A Place by Any Other Name

Helensville to Greymouth

This post explores familiarity, maps and geographies of names. It might not make much sense if you are unfamiliar with New Zealand places. You can play with a fullscreen map or scroll to the bottom of this post for an embedded version.

Last week I looked through some old Strange Maps posts and revisited a wonderful 2007 map, US States Renamed For Countries With Similar GDPs. As its title suggests, it depicts US state boundaries with the twist that state names are substituted for countries with similar gross domestic products at the time of production. In the 2007 global economy, California became France (#1 at $2.15 trillion), Australia replaced Ohio (#16 at $645 billion), Iran was roughly equivalent to Alabama (#36 at $195 billion) and Washington D.C. was substituted for New Zealand (#49 at $99 billion).

"US States Renamed For Countries With Similar GDPs

Aside from the information the map explicitly conveys (i.e. particular nations are roughly comparable to US states in terms of a certain measure of economic output) I find this map interesting for a couple of reasons. On one level, the graphic evokes almost poetic associations between states and countries. How is Norway similar to Minnesota? What would happen if the cultural fabric Peru was overlaid on Utah’s deserts and mountains?

The second reason fell closer to home. I stared at this map and wondered, “How I would respond to a map of Aotearoa/New Zealand where the place names are randomly shuffled? Forget about making comparative statements. Just throw all the names in the air and see where they land.” The more I thought about this the more curious I became, realising that I didn’t know how a rearranged linguistic landscape would affect me.

So, I made one.

I downloaded the NZ Geographic Names Labels at a cartographic scale of 1:500k from the excellent Land Information New Zealand data service. Then I wrote a short Python script, using Fiona (reading and writing geodata) and Shapely (manipulating Cartesian geometric objects), to randomly shuffle all the labels with the feature codes METR, POPL, TOWN, SBRB. I styled the map with TileMill and generated map tiles using the method Bjørn Sandvik outlines in this excellent tutorial.

I find the result artefact strange and wonderful. The repositionings mess with my expectations. Te Kuiti on the Coast. National Park as a harbour. Palmerston and Palmerston North in close proximity at last. The inland city of Surfdale on the banks of a mighty river.

It is like glimpsing an alternative Aotearoa, recognisable yet unfamiliar. I had a similar reaction when reading Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter books, which are set in a profoundly altered variation of New Zealand.

When I explore this map, I start asking myself questions like “What would Auckland have been like if it instead been named Geraldine? How would that naming decision echo through history, one small alteration forking into several others, changing the character of the place?” And I realise I have no idea. All I know is this that map prompts me to wonder.

(It’s fun to play “Where’s Waldo?” with placenames. See if you can find Auckland.)

Use the controls, mouse-wheel or double click to zoom in. Click and drag to move the map. A fullscreen version is available.

4 Responses to “A Place by Any Other Name”

  1. Amy says:

    I found it interesting that the transposed English names looked weirder to me than the transposed Maori names. It should really be the other way around as the Maori names (usually) would have a greater descriptive connection to the location. Refreshed in this way, the English names look more out of place. Really thought provoking.

    • Chris says:

      Thank, Amy. I found this exercise really odd. I was surprised at how disorienting moving the place names around was, both in terms of shifting their position and altering the hierarchy. I’m glad it was interesting for you too.

  2. […] Read Chris’ blog entry about his mixed-up map here, and explore the map here. […]

  3. Melissa says:

    I really want to see this done with South Island mapping onto North Island somehow – by population size? by number of rainy days per year? by number of craft breweries, or kayak hire shops? hmmm…

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