.”

The New York video “ani­mates the devel­op­ment of this city’s street grid and infra­struc­ture sys­tems,” writes its cre­ator Myles Zhang at Here Grows New York City, “using geo-ref­er­enced road net­work data, his­toric maps, and geo­log­i­cal sur­veys” to give us “car­to­graph­ic snap­shots” of every 20–30 years. Anoth­er project, the Lon­don Evo­lu­tion Ani­ma­tion, uses sim­i­lar tech­niques. But, of course, it reach­es much fur­ther back in time, to over 2000 years ago when the Romans built the first road sys­tem across Eng­land and the port of Lon­dini­um.

Cre­at­ed in 2014, the visu­al­iza­tion shows how the city evolved, “from its cre­ation as a Roman city in 43AD to the crowd­ed, chaot­ic megac­i­ty we see today.” As design­ers Flo­ra Roumpani and Pol­ly Hud­son describe at The Guardian, the project drew from sev­er­al sources, includ­ing the Muse­um of Lon­don Archae­ol­o­gy and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cambridge’s engi­neer­ing depart­ment. From these two insti­tu­tions came “datasets from the Roman and Medieval peri­ods as well as the 17th and ear­ly 18th cen­turies,” and “road net­work datasets from the late 18th cen­tu­ry to today.”

Oth­er archives offered infor­ma­tion on the city’s his­tor­i­cal build­ings and mon­u­ments. Cap­tions and a time­line pro­vide a handy guide through its long his­to­ry, as we watch more and more roads and build­ings appear (and dis­ap­pear after the Great Fire). These videos are use­ful ref­er­ences for stu­dents of urban­ism, and they might give some per­spec­tive to the New York­er or Lon­don­er in your life who can’t stop talk­ing about how much the city’s changed. Just imag­ine what these megac­i­ties could look like in anoth­er few hun­dred years.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

See New York City in the 1930s and Now: A Side-by-Side Com­par­i­son of the Same Streets & Land­marks

Immac­u­late­ly Restored Film Lets You Revis­it Life in New York City in 1911

The Lon­don Time Machine: Inter­ac­tive Map Lets You Com­pare Mod­ern Lon­don, to the Lon­don Short­ly After the Great Fire of 1666

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Ciske says:

    It’s a pity that the ear­li­est his­to­ry of New York is always so under­es­ti­mat­ed although it (and the Dutch Repub­lic) had an enor­mous influ­ence on the whole char­ac­ter of the lat­er Unit­ed states. Wikipedia: “… The colony was grant­ed self-gov­ern­ment in 1652, and New Ams­ter­dam was incor­po­rat­ed as a city on Feb­ru­ary 2, 1653. The first may­ors (burge­meesters) of New Ams­ter­dam, Arent van Hat­tem and Mar­tin Cregi­er, were appoint­ed in that year. …”
    Already as New Ams­ter­dam the city had free trade/capitalism (the first issue­ing of ‘shares’ ever in the world was done by the Dutch VOC) , free­dom of reli­gion, social mobil­i­ty (‘the amer­i­can dream’), a ‘melt­ing pot’ (even today Ams­ter­dam is the city with the most eth­nic­i­ties in the world). Even the idea of New York as the cap­i­tal of the free world was actu­aly inher­it­ed from Ams­ter­dam which jid­dish nick­name ‘Mokum’ means ‘free place’ which name was giv­en to Ams­ter­dam by Jew­ish refugees that came to Ams­ter­dam — as did many thou­sands of oth­ers* — from all over Europe where they were dis­crim­i­nat­ed against and even pros­e­cut­ed.
    *Even the Eng­lish ‘Pil­grim Fathers’ before sail­ing to the New World first sought refuge in the Dutch Repub­lic because of the free­dom there.

  • Keith Gemerek says:

    I am in total agree­ment with the first com­ment. But I would like to offer this obser­va­tion. The devel­op­ment depict­ed here omits an impor­tant aspect which is the farm­land. There are plen­ty of maps avail­able which even label the farm own­er’s names. Some farm prop­er­ty lines even­tu­al­ly became roads, although the grid pre­dom­i­nat­ed. Farms in Brook­lyn exist­ed into the 1850’s. I think that by not includ­ing the estab­lished farms which had res­i­dences on many of them by the way, your depic­tion is more abstract than nec­es­sary, and also lack­ing in that impor­tant fea­ture of devel­op­ment.

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