A New Downtown Arena for Philadelphia?

I woke up this morning and the breaking news was that the local basketball team, the 76ers, proposed a new downtown arena just four blocks from my office. The article included a graphic showing the precise location of the site.

I have no doubt whatsoever this won’t impact my commutes.

For our purposes this is just a little locator map in a larger article. But I wanted to draw attention to two things in an otherwise nice map. First, if you look carefully on the left you can see the label for the Broad Street Line placed over the actual railway line, which is what makes it so difficult to read. I probably would have shifted the label to the left to increase its legibility.

Second, and this is a common for maps of Philadelphia, is the actual north-south route of said Broad Street Line, one of the three subway lines running in the city. (You all know of the Broad Street and Market–Frankford Elevated, but don’t forget the PATCO.) If you look closely enough it appears to run directly underneath Broad Street in a straight line. But where it passes beneath City Hall you will see the little white dot locating the station is placed to the left of the railway line.

Why is that?

Well when it was built, Philadelphia’s City Hall was the tallest habitable building in the world. Whilst clearly supplanted in that record, the building remains the largest free-standing masonry building in the world. But that means it has deep and enormous foundations. Foundations that could not be disturbed when the city was running a subway line directly beneath Broad Street.

Consequently, the Broad Street Line is not actually straight—ride it heading south into City Hall Station and you’ll notice the sharp turn both in its bend and the loud screeching of metal. The line bends around parts of the building’s foundations, sharply on the north side and more gently on the south side. So the actual station is still beneath City Hall, but offset to the west.

But most of the time it’s easier just to depict the route as a straight line running directly beneath City Hall.

Credit for the piece goes to John Duchneskie.

Where’s the Axis

We’re starting this week with an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer. It looks at the increasing number of guns confiscated by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at Philadelphia International Airport. Now while this is a problem we could discuss, one of the graphics therein has a problem that we’ll discuss here.

We have a pretty standard bar chart here, with the number of guns “detected” at all US airports from 2008 through 2021. The previous year is highlighted with a darker shade of blue. But what’s missing?

We have two light grey lines running across the graphic. But what do they represent? We do have the individual data points labelled above each bar, and that gives us a clue that the grey lines are axis lines, specifically representing 2,000 and 4,000 guns, because they run between the bars straddling those two lines.

However, we also have the data labels themselves. I wonder, however, are they even necessary? If we look at the amount of space taken up by the labels, we can imagine that three labels, 2k, 4k, and 6k, would use significantly less visual real estate than the individual labels. The data contained in the labels could be relegated to a mouseover state, revealed only when the user interacts directly with the graphic. Here it serves as a “sparkle”, distracting from the visual relationships of the bars.

If the actual data values to the single digit are important, a table would be a better format for displaying the information. A chart should show the visual relationship. Now, perhaps the Inquirer decided to display data labels and no axis for all charts. I may disagree with that, but it’s a house data visualisation stylistic choice.

But then we have the above screenshot. In this bar chart, we have something similar. Bars represent the number of guns detected specifically at Philadelphia International Airport, although the time framer is narrower being only 2017–2021. We do have grey lines in the background, but now on the left of the chart, we have numbers. Here we do have axis labels displaying 10, 20, and 30. Interestingly, the maximum value in the data set is 39 guns detected last year, but the chart does not include an axis line at 40 guns, which would make sense given the increments used.

At the end of the day, this is just a frustrating series of graphics. Whilst I do not understand the use of the data labels, the inconsistency with the data labels within one article is maddening.

Credit for the piece goes to John Duchneskie.

Fire in Fairmount

Philadelphia made the national and international news last week, although for once not because we’re all being shot to death. This time because a fire in a rowhome killed 12 people, including nine children. The Philadelphia Inquirer quickly posted a short article explaining what occurred that morning. But the early indication, based upon the confession of a five-year old, is that a child playing with a light set a live Christmas tree on fire.

Ironically, the city prohibits live trees in high rises, apartment buildings, and multi-family dwellings. The rule is in place because live trees are a very real fire hazard. Just a few weeks earlier, a man and two of his sons were killed in a suburb north of Philadelphia (his wife and a third son survived). They died in a fire that began with lights on a live tree. But here in the city, the code states that multi-family dwellings begin at three households. This rowhome had been converted into two separate units, so a live tree was legal. But they would have been better without.

The Inquirer article features a scrolling illustration depicting what we presently know about the fire: how and where it started, why it may have spread, and ultimately who died.

Live trees smell great, but they’re a very real fire risk.

Credit for the piece goes to Sam Morris.

Philadelphia’s Wild Winters

Winter is coming? Winter is here. At least meteorologically speaking, because winter in that definition lasts from December through February. But winters in Philadelphia can be a bit scattershot in terms of their weather. Yesterday the temperature hit 19ºC before a cold front passed through and knocked the overnight low down to 2ºC. A warm autumn or spring day to just above freezing in the span of a few hours.

But when we look more broadly, we can see that winters range just that much as well. And look the Philadelphia Inquirer did. Their article this morning looked at historical temperatures and snowfall and whilst I won’t share all the graphics, it used a number of dot plots to highlight the temperature ranges both in winter and yearly.

Yep, I still prefer winter to summer.

The screenshot above focuses attention on the range in January and July and you can see how the range between the minimum and maximum is greater in the winter than in the summer. Philadelphia may have days with summer temperatures in the winter, but we don’t have winter temperatures in summer. And I say that’s unfair. But c’est la vie.

Design wise there are a couple of things going on here that we should mention. The most obvious is the blue background. I don’t love it. Presently the blue dots that represent colder temperatures begin to recede into and blend into the background, especially around that 50ºF mark. If the background were white or even a light grey, we would be able to clearly see the full range of the temperatures without the optical illusion of a separation that occurs in those January temperature observations.

Less visible here is the snowfall. If you look just above the red dots representing the range of July temperatures, you can see a little white dot near the top of the screenshot. The article has a snowfall effect with little white dots “falling” down the page. I understand how the snowfall fits with the story about winter in Philadelphia. Whilst the snowfall is light enough to not be too distracting, I personally feel it’s a bit too cute for a piece that is data-driven.

The snowfall is also an odd choice because, as the article points out, Philadelphia winters do feature snowfall, but that on days when precipitation falls, snow accounts for less than 1/3 of those days with rain and wintry mixes accounting for the vast majority.

Overall, I really like the piece as it dives into the meteorological data and tries to accurately paint a portrait of winters in Philadelphia.

And of course the article points out that the trend is pointing to even warmer winters due to climate change.

Credit for the piece goes to Aseem Shukla and Sam Morris.

Rarely Shady in Philadelphia

After a rainy weekend in Philadelphia thanks to Hurricane Henri, we are bracing for another heat wave during the middle of this week. Of course when you swelter in the summer, you seek out shade. But as a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out, not all neighbourhoods have the same levels of tree cover, or canopy.

From a graphics standpoint, the article includes a really nice scatter plot that explores the relationship between coverage and median household income. It shows that income correlates best with lack of shade rather than race. But I want to focus on a screenshot of another set of graphics earlier on in the article.

On the other hand, pollen.

I enjoyed this graphic in particular. It starts with a “simple” map of tree coverage in Philadelphia and then overlays city zip codes atop that. Two zip codes in particular receive highlights with bolder and larger type.

Those two zip codes, presumably the minimum and maximum or otherwise broadly representative, then receive call outs directly below. Each includes an enlarged map and then the data points for tree cover, median income, and then Black/Latino percentage of the population.

I don’t think the median income needs to be in bar chart form here, especially given the bars do not line up so that you can easily compare the zip codes. The numbers would work well enough as factettes or perhaps a small dot plot with the zip codes highlighted could work instead.

Additionally, the data labels would be particularly redundant if a small scale were used instead. That would work especially well if the median income were moved to the lowest place in the table and the share charts were consolidated in one graphic. Conceptually, though, I enjoy the deep dive into those two zip codes.

Then I wanted to highlight some great design work on the maps. Note how in particular for Chestnut Hill, 19118, the outline of the zip code is largely in a thicker, black stroke than the rest of the map. At the upper right, however, you have two important roads that define the area and the black stroke breaks at those points so the roads can be clearly and well labelled. The other map does the same thing for two roads, but their breaks are shorter as the roads run perpendicular to the border.

Overall this was just a great piece to read and I thoroughly enjoyed the graphics.

Credit for the piece goes to John Duchneskie.

Philadelphia’s Changing Skyline

Yesterday I mentioned how I spent Monday researching some old family properties in Philadelphia. In some cases the homes my family owned still stand. But, in many others the homes have long since been replaced. But that’s the nature of city development.

That got me thinking about an article published earlier this month at Philadelphia YIMBY where the author created an animated .gif detailing the Philadelphia skyline from 1905 through 2020. This screenshot captures the overlay of 2020 atop 1905 from the south of Philadelphia.

Kind of how it’d look from the sports complex.

But the gem of the piece is the animation. Implicit in the graphic but unmentioned is the text, which is understandably centred on the architectural designs of the skyline, is the history of Philadelphia.

In the old days, well before 1905, the city was concentrated along the Delaware River because it was—and still is—a port city. But as those shipping businesses were replaced by banks and financial companies which were replaced by other offices and manufacturing headquarters that were themselves replaced by corporate highrises and so on and so forth, we can see the centre of gravity shift westward.

The mass of buildings by 1905 has shifted away from the Delaware River and is concentrated to the east of City Hall, the tallest building until the 1980s. But you can see the highest and largest buildings moving more to the left in every frame. Though in the latest you can see some new largely residential highrises built along the Delaware waterfront.

It’s a great piece.

Credit for the piece goes to Thomas Koloski.

Substandard Housing in Philadelphia

I took a holiday yesterday and headed down the street to the Philadelphia City Archives, which houses some of the oldest documents dating back to the founding of the colony. But I was there primarily to try and find deeds and property information for my ancestors as part of my genealogy work.

When I walked into the building—the archives moved a few years ago from an older building in University City into this new facility—an interactive exhibit confronted me immediately. Now I did not take the time to really investigate the exhibit, because I anticipated spending the entire day there and wanted to maximise my time.

But there was this one graphic that felt appropriate to share here on Coffeespoons.

Philadelphia’s population crested in the 1950 census, it would decline continually until the 2010 census.

Like a lot of statistical graphics from the mid-20th century we have a single-colour piece because colour printing costs money. It makes use of a stacked bar chart to highlight the share of housing in the city that can be classified as substandard, i.e. dilapidated or without access to a private bath.

The designer chose to separate the nonwhite from the white population on different sides of the date labels, though the scale remains the same. I wonder what would have happened if the nonwhite bars sat immediately below the white bars within each year. That would allow for a more direct comparison of the absolute numbers of housing units.

That would then free up space for a smaller chart dedicated to a comparison of the percentages that are otherwise written as small labels. Because both the absolutes and percentages are important parts of the story here.

The white housing stock increased and the number of substandard units decreased in an absolute sense, leading to a strong decline in percentages.

But with nonwhite housing, the number of substandard units slightly increased, but with larger growth in the sheer number of nonwhite housing units overall, that shrank the overall percentage.

Put it all together and you have significant improvements in white housing, though in an absolute sense there still remain more substandard units for whites than nonwhites. Conversely, we don’t see the same improvements in housing for nonwhites. Rather the improvement from 45% to 35% is due more from the increase in housing units overall. You could therefore argue that nonwhite housing did not improve nearly as much as white housing between 1940 and 1950. Though we need to underline that and say there was indeed improvement.

Anyway, I then went inside and spent several hours looking through deed abstracts. Not sure if those will make it into a post here, but I did have an idea for one over a pint at lunch afterwards.

Credit for the datagraphic goes to some graphics person for some government department.

Credit for the exhibit goes to Talia Greene.

Bodies Buried Under Spring Garden

Okay, technically not Spring Garden Street, but a strip mall along one of Philadelphia’s main arterial city streets. Luckily these aren’t some victims of a serial murderer, but rather the result of Philadelphia being an old city (for the United States). As this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer explains, the bodies were discovered during excavations for new construction at the site.

The reason I shared this today was that this past weekend, I had a pint with a colleague of mine at Yards Brewery located at 5th and Spring Garden. We sat at an outside table along Spring Garden and at some point I recall pointing out that Spring Garden hadn’t always been a street. Originally it only existed west of Broad.

Little did I know that the construction site across the street on that sultry Sunday afternoon was home to an archaeological excavation of an old, long since demolished city church cemetery.

Of course I still want a tram/trolley or light rail line to run down the length of Spring Garden like it did in years past.

You can use the slider in the article to compare the layout of the intersection in 2021 to that of 1860. I love these old timey maps, especially when working on genealogy. Because while we know the cities where we live today, they didn’t look like we know them 150 years ago. And in lieu of photography, it’s otherwise difficult to try and make sense of our ancestors’ world.

Just a few doors south of the Methodist church we had a bakery and a small alley called Brussels Place. And facing the alley we had what look like a number of small homes or perhaps stables. Larger presumably rowhomes lined the main streets of the intersection.

At the right of the screen, I also remember my colleague and I discussing some of the old-looking rowhomes. They may very well be the same ones depicted on this 1860 map. They are the few survivors as most of the area, as the article points out, was eventually turned into a petrol station that later became the strip mall today fenced off to be turned into flats.

Credit for the piece goes to John Duchneskie.

Roundabouts in Philadelphia

This is a piece I’ve been sitting on for a little while now, okay half a year now. There isn’t too much to it as it’s an illustration overlay on a satellite photo. But the graphic supports an article about the construction of a new roundabout in Philadelphia, coincidentally where I used to live.

That intersection is…tricky to navigate at best as a pedestrian because there are six and a half streets converging at the junction—I give a half to Arizona St because, well, you’ll see shortly. When I lived in the neighbourhood I saw several near accidents between vehicles and pedestrians and vehicles and cyclists. Anything to help improve the safety will be welcome. And that improvement is what the Philadelphia Inquirer covered back in January.

More roundabouts please.

This definitely fits in the category of well done, small graphics. Not everything needs to be large and interactive. This does a great job by using transparency over the satellite image and layering illustration atop the photo.

Now if we could only restore the old rails on Trenton Ave to be some kind of tram/trolley or light rain corridor. Regardless, there are some good restaurants and drinks options in the neighbourhood, so maybe I’ll have to go investigate in person now that going out is an option again. You know, to a do a proper follow-up.

Credit for the piece goes to John Duchneskie.

Yep, Still Hotter

Like I said yesterday, I wanted to compare cities, surprise, Philadelphia vs. Chicago. And so with some extra time I was able to finish this graphic that took the data from Climate Central to compare the two cities.

What you can see below is that Philadelphia has seen more significant temperature growth in both summer highs and summer lows. And, importantly, the increase in low temperatures, i.e. nighttime, has been greater than that of daytime highs. That means that we have less of an opportunity to cool down after a hot summer day, adding stress to the system.

Chicago on the other hand has seen less overall growth, though it’s still present. And there too we see the same pattern of greater increases in low, i.e. nighttime, temperatures than of daytime highs.

It’s all unbearable

It’s remarkable to think that the flat where I lived seven of my eight years in Chicago had no air conditioning unit in the bedroom, only in the living room. It was, of course, an older concrete building from the 1960s/70s when, as the chart above shows, nighttime temperatures didn’t really require air conditioning.

But like I said yesterday, I’m just glad I’ve been able to crank the air conditioning the last several days.

Credit for the piece is mine.