Singapore through the years: A digital cartographic record

From quiet colonial backwater to thriving city-state, Singapore has undergone rapid transformation over the last 200 years or so.

If you are interested in finding out how the Central Business District has developed since the 1828 Jackson Plan or have a general interest in the country’s ever-changing landscape, do check out Historical Maps of Singapore, an online resource created by NUS Geography and hosted by NUS Libraries.

Historical Maps of Singapore provides a series of maps of different scales dating from 1846 to 2010. The maps have been carefully converted to a digital format and georeferenced to facilitate cross-comparison.

The work was funded through a Strategic Initiative award from NUS, and both the Singapore Land Authority and Ministry of Defence kindly provided permission for the maps to be made available online.

NUS Geography faculty members who worked on the project included the Head of Department Professor David Taylor, as well as Associate Professor Feng Chen-Chieh.

“Maps are extremely important resources, and not only for geographers. Maps are time-stamped windows not only on the ever-changing landscapes they represent in reduced form but also on the minds and values of the map-makers and those who they thought might be interested in the results of their endeavours,” said Prof Taylor.

“For example, the 1873 map shows the locations of 29 police stations, but only one hospital ~ was crime really a much greater concern than health in late 19th century Singapore?  Making the maps available in digital form opens them to a wider audience and to new forms of analysis.”

The online resource is being used in teaching by NUS Geography, and has proved particularly valuable during the COVID-19 pandemic when teaching was moved largely online.

The digitised maps have also been used in research. For example, geographers have used the maps as a basis for plotting changes in Singapore’s coastline and the extent to which coastal habitats such as mangrove forests have been lost, while researchers at NUS Chinese Studies have plotted changes in the locations of Chinese temples and kampungs – and in some cases their disappearances.

The Historical Maps of Singapore web-based resource has been made as straightforward as possible to use. Once on the website, users may select the maps that they are interested in and zoom in and out, revealing higher or lower levels of detail. They can also arrange several maps on top of one another as layers, and search for common features on the different maps. Layer swipes can also be done to compare different maps.

Clicking on the metadata, one can also view a description of the map, provenance and citation. These maps can be exported and viewed in Google Earth, QGIS or ArcGIS as layers. These features provide researchers and students from a range of disciplines with the analytical and visualisation tools needed to carry out more detailed studies of the digitised maps.

Prof Taylor added, “The popularity of the Historical Maps of Singapore web-based resource has not surprised me. Singapore has changed so much in a relatively short period of time.

“Maps are one way of capturing and evaluating those changes. But they are capable of providing much more than a simple record of change. I hope that we are able to add to the current collection of digitised maps and associated resources in the coming years as we move increasingly into an era where geospatial information underpins so much of what we do and who we are”.