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culture

Get Interactive With Historical Toronto Maps

New map viewer lets users engage in some Toronto time-travelling.

Screenshot. Map of Toronto in 1818.

There’s now an easier, more convenient, and more dynamic way to compare different stages in the development of Toronto: thanks to the new Toronto Historical Map viewer, you can zoom in and out of and explore maps produced between 1818 and 1924, and aerial photographs from 1947 and 2012.

Over the past few years, Nathan Ng, creator of the Historical Maps of Toronto project, has been working on various initiatives (such as this one, which focuses on Fort York and the surrounding military reserve) geared toward making maps of our city more available and accessible.

The maps included in this viewer, Ng explains, were previously held in different institutions, making it difficult for people to discover them on their own—and not all were in formats that could support online use. Ng wanted the documents to reach a larger audience of both historians and casual web surfers by putting them on the internet in one convenient, findable place.

Sceenshot. Map of Toronto in 1889.

He also envisioned an interactive, user-friendly future for these maps that would support and facilitate various research projects: “Imagine a jazzed-up, interactive version, or a gigantic ‘all in one file’ image carefully stitched together,” he wrote on his blog. And that’s when Chris Olsen, an analyst at ESRI (a Geographical Information System technology vendor) entered the picture.

Olsen proceeded to create the map viewer by georeferencing and then stitching together map plates—essentially, each map had to be tagged so that users could jump between the same location in different files—and by adding controls that allow users to slide between years. He’s also worked on historical map viewers for both Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

Screenshot. Toronto in 2012.

The primary value of the site, says Ng, is that you can “fade in between years while staying in the same spot; you can view Toronto streets and neighbourhoods and see how they’ve changed over time.” And how they haven’t changed: Ng notes that many key buildings have endured, and that while Toronto is “a city of change, you can see the influence of what went before.”

The viewer does not feature a comprehensive set of maps. Ng aims to transform more maps into internet-usable files and support a continuing georeferencing process. “My hope,” Ng says, “is that making resources available in various formats that are usable will make other people able to leverage that work and create new and exciting stuff.”

For those of you with the necessary technical chops: Olsen’s georeferenced files are publicly available and free to use.

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