“An atlas may represent many places in the same way or the same place in many ways, and it is in the myriad of descriptions that the maps begin to approximate the rich complexity of the place, of a place, of any place.”
- Rebecca Solnit, Infinite City

The Visualizing Mental Maps of San Francisco project taps into San Francisco residents' perceptions of the city and its neighborhoods, which aren't always reflected in the geography of a street map. The first part of the project was a qualitative investigation in which we interviewed residents and asked them to draw pictures of their internal images or "mental maps" of the neighborhoods they lived in and of San Francisco. The second part was the creation of visualizations informed by the qualitative research, resulting in this atlas of mental maps.

Every map has a perspective, and every map is “wrong” in some way. Google Maps, for example, uses the Web Mercator projection, which distorts the relative proportions of landmasses, but preserves street level angles that would be distorted with other large scale projections. It's a trade-off, and there is no truly unbiased map.

Geospatial data (and other kinds of data) are often evaluated in terms of accuracy and precision, which are presented as value-neutral goals. While accuracy and precision are valuable, they may sometimes crowd out other perspectives and values.

A precise, accurate map asks us to believe that we know what a place is called, what its borders are, and where it belongs within a standardized hierarchy of space. But do we really known all those things? From whose perspective?

The visualizations presented here highlight ways in which San Francisco residents' perceptions of local spaces may not be reflected in standard maps:

Orientation: Which way is North? It doesn't always have to be at the top of the page. Re-orient or dis-orient yourself in San Francisco.

Corridors: Where are the hearts of each neighborhood?

Barriers: Is it really that close? It's not always as simple as it looks getting from one neighborhood to another in San Francisco.

Boundaries: What neighborhood are you in? According to whom?

Storymaps: Take a tour of the city, guided by the thoughts of locals.

Game: Ready, set, go. Invisible bike race!

Gallery: Draw a map or a picture of your neighborhood, however you see the space.



Rachelle Annechino has seen the city as a dinosaur and cannot unsee it.

Yo-Shang Cheng is still not entirely sure what's in the southern half of the city.

We would like to thank our advisor Ray Larson, Jenna Burrell, Darin Jensen, Mike Jones, Greg Niemeyer, Nancy Van House, Bernt Wahl, and Eric Wilde for their support and feedback, as well as all of our participants for sharing their fascinating insights.

You can contact us at:
sfmentalmaps, the 'at' symbol, gmail, .com