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Boston’s summer colors

What public photos reveal about the shades of the city

Map of Boston's summer colors as seen through photographs
Click on the image above to enlarge map.
By Andrew Woodruff
September 4, 2011

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WHAT COLOR IS BOSTON? You might find yourself picturing the dazzling reds and yellows of autumn, the snowy white of winter, or the lush greens of spring. The prevailing colors across the city depend on time and location, and are, furthermore, in the eye of the beholder. One person may think of the red of Park Street Church, while another may remember the green trees of the Boston Common.

As summer draws to a close, the map here explores Boston’s summer colors as seen through the eyes of residents and visitors - or rather through their camera lenses, using photographs as a record of the scenes that most attract people’s attention. The photo-sharing website Flickr allows its users to geotag their photographs, indicating the precise locations where the photos were taken. Analyzing thousands of those images from the past few summers in locations around Boston reveals a landscape of the dominant colors perceived by people on the ground. Each dot represents the most frequent color hue in geotagged photos near that point.

The color of Boston as seen in photographs is not that of Boston as seen from above, nor is it necessarily what we know from everyday experience. One won’t, for example, easily discern the Emerald Necklace park system on this map, as most of the city’s green spaces are not popular photo subjects. In the densely built parts of the city, brick and stone might come to mind, but even in these areas blue dominates the map, perhaps because of upward-looking photos of landmarks and buildings against the background of the sky. Orange, here representing a range of warm colors and browns, is also pervasive in places with more ground-level and interior photos.

The photographic record of colors is far from complete. For one thing, it only covers a small part of the city, mostly a tourist-friendly swath from the North End to the Back Bay, extending to a few other spots such as Fenway Park, and across the Charles River to MIT, Central Square, and Harvard in Cambridge. As such, this map may show the colors seen by visitors more than residents. Colors and photo locations will change as the seasons progress, too. Greens become browns, and Fenway Park in the off-season may fade from the landscape, as it receives less visual attention. But the more photos we all take, the better the map will be.

Andrew Woodruff is a Cambridge-based cartographer for Axis Maps, and coauthor of the Bostonography blog.