Paper towns and trap streets: when mapmakers get it wrong on purpose

Argleton: actually a collection of fields. What's going on, Google? Image: Google Maps.

Bad news, folks. Much as we like to rely on them, and, in fact, view them as a lone source of stability in a confusing and ever-changing world, maps can be wrong. And not just wrong by accident. Wrong on purpose. 

The reason for this actually stems from maps' very purpose: that is, their attempts to accurately represent of the world around us. If you’re just documenting what’s already there, there’s nothing to stop other map-makers copying your work – and, if you’re as accurate as you’d like to be, you’d have no way to prove that they’d done so. 

So, to protect their work, many cartographers fall back on a simple trick: “easter eggs”. These are small errors or jokes buried somewhere in the map, which act as a kind of watermark for the map-maker: fake towns, say, or imaginary streets. This is great for map companies; but less great for those of us led astray by the mistakes.  


Mount Richard

In the 1970s, the official map of Boulder County, Colorado, contained a very misleading feature indeed. According to Mark Monmonier's How to Lie with Maps, the sketch of the Rocky Mountains included a peak called Mount Richard, which, as you may have guessed, didn’t exist. Sorry, confused mountain climbers. 

It’s assumed that this was a matter of avoiding imitation – though the coincidence of its drafters name, Richard Ciacci, suggests ego might have had something to do with it, too. 

London's trap streets

According to a BBC2 programme broadcast in 2005, London’s A-Z street atlas contains around 100 “trap streets”: made-up roads used to trick imitators. Most are small, connecting streets between larger arteries, such as Moat Lane in Finchley.

There are other idiosyncrasies, too – for a while, Haggerston park appeared to have its own ski slope:

Agloe, New York

This example is particularly uncanny, as the fake settlement (often called a “paper town”) actually became a reality. In the 1930s, cartographers placed a non-existant town called Agloe on a map of Delaware county, New York state. In 1950, a general store was built in the area. It was near “Agloe” on the map, so its owners named it “Agloe General Store”.

Beatosu and Goblu

OK, this one doesn’t have much to do with copyright at all. Beatosu and Goblu were two made-up Ohio towns, inserted into the 1978-79 official map of the neighbouring state of Michigan. Go Blue was the slogan of the University of Michigan; Ohio State University (OSU) was its rival. Peter fletcher, chairman of the state highway commission and University of Michigan alumnus, asked the map's cartographer to include the fake towns as a dig at his rival college.

You gotta get your kicks somewhere, I guess. 

Argleton 

This was a mysterious town marked out on Google Maps near the West Lancashire village of Aughton. It was discovered, and brought to the internet's attention, by Mike Nolan, an employee at Edge Hill University, in 2008, but was only removed last year.

Google have kept quiet on their reasoning for the town’s existence, and the long interlude before its removal – though it’s possible that, like creators of physical maps, they just wanted a way to protect their content.

Alternatively, keen-eyed commentators have pointed out that the town’s name is an anagram for “Not Real G” and “Not Large”. (Also, according to our independent research, ”Angle Rot” and “No Gel Rat”). Perhaps we’ll never know. 

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.