A city is quite a lot of different things, but above all, it’s a place. Geography is one way of exploring that sense of place, and it happens to be a true passion for Matthew Toro, the master geographer behind Miami Geographic, a website that explores Miami through data-mapping in order to better understand what makes Miami so Miami.
Whether you’re curious about Miami’s public transit, looking for the safest neighborhood to ride your bike, or just interested in taking a more active role in the city’s political framework, Miami Geographic wants to help you understand your city better. The stunning maps provide answers to questions about Miami-Dade County we never even thought to ask, and illustrating obscure data points in a visual way. We sat down with Toro to discuss his passions, urban planning, and how maps can make Miami a better place.
What is it about geography that inspires you?
When I was studying geography, a lot of time people would ask what I would do with it. Geographers do more than just study places on a map. Geographers have no interest in where places are on a map. They try to explain how places came to be and how they interrelate to one another. People don’t understand what geography is, because geography is so wide reaching and transdisciplinary, it dilutes what geographers do in lay peoples minds. The whole point of Miami Geographic is trying to explain geography to people.
Miami Geographic is applying a geographic lens to the local scale metropolitan region. In layman’s terms, Miami Geographic is a web journal that offers high quality visualizations of geospatial data, which is a fancy academic way of saying “any data that can be mapped.”
Why did you start Miami Geographic?
I want to raise people’s consciousness and appreciation of the city. Its simplistic and perhaps overgeneralizing, but people live through this city day to day – how often do they actually step back and say ‘Wow, what’s actually happening to my city? How can I be a better citizen? How can I understand urban problems like public safety issues or transportation infrastructure?’ It’s really about providing better information so people can understand their city better, appreciate their city better, and hopefully implicitly participate in their city more.
Where should readers get started on their first visit to Miami Geographic?
Definitely the GeoQuiz. I take a picture of a place that’s either iconic or obscure from Miami and people guess where it is. It’s my way of making people pay attention to their city. That’s a concept in geography dubbed “eyes on the street,” which is all about making people feel safe by observing their urban environment. I expand “eyes on the street” to making it about going out and observing your city. So these obscure and iconic pictures of Miami, it’s about going out and saying, ‘Hey Miami, you need to observe what’s going on around you.’
What kinds of maps have been featured on Miami Geographic?
Last thing we posted on was bicycle crashes in Miami-Dade County. We posted a series of maps looking at Florida Department of Transportation data from 2005-2013, and created a series of heat maps identifying locations where the density of crashes happen most. Later, we did a follow up post looking at pedestrian crashes. Another great post, “Los Latinos in Miami-Dade,” looked at 20 different Latin nationalities in greater Miami and used U.S. Census Data to make a heat map showing which areas those nationalities gravitate to in the city. You can actually identify true enclaves by looking at them.
What’s something people generally don’t know about maps?
A map is always political. A cartographer always has his own preference, from the colors to the way he uses certain lines, or the title use, there’s always a graphic message. There’s always an inherent ideological bias. People view them as so authoritative, but there’s always someone behind a map-making decision. There’s even a book by a geographer called How to Lie with Maps!
And when you put that knowledge into actual space — where architects and urban planners and developers make decisions, and you notice the absence of bike lanes or traffic lights or pedestrian infrastructure, it’s an embodiment of that bias.
What kind of impact has Miami Geographic had on the community so far?
One of my posts on Metrorail and land-use systems went through certain policy circles, urban planners read that post and I think were impacted by it. A Miami transportation activist even met with a county commissioner to explain the need for planning the transportation corridor. At the very least, it’s starting a conversation about the future of Miami, and hopefully people will say, “Wow the future of Miami looks a little bleak, how can we change that?”
So it’s obviously worthwhile getting acquainted with Miami’s inner workings if you want to effect real change here.
Definitely. Educating yourself is half the battle. There’s a lot of demand out there for a different narrative or a more intelligent discourse. People look around and say, “Man, this city is changing, there’s so much diversity, it’s so complex.” By displaying data related to the city graphically and visually, people can better grasp what’s happening in their city, better understand, and better participate.