There's a team building a four-dimensional computer map of Edinburgh

Edinburgh, seen from Calton Hill. Image: Getty.

Its frantic approach made practitioners wince but, through Time Team, Channel 4 made archeology prime time entertainment for over two decades. That fact alone vividly illustrates a widely shared fascination amongst the public for peeling back the layers of the past and peering at the lives of those who came before us.

Now that Time Team is off our screens, cutaway junkies are having to look elsewhere for their fix. Fortunate, then, that the team at the University of Edinburgh working on the Mapping Edinburgh’s Social History (MESH) project are developing a way that anyone, anywhere, can construct a digital historical atlas.

Professor Richard Rodger the project’s lead researcher says that MESH’s founding “philosophy is to make the cartographic information easily available in digital form to the public… Allow historians access… produce maps of the city, mak[ing] Edinburgh’s history known [and] available to its communities”.

That all sounds very worthy – but it’s merely the start of MESH’s ambition.

How the distribution of butchers shops changed over 165 years. Image: MESH.

Since the project received a £633,000 grant from the Arts & Humanities Research Council, it’s mapped between 80 and 90 per cent of modern day Edinburgh has been mapped. This is important, because MESH’s approach blends the picture of contemporary Edinburgh provided by OpenStreetMap with historical geological and cartographic data.

This process makes it is possible to create accurate maps that trace Edinburgh’s development across time. Users can watch as the New Town takes shape, or use traditional historical sources like trade directories to plot the historical location of butchers shops or pharmacies.

Rodger says the maps have “show[n] [him] things [he] just wasn’t aware of”: for instance, he has recently been using them to explore the development of Edinburgh’s financial sector and the way that this influenced patterns of suburbanisation.

MESH is currently developing an array of tools that will allow school pupils “to inspect the city’s [development across time] and ask questions of it”. This is where the “social” aspect of the history that MESH is interested in shines through. By tracing the development of a wide range of activities, for instance “eating and drinking across time”, it is possible for the researchers to humanise the raw data and bring users closer to their forebears.

A sample of the team's research. Image: MESH.

Rodger is keen to point to the potential political implications of the work that he is doing. MESH’s work opens up new dimensions in investigating traditional social history concerns around the socioeconomic and spatial origins of inequality, whilst also pointing at new questions, especially ones about open access to data.

The latter issue is one that harks back to social history’s founding assumption that the decisions of those with power and wealth require scrutiny. In a decidedly Time Team turn of phrase Rodger describes MESH’s work as excavating the “historical data miden”. This doesn’t mean see the data as necessarily belonging to the past. Citing a report by the Danish government, which estimates that its decision in 2002 to make its address files open access, has boosted the economy by  €14m a year, he suggests that free access to contemporary and historical mapping data could offer a myriad of benefits to, for instance, those engaged with the planning and premises licensing processes.


For Rodger the humanities, through initiatives like MESH, can provide a firm foundation and historical underpinning to the development of smart cities. In doing so, the tools MESH are developing offer everyone, whether in an academic chair on an armchair, the chance to develop a historical cuttaway without risking the rain.

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CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.