Structural racism is not simply a metaphor, it is infrastructure itself as we know it. But addressing these foundational structures requires new methods of making visible what we ignore daily. First, such visualizations must be designed for a public larger than the planners and managerial class that so often traffic in this data. We are increasingly aware that the infrastructure of the city puts certain populations at a disadvantage, but we are not always clear about how to discuss the nature of this inequity with both accuracy and empathy. Despite the increasing precision and power in data analysis and modeling, the demographic and spatial facts can still fail to create the visceral understanding necessary to reckon with the immense crises of our present moment. Although we might quickly assume that the most appropriate model for data visualization automatically means “data model,” we should not be lulled into forgetting the power of the more scenographic notion of the model, nor should we imagine that these two modes of modeling are incompatible. The Isochronic Mountain project is a series of “landscape” models that physicalize data while simultaneously engaging a more picturesque tradition of landscape to palpably envision the repercussions of the invisible infrastructural decisions that shape our experience of the city.
While GIS (Geographic Information Systems) applications offer the ability to intricately map the repercussions of policy and planning decisions as they play out on a local scale, this proficiency does not necessarily result in a more publicly accessible manifestation of this data. The Isochronic Mountain project refigures this data, recasting structural inequities within the global metropolis through the historical technique of ceramic craft. These cast mountains integrate a set of tactics, both computational and material, to render GIS and demographic data apprehensible and productive inside contemporary debates concerning the right to the city. By visualizing time spent on public transit as the z-height, the Isochronic Mountains offer an intuitive understanding of the “uphill climb” necessary to move through the city without a car.
The modeling strategies of the Isochronic Mountains revisit a number of historical data visualization techniques, from the isochronic maps of the late nineteenth century to the datascapes popularized by MVRDV in the 1990s. Onto these bedrock layers of quantitative techniques, the Mountains deposit a more associative set of references that follow a landscape metaphor to more scenographic ends, following in the tradition of early nineteenth-century dioramas that persist today through, for example, the geological and topographic interpretive models employed by the National Park Service and the bronze wayfinding dioramas found in many tourist sites. The reference to the picturesque, while mired in classed fantasies of the eighteenth century, invokes an understanding of landscape not only as static topography, but as animated by an experience of the journey and of a trajectory bound to physical features. At the heart of the project is an effort to produce layers of knowledge that incorporate the multiple facets of understanding necessary to grapple with issues that are on the threshold of fathomability, either because of their immense size or extended time scale.
Initial Trek: São Paulo
In 2013 in a somewhat cramped, single-room archive in the Museum of Transportation in São Paulo, I stumbled upon a book from 1943 entitled O Transporte Coletivo na Cidade de São Paulo by Bruno Rudolfer and Antônio le Voci. In it, the authors assess the performance of São Paulo’s public transit, namely buses and streetcars, through a variety of metrics and graphic techniques. These maps and diagrams would fit nicely in an Edward Tufte volume on expressively and efficiently representing quantitative data through visual means. Amidst the charts, graphs, Sankey diagrams and other documents, I was struck by a series of maps which seemed to represent an almost molten topographic flow of time. This discovery would become the trailhead that opened onto a longer journey, one that offered striking vistas onto the problematic implications of decades of shortsighted or malicious policy decisions across many metropolises—around the globe, but especially in the Americas.
Isochronic maps were developed in the late nineteenth century to quickly visualize the extent and efficacy of transportation networks, and they soon became a favored tool of transit planners. While simple in concept, these maps offer a detailed and expressive view of geography as it relates to access and the uneven burdens of movement. If one were to walk from the city center outward, and no barriers were present, we could imagine a circle that would delimit the area one could access within a five-minute walk in any direction. Another, larger concentric circle would indicate the distance one could cover in ten minutes, and so on. Of course, the moment that one arrives at a river and is forced to find a bridge to cross, this simple nesting of concentric circles quickly deforms into a much more complicated set of outlines. Factoring in faster modes of available transportation along the route, such as trams and bus lines, would start to extend the distance one could travel in a given time along a specific trajectory. A larger network of transit lines would begin to prioritize certain nodes throughout the city, connecting them to the downtown area by distorting and extending the initially concentric circles to include some neighborhoods at the expense of others.
At the scale of a transit network, isochronic maps appear visually compelling, while remaining strictly managerial in purpose—the wonkiness of transit data elegantly translated into complex aesthetic artifacts. At the global and continental scale at which these maps were initially employed, they betray the extent to which this technique operates as an instrument of empire and dominion. Francis Galton’s Isochronic Passage Chart of 1881, one of the first isochronic maps, charts the time necessary to travel from London to anywhere else in the world. The origin point of London is no accident, nor is the lack of indication of any impediment to global access in terms other than topographical—access assumes conquest. It becomes obvious that these techniques of visualization were designed with a limited population in mind as beneficiaries. This then calls into question the assumed subjects of the managerial techniques applied at the scale of the metropolitan infrastructure.
At the point of my discovery within that archive, the inequity of infrastructural access was fresh in my mind. I had only just started my residency in São Paulo and on the evening of my arrival, Thursday, June 13, the city took to the streets to protest a metro and bus fare hike from R$3 to R$3.20 (an increase of approximately $0.09 USD). The police met this protest with a degree of violent force that was internationally publicized and criticized. On Monday, June 17, a massive crowd gathered to protest the previous week’s violent crackdown. This time, in addition to anger over the transit fare increases, the population in the streets also voiced a broader criticism of the lack of infrastructure serving the common people (not only transit, but other systems such as health and housing), and the misplaced priorities of a government that appeared more interested in courting an international limelight and investment through events like the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics than in addressing longstanding problems at home. While it is clear that a complex network of contributing factors produced such a situation of inequity and frustration, the erosion of public transit infrastructure was the clearest example of the perceived mismanagement of public funds and disinterest in the public good.
Transportation infrastructure seemed at a breaking point, and the fare hike pushed the public past a tipping point. The congestion of São Paulo has made it difficult for anyone to navigate the megalopolis in an efficient manner. Stories abound of the upper classes resorting to private helicopters to beat traffic. Obviously, this option is open to only a slim segment of the population, meaning the commute becomes much more difficult for some than others. For those residents without cars, extreme transit commute times of up to four hours one way are a regular occurrence. It wasn’t always this way. São Paulo’s bondes (or electric trams) used to extend well into what was considered the city’s periphery. Launched in 1899 by the Canadian company The São Paulo, Light and Power Company (or simply Light), these streetcars carved their way through the neighborhoods of São Paulo to create a substantial transit network while facilitating the expansion of the city. When this network was shut down in the 1960s, even as the city continued to expand, the erosion of this public service created a growing mountain of time heaped onto the back of each citizen.
São Paulo’s current lack of public transit accessibility is surprising given that the city’s growth was dependent upon such a robust transit system. This so-called surprise felt familiar to me as it paralleled a history with which I am more familiar: that of Los Angeles and the infamous demise of its Pacific Electric Red Car Lines. Many metropolises like São Paulo or Los Angeles that carry the reputation of being custom-built for the automobile were in fact designed around streetcar lines, and their “sprawl” maps directly onto this earlier infrastructure. With the advent of the automobile, city planners dismantled tram and streetcar networks in most cities in the Americas, Australia, and to a lesser extent, Europe. Viewed in aggregate, this erosion of municipal infrastructure extended across continents at a nearly planetary scale.
A Topographic Allegory
Looking at their isochronic maps, I could not help but see an implied terrain in the concentric lines of Rudolfer and Antônio le Voci’s documentation of São Paulo. What would it mean to misread this cartography, replacing the contour lines that indexed time with an identical set of lines representing topographic elevation? I thought this simple projection into three dimensions could add a more significant weight to the difficulty shouldered by those commuting long distances through the sprawling contemporary metropolis, while also revealing the relative ease of moving through the city by tram in 1939. By scanning, laser cutting, and reassembling this historical document, I layered the data into the first “isochronic mountain.” While I had anticipated that this resulting topography would expose a deeper understanding of each neighborhood’s degree of connectivity, the technique also highlighted the lava flows of time that were channeled by planning decisions and physical constraints like rivers and heavy rail lines. As I stacked each laser-cut paperboard stratum on top of the last, an alternative landscape for São Paulo emerged. Ridgelines of easy access vaulted across the city, pushed higher by the speed of the tram lines running in and out of the city center. Valleys of underserved zones settled between these highlands, revealing the neighborhoods disadvantaged by a longer voyage to the city center, now materialized as a steeper climb.
In the early isochronic maps, topography often produces difficulty of travel—in Galton’s map, the Rocky Mountains of the Western United States produce clear disruptions in the smooth concentric lines of travel times. In the Isochronic Mountain series, this causal relationship is reversed. Difficulty now produces topography: the cliff face between two neighborhoods indexes the degree to which one offers an easier life than the other. The uphill climb that favela dwellers face in commuting by bus from the hinterlands of São Paulo to their jobs as domestic workers or day laborers in the wealthier center of town is literalized and spatialized in the form of this new mountain.
It would have been possible to read the concentric lines of Rudolfer and Antônio le Voci’s contours in reverse order, producing an isochronic basin instead of a mountain. This would have created a direct analogy between the “commuteshed” of public transit and the concept of the watershed that is now quite familiar to the general public. But the notion of the watershed presents itself as an unavoidable fact of mere physics—as rain falls it has little choice but to follow the terrain, routed into swales, streams, rivers, and oceans. To reverse this diagram with a peak as destination point rather than a valley as collection point is to eliminate the prospects of inevitability. In this case, in a cruel game of infrastructural Darwinism, though many of the city’s inhabitants will aspire to reach this peak, not all will succeed. The title Isochronic Mountain São Paulo, O Morro da Esperança Paulista, alludes to an ambiguity within Portuguese in which the mountain (morro) of esperança can indicate the city’s poorer population collectively caught between “hoping” and “waiting.” More importantly, the summit becomes a comparative point between the historical and contemporary models, rendering clear the metaphor of infrastructural erosion. If the peak remains at a constant elevation in both the historical and current mountain, then the dismantling of infrastructure translates to an erosion of mass as the deepening of the crevices produces the increased uphill climb. This metaphorical mountain emerges through policy inaction and lack of resources—or through willful negligence. When viewed comparatively, the two Mountains, past versus present, seem to exhibit the effects of geological erosion. This metaphor of infrastructural erosion is apt: as the mountain of transit infrastructure might erode, the funding that once supported it does not simply disappear. Instead, it is displaced and rerouted, in this case from public transit infrastructure to publicly subsidized road and highway infrastructure.
Buffalo and the Inequity of Infrastructure
If the opposition between the wealthier central neighborhoods of São Paulo versus the plight of the favelas on the urban outskirts produces particular problems in terms of equitable access to the city, the inverted relationship is not necessarily better. The latter model—poverty in the urban core with wealth spread out to the suburban periphery—is typical of the twentieth-century North American metropolis and emerged as an outcome of white flight in the 1950s and 60s. It represents not only a wildly expanding metropolis, but a retreat from urbanity itself, resulting in a depopulated or defunded center in tandem with an expanded growth of the hinterlands. After exploring the topographies of unequal access in São Paulo, I set out to move the Mountains to Buffalo, New York to examine this inverse condition using the same modeling techniques.
The history of Buffalo’s ascendancy as enabled by a regionally scaled infrastructure is well known. As the western terminus of the Erie Canal, Buffalo prospered from the trade in goods moving from the Midwest to the Eastern Seaboard. One can still trace the great Erie Canal through the city and spot the empty grain silos that populate the city’s skyline and nostalgic imagination. The opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway and the subsequent shift of the inter-regional economy in the late 1950s is viewed as the culprit of the decline of the overall metropolitan area of Buffalo. Yet there is another parallel infrastructural history that is less present in the collective consciousness of the city: its urban train lines.
Beginning in the 1880s, Buffalo’s horse-drawn streetcars were electrified. By 1902, the various separate private operators of these lines were consolidated into the International Railway Company (IRC), which would build one of the most extensive transit networks in the United States (by the end of World War II, it was second in per capita ridership only to Washington DC).1 But with the advent of the car and public buses, this system would be dismantled beginning as early as the 1930s.2 Unlike the celebrated canal or the abandoned grain silos, it is much more difficult to find the remnants of this streetcar network in the contemporary metropolis. However, the repercussions of its construction and demolition are every bit as impactful on the present experience of the city.
While the erosion of Buffalo’s once great transit network has had repercussions for the entire city and region, the impact has not been equal across all of the city’s inhabitants. Perhaps most significantly, the demise of the streetcar network, along with other related factors such as neighborhoods carved up by urban freeways and parkways, would help to segregate the city in a structural way that remains in place today. While there is a common belief that Buffalo is easy to navigate because of its light traffic—“you can get anywhere in 20 minutes”—this truism does not apply to the city’s inhabitants who are limited to public transit. In fact, those without cars are three times more likely to spend 1.5 hours per day commuting.
This translates into significant economic segregation that also aligns with the fact that Buffalo is one of the most racially segregated cities in the US. According to the “One Region Forward” study by the UB Regional Institute, “across the US, workers who use public transit earn almost as much as workers who drive alone, but in Buffalo Niagara, workers who use public transit earn only half as much as those who drive alone.”3 Almost one half of the NFTA ridership is African American (42% in 2013), while over one third of the riders come from households with less than $10,000 in annual income (37% in 2013).4 While this data and the embedded implications may be clear to those who regularly perform quantitative studies, it can easily slip beyond the grasp of average inhabitants of the city who may be thoroughly enveloped in their own individual realities (whichever side of the equation they may be on). It is crucial to put these figures into historical context while simultaneously creating an immediate and material method of conveying the problem at hand.
By partnering with the University at Buffalo Regional Institute, I was able to gain access to contemporary data for the NFTA as well as the expertise in GIS analysis. To generate the isochronic map, the GIS analysts at the Regional Institute accessed transit times and trajectories from the NFTA (Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority) in the format of spatial General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) data. This data was analyzed to produce the isochronic maps, which require a single destination point and a single moment in time. To generate the default data model, we selected 9:15am on a Tuesday as representative of a typical weekday just after the spike of the morning commuter rush. The destination point was set as Buffalo City Hall, as this was immediately adjacent to the city’s financial center, and the ultimate location of the ceramic Mountain installation. With the information provided by the NFTA, we developed a data model mapping the travel time from any start point along a bus or train line to City Hall. To this we added an average walking speed within the street grid to complete the distance between any origin point in the region and the nearest bus or train stop.
Although Buffalo has a pattern of job distribution that is not solely focused on a downtown financial district, City Hall as a destination point offers a reasonable default that simulates a “best-case scenario.” Since the city’s transit system is primarily organized as a star-shape system centered on the downtown area adjacent to City Hall, even if the city center is not a final destination point, it often serves as a transfer point for many riders. This means that modeling the city center as the destination is still indicative of the transit difficulties that riders encounter in Buffalo, where many residents living in an inner-ring suburb would need to take a bus downtown in order to transfer to another bus headed to other outlying areas. It also means that many of the city’s current inhabitants may average more time on transit than the Mountain indicates, simply because they are bound for destinations less central than City Hall. Overall, while these limited data sets cannot fully describe the complexity of commuting patterns in the city or region, they can illustrate some general trends while providing a very accurate and in-depth representation of one snapshot of a larger complex network.
Earthen Modeling: Material Agency of Clay
Typical digital fabrication strategies often seek to maximize fidelity to the digitally modeled geometry and the often-disembodied data from which this geometry derives. The Isochronic Mountains accept and integrate data from other sources, namely the specific details involved in fabrication and material craft, with the goal of creating a more visceral connection between the public and the GIS transit data.5 Because the original GIS model exists only in two-dimensional planimetric format, all three-dimensional elevational or z-axis information is derived from data and independent from the geo-spatial maps; therefore the overall form and geometry are flexible in their interpretation. However, in moving from the data model to a three-dimensional digital model, once the z-axis info has been “baked” into the geometric model, it produces a digital form that can be more or less “faithfully” rendered into physical and material form. Two primary objectives guided the translation of this geometry into physical form: the Mountain’s bodily relationship with the public and the cultivation of a coherent geological metaphor.
The dynamic GIS model produces a two-dimensional map of any “resolution” as defined by the spacing of isochronic contour lines (isochrones). It would be just as easy to generate isochrones at thirty-second intervals as ten or twenty-minute intervals. I selected the interval of one isochrone for every minute as the most intuitive spacing for the two-dimensional map: each line crossed equals one minute in time. For the physical model, however, I employed isochrones at two-minute intervals. The scale of the overall topographic model was calibrated to create a five-foot diameter mountain that when placed on its custom pedestal, would sit with its peak at four feet high. These dimensions allow visitors to visually “inhabit” the landscape as they can peer in and around the valleys and ridges. The dimensions of the router bit tool (1/2” diameter ball-end mill) produce a scalloping that matches the curvature of the average human finger, encouraging the public to use their fingers to “walk” up the side of the mountain, counting their steps along the way. In doing so, they are able to easily calculate the number of minutes to move from their home location on the mountain to City Hall by transit.
While many data models and datascapes operate as three-dimensional graphs of information, the Isochronic Mountains maintain a more literal connection to the image of landscape. Rather than being rendered as smooth pixel surfaces, the Mountain is wrought of glazed terra cotta, both symbolizing and recapitulating the geological processes that form real mountains, thereby extending the earthen allegory. In the case of the model, miniaturization operates as a scaling down of space as well as a compression of time. Spatially, while the z-axis elevational information is not directly linked to the geography of the city, the x and y-axis information is a direct miniaturization of the territory of Buffalo, like any other road map. Temporally, the geological operations that typically unfold over millions of years have instead been effected over the duration of days or weeks in the forming and firing of ceramic components. While this geological simulation is not an exact reproduction of geological forces, the material qualities of the model allow it to feel authentic—which is to say, to be more mountain than data, more experience than policy.
The rendering of transit data into the ceramic mountains undoubtedly requires a careful translation of the original geo-spatial data sets. The earthen material cannot preserve the original GIS data with the infinite precision of a digital model. Instead, it approximates the digital information with the same fidelity as a mineral landscape might follow the textbook model of geological transformation. In other words, the ideal is evident, but inflected by all the fissures and pockmarks of a heterogeneous material world. Is this final form more or less accurate than the initial data model? It is, in fact, a corruption of that pure GIS data. However, as this data is initially generic information, the material nature of the Mountain is potentially more accurate in portraying the types of anomalies and aberrations that invariably exist within any individual’s trajectory through the city. In this way, the project models information that is both quantitative and projectively experiential.
Double Vision: Panorama of the Lived Metropolis
The Panorama of the City of New York, produced by Raymond Lester & Associates for the 1964 World’s Fair and housed in the Queens Museum, claims to be the “world’s largest scale model.” It was constructed of Formica, Urethane foam, wood, plastic, hand-painted paper, and etched brass with later additions in laser cut/etched acrylic. This panorama and the many other similar models on public display attempt to represent the world as proportionally accurate, but viewed from a different vantage point—producing a defamiliarizing god’s-eye view (the public at the ’64 Fair would view the New York panorama from a simulated indoor helicopter ride). Instead of offering a different perspective of the world as it exists, the Isochronic Mountains generate another world that visualizes the metropolis as it is experienced.
From its ideal vantage point perched at the pinnacle of City Hall, Isochronic Mountain Buffalo does not need to offer a panorama of the city; that view exists just outside windows adjacent to the sculpture. It instead presents an interpretation of the on-the-ground experience of transit. The positioning of the Mountain in relationship to the view of the city beyond creates an analog version of an augmented reality experience while maintaining a doggedly material artifact as over/underlay. This double vision collapses the world as it exists in the panorama beyond, presented as coincident with the world as it is experienced bodily, translated as topography. This topography might operate as some bedrock upon which the city is constructed: a darkly familiar palimpsest of infrastructural terrain invisible beneath the visible built world, but which constantly conditions of our experience in the city, hidden like the original steel rails of the IRC streetcars, now interred under the recent deposits of asphalt.
The isochronic map located adjacent to the Mountain operates as a navigational guide to its three-dimensional counterpart. It integrates familiar layers of the city, such as the transit routes that sync directly with typical street maps, with a layer of pseudofamiliar place names that I coined so as to posit a more projective representation of a city. We can thus trace the ridges created by bus and rail lines as well as the underserved valleys in between. “Metro Ridge” indicates the backbone that most people know as Main Street. It connects the string of plateaus curving northeast out of downtown created by the NFTA Metro line, along which each Metro station produces a butte or mesa that is better connected to downtown than the neighborhoods just adjacent. The alternative place names help to build a narrative of a parallel experience of the city, overlaid onto the more familiar geography of known map features. Each has a corollary: “Allen’s Point” corresponds to the Medical-Allen Campus Metro Station; “University Promontory” to the University Metro Station, and so on.
We often expect a model to offer a comprehensive representation of some factual condition that we can then view from multiple perspectives. The Isochronic Mountains play with this assumption, engaging our faith in data and the hyper-specificity within, but then employing a landscape of allegory and association to push beyond the purely quantitative. These Mountains are most accurate at the scale of minutia—granular data and material behaviors—and in the realm of the anecdotal and experiential. But while precise data models may be effective for informing the specifics of policy decisions, they are not necessarily the best method of conjuring the public’s imagination and sparking discussion about policy objectives. The questions remain: For whom is the city built? For whom is it dismantled?
Model as Touchstone
The Isochronic Mountains serve as a touchstone for conversations around the future of transit and public infrastructure. The artifact offers a starting point for debating the future of Buffalo’s transit network. Mountain gatherings have already brought together city planners as well as the community advocacy group Buffalo Transit Riders United (BTRU), transit advocates Citizens for Regional Transit (CRT), and a regional strategy think tank, the University at Buffalo Regional Institute (UBRI).
We seem to be witnessing a historical phase change in motion that very much parallels a past moment when tram lines were dismantled in favor of private transportation. At this moment, private ridesharing services are viewed as potential replacements for struggling public transit systems. Often, the arguments in support of such replacement are almost identical to the arguments for replacing trams with buses and cars: primarily more flexibility and therefore efficiency, both in terms of schedule and route options. The potential fallout might be similar to that of the earlier dismantling as well—namely that once an infrastructure is destroyed, it is almost impossible to rebuild if the flexibility ultimately proves uneven or if private interests tire of working for the public good.
In 2019, Uber had negotiated deals with twenty US cities, and Lyft had done so with fifty. Many of these arrangements provide discounted travel for transit riders through ridesharing platforms or offer ticketing services that allow transit riders to access rideshare options through the same app and vice versa. However, some of these deals include plans to fully or partially replace transit service with municipally subsidized rideshare service.6 At the time of my 2018 interview with the Buffalo NFTA’s Manager of Service Planning, the strategy of replacing underutilized bus lines with rideshare vouchers was already under consideration.7 Obviously, buses and bus operators must be serviced and salaried whether they run full or empty, and they must maintain a schedule whether or not there are riders to pick up. For lines with low ridership, these fixed costs become burdensome, and offloading this service to a privatized on-call platform is an enticing solution.
In the present moment, when the future of public transit is jeopardized by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as disruptive and arguably labor-exploitative ride-sharing technologies, this project serves as a precise quantitative visualization of the repercussions of earlier policy decisions as well as a more intuitively accessible cautionary tale that employs the aesthetics of the picturesque to invert its class politics. Can we trust the predictability of recovery or progress when we see the pitfalls of all the data pointing in the same direction of public service decline, as it might have at the moment the automobile replaced the streetcar? Can we trust that more flexibility and efficiency will be justly distributed across the city’s inhabitants? We imagine the city as something that is built. However, the city is also regularly unbuilt with equally structural and lasting consequences. Perhaps by modeling—with data, geometry, and material—we can conceive of landscapes that enable us to see beyond a future that seems inevitable, yet ultimately proves to be unjustifiably inequitable.
These mountains do not solve the problems. They simply give us new perspective on the challenges from a different, defamiliarizing vantage point. They make clear the necessity of the geologist-historians that might help us understand how these mountains were formed and how we might anticipate or encourage future tectonic shifts. They demand a coalition of guides and civic mountaineers who can help the public negotiate this problematic terrain in the interim.
For more information, see the video on the Isochronic Mountain project and subsequent Discard Archive exhibition.
The Isochronic Mountain project was supported by residencies at the Casa das Caldeiras in São Paulo and the Creative Arts Initiative at the University at Buffalo as well as a faculty development grant from Woodbury University.
For full project credits see: