Atlantic Cities

Mapping a Century of Change in the City of Boston

Mapping a Century of Change in the City of Boston
Calvin Metcalf

Whole stretches of the city of Boston didn't exist a century ago, which is not simply to say that since then new roads have been laid and houses built and communities planned at the periphery. Literally, pockets of the city exist today where once there had been water.

Consider, for instance, this historic picture, part of a collection of maps of coastal Massachusetts that date to the late 1890s and early 20th century, which were digitized, georeferenced, and put online by the state's Office of Coastal Zone Management:

A century ago, the region was as much water as it was land, with a series of curvy peninsulas and open inlets. The Charles River in the southwest of the map looks broad and untamed. The Mystic River north of Somerville hardly appears like a river at all. Now, here is the region today, built on mapping data from OpenStreetMap:

Nevermind the obvious additions of major highways. Entirely new chunks of land, including all of Logan International Airport, have grown out of all that water. For some immediately apparent reasons that we've written about before, so much infill makes Boston particularly susceptible to sea-level rise.

That lesson is the most glaring one from comparisons of the two maps made possible by this great georeferenced overlay of the two moments in time, created by Calvin Metcalf and hosted by Code for Boston. Travel anywhere in the region, and you can toggle between the turn of the last century and this one, between farmland and subdivisions, between the pre-Interstate street network and the city's biggest highways.

The I-90/93 interchange.

Here are the western towns of Waltham, Newton and Watertown:

And what's now a suburban community southwest of the city (where a few lucky residents clearly get to live on top of a hill):


If you're from the Boston area or know it well, you will probably find some even better stories of change here:

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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