Why has Google Maps started shading bits of cities orange/brown instead of grey?

What's going on here then? Image: Google Maps.

One of the great things about being the world’s leading purveyor of urbanism for the social media ageTM is that, sometimes, people on social media come to you with interesting questions about how the world’s cities work.

One of the less great things is that, sometimes, you don’t know the answer.

Last night, David Freeborn asked the following:

This is a good question – one I’ve been wondering about myself. Not so long ago, Google Maps showed urban areas in a uniform grey. A few weeks ago, though, it’s started to show some of them in that brown/orange shade.

My first thought, having wasted the 90s playing SimCity, was that this is the difference between residential and commercial areas. The UK doesn’t zone its cities in blocks in the way the game, based on the American experience, did – but there is definitely an identifiable difference between, say, a town centre and a housing estate. So maybe the diverging colour schemes reflect that.

But that, confusingly, would mean the colleges of Oxford counted as “commercial” premises:

...but the area around Tottenham Court Road station in London’s West End doesn’t.

Which doesn’t really stack up.

So, to find out what is actually going on, I – what else? – Googled it. The search uncovered this Google blog post which explains things a bit.

As you explore the new map, you’ll notice areas shaded in orange representing “areas of interest”—places where there’s a lot of activities and things to do. To find an “area of interest” just open Google Maps and look around you. When you’ve found an orange-shaded area, zoom in to see more details about each venue and tap one for more info.

This, then, is why the orange areas are more commercial, but are neither entirely commercial, nor cover all commercial areas. “Areas of interest” are a more nebulous sort of category, covering, basically, the bits that are worth exploring.

So central Oxford shows up because Oxford colleges are the sort of things that might be of interest to the passing visitor; while that bit of central London doesn’t, presumably because construction works means there are fewer shops and restaurants there than in surrounding areas, and those which exist frankly aren’t that interesting.

Or that, at least, is the theory. I’m not entirely convinced by this one.

It’s certainly true that some bits of cities have more stuff to discover, a greater density of incident, than others – and these are more likely to look like downtowns than residential suburbs.

But, to go back to Oxford, why are University College and St Edmund Hall areas of interest, while New College or All Souls aren’t?

By the same token, why is the corner round Tottenham Court Road station grey, while equally unpromising stretches of nearby New Oxford Street are orange?

I’m sure the inconsistencies make perfect sense to the algorithm. I’m just not sure they make that much sense to the human mind.

One factor is probably the types of places Google classes as interesting, which are, more often than not, the sort of places where you can spend money. To quote that blogpost again:

We determine “areas of interest” with an algorithmic process that allows us to highlight the areas with the highest concentration of restaurants, bars and shops.

This probably makes sense if you’re a major multinational corporation selling advertising. But there’s an argument that an algorithm that thinks Trafalgar Square is less an “area of interest” than the restaurants across the road is not fit for purpose.

Most of us, I’m sure, can instinctively tell the difference between an area of a city that is worth exploring on foot, and one that isn’t. But defining that difference, and putting it into words, is rather harder.

And if you can’t define areas of interest, how you can accurately programme an algorithm to look for them?

“In high-density areas like NYC,” says Google, “we use a human touch to make sure we’re showing the most active areas.” Perhaps the human touch is needed elsewhere, too.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He tweets as @jonnelledge.

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A helpful and informative guide to London, for the benefit of the New York Times editorial board

The sun rises over quaint old London town. Image: Getty.

It’s like with family members you hate: it’s fine for you to slag them off, but if anyone else has, you’re up in muted, backhanded arms about it.

Yesterday, the world’s number one London fan the New York Times tweeted a request for experiences of petty crime in the city. This was met by a deluge of predictably on-brand snark, like “Sometimes people scuff my leg and only apologise once”, and “Dicks who stand on the left-hand-side of tube escalators”. This served the dual purpose of uniting a divided London, and proving to the NYT that we are exactly the kind of chippy bastards who deserve to constantly lose their phones and wallets to petty crime.

By way of thanks for that brief endorphin rush, and in hopes of leading things in a more positive direction, I’d like to offer the Times this uplifting guide to London, by me, a Londoner.

I take my London like I take my coffee: on foot. If you are with someone special, or like me, like to reimagine your life in the format of Netflix dramady as you walk alone on Sundays, I can highly recommend the Thames Path as a place to start.

Kick things off next to Westminster, where we keep our national mace in the House of Commons. Useful though the mace might prove in instances of street theft, it is critical that it is never moved from the House. It acts as a power source for our elected representatives, who, if the mace is moved, become trapped in endless cycles of pointless and excruciatingly slow voting.

Cross Westminster Bridge to the Southbank, where in the manner of a spoiled 2018 Oliver Twist, you can beg for a hot chocolate or cup of chestnuts at the Christmas market for less that £8. Remember to hold your nose, the mutton vats are pungent. Doff your cap to the porridge vendor. (LOL, as if we make muttons in vats anymore. Box your own ears for your foolishness.) Then buy some hemp milk porridge, sprinkle with frankincense and myrrh, and throw it at the pigeons. There are thousands.

In the spring, head a little further south through Waterloo station. If you pass through the other side without getting ABBA stuck in your head, Napoleon’s ghost will appear to grant you three wishes.

Proceed to the Vaults, which is like the rabbit warrens in Watership Down, but for actors and comedians. No-one knows the correct way in, so expect to spend at least 45 minutes negotiating a series of increasingly neon graffiti tunnels. Regret not going to art school, and reward yourself upon your eventual entry with a drink at the bar. Browse the unintelligible show programme, and in no circumstances speak to any actors or comedians.

When you emerge from the Vaults three days later, turn back towards the river and head east. Enjoy the lights along the Thames while you pick at the spray paint stains on your coat. 


After about 20 minutes, you will reach the Tate Modern, which stands opposite St Paul’s Cathedral. Close to sunset, the sky, water, and cathedral might turn a warm peach colour. The Tate remains grey, coldly confident that for all its brutalist outline, it was still fantastically expensive to build. Feel grateful for that loose knit jumper you stole from the Vaults, and go inside.

Spend two minutes absorbing the largest and most accessible art, which is in the turbine hall, then a further hour in the museum shop, which is next to it. Buy three postcards featuring the upstairs art you skipped, and place them in your bag. They will never see the light of day again.

Head further east by way of Borough Market. Measure your strength of character by seeing how many free samples you are prepared to take from the stalls without buying anything. Leave disappointed. Continue east.

At Tower Bridge, pause and take 6,000 photos of the Tower of London and the view west towards parliament, so that people know. Your phone is snatched! Tut, resolve to take the embarrassment with you to your grave rather than shame Her Majesty's capital, and cross the river.

On the other side of the Bridge, you could opt to head north and slightly east to Shoreditch/Brick Lane/Whitechapel, where you can pay to enjoy walking tours describing how some pervert murdered innocent women over a century ago.

Don’t do that.

Instead, head west and north. through the City, until you reach Postman’s Park, which is a little north of St Paul’s, next to St Bartholomew's hospital. Go in, and find the wall at the far end. The wall is covered in plaques commemorating acts of extraordinary and selfless bravery by the city’s inhabitants. Read all of them and fail to hold back tears.

Then tweet about it.