Mapping with ArcGIS AECbytes Tips and Tricks Issue #88 (October 17, 2019)

Sarisha Kurup
Contributing Writer, AECbytes


Since the explosion of professional GIS products in the mid 90s, ArcGIS by Esri has seen a steady rise. The company began in the 1960s as a land use consulting firm and now enjoys the largest share of the GIS market. Notably, the use of ArcGIS in educational settings has been steadily climbing, especially in fields like environmental sciences and history. In the past few years, there has also been a call for architects to further embrace the possibilities of ArcGIS, and especially to begin incorporating it into architecture classrooms. After all, GIS is useful for analyzing any project with a spatial component, making architectural projects a natural fit. Esri offers two versions of ArcGIS, desktop and online, the former of which is a far more powerful yet complicated tool to learn.

I recently used ArcGIS Online for a historical research project exploring the spatial component to revolution in Paris, and how the memory of political conflict helps to inspire and initiate similar actions in new generations. Building a map of Paris, I explored the idea that the French revolutionary script is facilitated by the city of Paris itself—its movements, its monuments, its architecture—and that there is a counterrevolutionary script, imposed by the various French governments, that has also physically marked Paris, creating its own counter-script. The project involved mapping different time periods and different themes into one map, so that each layer could be isolated. There were 5 different time periods: 1789, 1848, 1871, 1940-44, and 1968, all of which represented significant political revolutions in Paris. Within these periods, some of the themes I mapped were: the placement of barricades during the Paris Commune, the buildings burned by the Paris Commune, the boulevards created by Baron Haussmann, and key locations and buildings during the Nazi occupation. Thus, I spent half my time sifting through books on urban planning, revolutionary history, and primary sources and eyewitness accounts of events in order to create the layered map of revolution and counterrevolution in Paris; and the other half learning ArcGIS. Luckily, the online version is intuitive as well as powerful.

Through this process, it became apparent the enormous ability ArcGIS has to contribute to the field of architecture. While I was mapping locations, topographies and buildings of the past, there is so much space for architects to do the same for the present and future.

Opening the tool, you are presented with a map of the world which you can zoom in on to zero into the place of interest. You are asked to choose a Basemap, which is essentially the type of map you want to work with. For instance, interest in terrain topography would require a substantially different map than the one I used, which featured mostly street names.


To add a layer of content in a map, you have two options. You can map locations in an Excel or Numbers spreadsheet (making sure to include no extra or blank cells) and then insert them into the map by clicking Add and then Add Layer from File. This allows you to create a layer of features that are linked and can be viewed as an isolated whole.


Once your features are inserted, they normally show up with each location or point as a different color, and a pop-up menu allows you to change display options on the map. This is a great feature of ArcGIS, as it allows you to decide how much information shows up on a map for the user, and allows you to consider visual cues to delineate groups. As such, you can make changes so that all the points are the same color, or that only location shows up instead of addresses, or that each point shows a description when you mouse over it.








If you do not have the ability to compile all the addresses beforehand on a spreadsheet (this is particularly true if one is working in the field), ArcGIS provides the option of working directly in the map within one layer.

Instead of adding a layer from file, you would work with Add Map Notes.


This takes you to a pop up in which you can choose from various ways of marking the map. Here, I have named my layer “trial,” and every mark now made on the map will fall under the trial layer, allowing me to be able to later isolate these marks into one whole group. Once you draw a line or put a pin, etc., on the map, you are given the option to title it, add a description, and add images. Thus, if a user were to mouse over a marked location, they would be able to access more information about that particular location. This tool was particularly helpful for me to map the hundreds of barricades erected during the Paris Commune.




Once you have multiple layers, you can isolate them in the legend by checking and unchecking their boxes, allowing you to view different data sets separately or together, as you wish. This is a wonderful way to be able to witness trends spatially. For example, here is a map of Paris with a number of different time periods and thematic layers.


With everything displayed on the map together, it is difficult to really understand trends in data; however, checking and unchecking boxes can reveal significant insights. For example, below is the map with only the placement of the revoutionary barricades during the 1871 Paris Commune, in which the city was seized from the government authorities and run by a revolutionary insurgent government for weeks. Thus, the placement of the barricades is significant, as they display important bases of revolutionary activity. As you can see, the largest concentration of barricades is clustered on the left bank, in and around the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood. On the other hand, the purple dots represent Nazi offices, hang-outs, and clubs during the German occupation of Paris during World War II. As you can see, they are mostly clustered on the right bank. This brings up questions of revolutionary memory, as it does not seem an accident that a conservative invading force chooses the opposite side of the city as its stronghold, set itself spatially and philosophically apart from the Communist revolutionaries less than a century before. On the ground, Saint-Germain-des-Prés still wears its revolutionary history proudly, with hundreds of plaques commemorating significant moments in revolutionary history that occurred at every corner of the neighborhood. In 1968, when Marxist students took to the streets to protest the policies of Charles deGaulle, they chose to do so in the exact same neighborhood. Thus, the map helps us understand the layers of history that are written into the city, a vertible history textbook in the streets.


Another example of the ability to visualize concepts in ArcGIS is evident when one compares the Paris Commune barricade layers with the layer depicting Haussman’s renovations. Between 1853 and 1870, Napoleon III commissioned Baron Haussman to begin a large scale renovation of the streets of Paris. The emperor feared that the narrow, winding streets of the city allowed for the building of barricades which encouraged further revolutionary activity. Fresh off his victory in the revolution of 1848, Napoleon wanted to retain his power with this large scale counterrevolutionary measure. He declared it a “modernization project.” The project would be completed in 1870, and in 1871, the Paris Commune would seize the city. But as one can see, the barricades the insurgents built are mostly on the unchanged streets, and the new, wider boulevards (represented in blue) were unable to provide them with the infrastructure to create and defend big barricades.


With these maps, we are able to visualize the revolutionary versus counterrevolutionary fight that took place in Paris, not just philosophically, but also spatially. Notably, this understanding of where barricades are sustainable is also relevant today, as demonstrated by the recent Yellow Vest protests that continue to engulf Paris.

Thus, the ability to isolate as well as compare layers is an invaluable part of the software. ArcGIS provides some tools for comparison as well. Notably, there is a Measure tool that can be used to calculate the distances between points you have already laid down on the map, which was helpful for understanding protest routes in the city and comparing them across time periods.

Another important tool within ArcGIS online is the sharing tool. This feature is what vaults Esri into the master position of usable GIS technology. Once you have completed your map, the Share feature allows you to present maps in a stylized form to audiences.


It allows you to consider presentation of the map, making it easier to display results to non-specialists. Particularly the Story Map option allows you to animate the map, showing changes over time. There are many different Story Map options that Esri provides, giving you the ability to experiment with how best to conceptually explain and display your map. With the ability to format the map for display in many ways, Esri removes much of the work that map creators would otherwise have to do. It allows creators to focus on their actual content rather than worry about presentation, thus appealing to true, dedicated users of GIS technology. I found this feature of ArcGIS particularly exceptional!


In conclusion, I found ArcGIS an incredibly powerful tool, and while I used it to look back at the historical evolution of a city, it can be used just as easily and effectively for urban design and community planning. It is already beginning to be used in a number of high-profile design projects like the city of Masdar in Abu Dhabi, and as architectural design integrates more tightly with its context—as it should—I see it being adopted more widely in architectural practice.

About the Author

Sarisha Kurup is a contributing writer at AECbytes. She is interested in art, architecture, and history, and in understanding the impact of technology on architecture.

AECbytes content should not be reproduced on any other website, blog, print publication, or newsletter without permission.

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