Phytoplankton and cobwebs – a minimalist map of New Zealand

Flying home on a clear night, darkness hides New Zealand’s small size. The hills, fields and forests fade away and all that remains is an endless black expanse punctuated by tiny pools of light. You can get lost looking out the window of an aeroplane.

I spent many years working with maps of New Zealand on a daily basis and now the nation’s cartographic labels are imprinted on my brain. Through aviation safety glass I will seek out Turangai and Taumaranui and Te Kuiti and Te Awamutu, glowing like communities of phytoplankton. At first the phosphoresecent blobs appear stranded but, when you look closer, they are connected by hundreds of faint spiderwebs. Beyond the weaving lines the night is punctuated by constellations of faintly flickering pinpricks — the lights of thousands of isolated farmhouses. Beyond the pinpricks there is only the perfect darkness of the Tararuas and Te Uruwera.

These maps are an attempt to share what I see from an aeroplane window.


A view of Central Auckland bounded by Devonport to the north, New Lynn to the west, Howick to the east and Papatoetoe to the south.

I trawled through various government datasets looking for data to support my vision. The trick was to find a fine-grained dataset representing where people live and covering the entire country. After a series of missteps I started working with the Land Information of New Zealand’s NZ Street Address (Electoral) data. This dataset “provides all address points in the LINZ Electoral subsystem that are, or may be, used by electors.” Although the 1.7 million electoral street address points do not provide a true 1:1 mapping of all households in New Zealand — the data frequently ignores apartments, flats, cross-leases and other situations where multiple households exist at a single address — it proved sufficient to produce the maps of population and urban form that were in my head.

Taupo to Gisborne

Central North Island bounded by Taupo in the southwest, Tauranga to the north and Gisborne to the east. Rotorua glows bright. A sprinkling of lights penetrates Te Uruwera along the road to Lake Waikaremoana.

I made these maps using Tilemill. It was my first time working with the tool and I was blown away by its flexibility and ease of use. The MapBox folk are creating something pretty amazing. If anyone is interested, I can share the stylesheets I built up to create these maps.


Oamaru, Dunedin and Invercargill glow brightly on the coasts. Te Anau, Queenstown, Wanaka and Cromwell nestle into the Central Otago lakes. Oban sits alone on Stewart Island.  

The final map approximates something I have wanted to see for years: a map of where we live devoid of all other cartographic elements. No roads or labels or relief shading. Just us and the land against the water. Glowing phytoplankton connected by intricate spiderwebs.

New ZealandA map of New Zealand

5 Responses to “Phytoplankton and cobwebs – a minimalist map of New Zealand”

  1. Tikitu says:

    Beautiful! I’m curious: if you remove the landforms entirely, how much remains identifiable? I half-expect coastal settlements to delicately trace out the edges, especially in the North.

  2. Chris says:

    Thanks for your comment. I performed a quick render and posted it on Twitter. The coast is still largely evident, except around the lower West Coast and Stewart Island.

  3. David says:

    Very nice Chris!

  4. TimR says:

    Hi Chris,
    Beautiful maps, love the look of them and the story they represent. I’d love to see the source codes if you’re still up for sharing them. Failing that, a link into a Mapbox page would be great!
    Cheers, Tim

  5. kiwafruit says:

    This is stunning. It would be beautiful as a poster print, this one or the image with the landforms removed…

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