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Urban Layers, showing the age of buildings across Manhattan (courtesy Morphocode)

Last year, the City of New York released a huge trove of tax data to the public. Called Property Land Use Tax Lot Output (PLUTO), the information might not seem terribly thrilling, a dry assortment of building dates, square footage, and property value, but for those looking to map the city’s history and potential future it is an incredible resource.

Urban Layers, showing the Cooper Union Foundation Building in red and newest buildings in blue (screenshot by the author)

Now several projects are utilizing PLUTO to experiment with visualizing the development of New York City. One of the most recent is called Urban Layers. Created by the architectural practice Morphocode, it merges the PLUTO data with NYC building footprints to create an interactive map of the development of buildings in Manhattan (along with Governors, Randalls, and Roosevelt islands) going back to 1765. You can move a slider along the timeline, center on a specific neighborhood, and get an idea of when and on what scale specific blocks were developed. Blue buildings are newest and red are oldest, so you could go to Cooper Square and see the Cooper Union’s Foundation Building stand out bright red against the new construction growing around it. As another example, over at CityLab this week, Kriston Capps theorized how you might track to rise of the Harlem Renaissance impacting building construction in the neighborhood.

Urban Layers could be seen as the retrospective companion to the Municipal Art Society’s Accidental Skyline. Inspired by the growing number of shadows being cast by giant towers on Central Park, the mapping tool charts the potential for new development, using PLUTO and other data sources. The accuracy of all this should be cross-checked, of course, to seriously examine what might happen to your neighborhood and its specific history. Morphocode gives this disclaimer on their site: “Please, note that some dates are estimates. There are also dates that seem to be wrong.” However, together they’re an engaging experiment in turning this newly open data into accessible tools for seeing a city’s history and where it may be going.

View of Lower Manhattan in Urban Layers (screenshot by the author)

Urban Layers is available online from Morphocode. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...