Mapping Silicon Valley

“Mapping Silicon Valley” explores the role of spatial history in the urban environment of post-World War II Santa Clara Valley. Silicon Valley is the product of competing landscapes. The geographer D. W. Meinig refers to landscapes as “a naïve acceptance of the intricate intermingling of physical, biological, and cultural features which any glance around us displays.” Wildlife refuges, fenced military installations, city and neighborhood districts, and polluted sites all hold definitions on the land. Historian Richard White has referred to this as “hybrid landscapes,” where cultural ideologies clash over conflicting uses of natural resources. The hybrid landscape is neither purely wild nor purely built, but instead a construction of natural and cultural systems that shape and create place. People define places by embedding ideas on the landscape. In cities, urban planners lay down grids of roads, zones, and regulations that divide cities along labor, leisure, and consumption, thus imbuing certain places with particular meaning. Landscapes, as Meinig notes, are “a great exhibit of consequences,” and are “symbolic, as expressions of cultural values, social behavior, and individual actions worked upon particular localities over a span of time.”

By viewing Silicon Valley through the lens of landscapes and space, I argue for the importance of place in shaping a suburban vision of what urban historian Margaret O’Mara has called high-tech urbanism. Silicon Valley has come to represent the future of post-industrial economic development. Places as varied as Atlanta, Georgia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Cleveland, Ohio; Omaha, Nebraska; Bangalore, India; Mission Hills in the Guandong Province of China; and Shenzhen, China, have looked to Silicon Valley as a model for economic and urban revitalization through high-tech economic development. Indeed, high tech is often drenched in green–from high-tech office campuses to “smart cities” that promise to transform work, leisure, transportation, and urban space into a more sustainable future.

The work of this high-tech landscape has been decades in the making and has come with high environmental costs, despite the promise of clean and green cities. Silicon Valley epitomized the trend of conflating a lack of smokestacks as a proxy for sustainable industrial development. High-tech landscapes centered around industrial research and scientific industry promised growth without pollution, but that promise was an impossible standard.

“Mapping Silicon Valley” is a broad discussion of three map-centric projects that have moved through different stages. The first set of maps were data driven thematic maps, produced largely during the course of my dissertation research ( These maps were created largely out of a desire to understand the transforming landscape in Silicon Valley, from city growth and conflicts over urban space to the widespread presence of pollution and neighborhoods most threatened by toxic chemicals. The first section of this paper will reflect on the methodological underpinnings of these maps and their application to environmental humanities, while also discussing some of the potential shortcomings and enhancements that would make these maps more useful for historical research.

The second mapping project is oriented around digital public history. Called Silicon Valley Historical ( and built on the Curatescape platform, the project seeks to collect archival material and narrate the importance of specific places to the Valley’s history. Contributions to Silicon Valley Historical are not solely driven by scholarly contributions, but also rely on contributions by students and volunteers in close association with area universities, colleges, historical associations, and historical societies. The material contained in Silicon Valley Historical is meant, in part, to step away from the business-centric stories so often associated with Silicon Valley and consider more fully the urban spaces that were affected by the growth of this high-tech region. Still in it’s early stages of planning, this section will discuss the challenge of working with community partners and developing a sustainable and scalable digital history project that seeks to serve both the community it studies as well as students and scholars who will find the project useful.

The final mapping project, still under planning and a partnership with the Stanford Spatial History Project, is tentatively titled From Orchards to Suburbs: Changing Landscapes in Silicon Valley and will represent the most technological and research heavy aspects of the project. As I investigate the politics surrounding the creation of place, this project will allow for the spatial exploration of zoning laws, general plans, government reports, and city council meeting minutes. The current design envisages the ability to navigate through a map and, depending on the viewport, presenting a list of primary sources available for reading about particular places in Silicon Valley. These will be accompanied by some computational and statistical tools for doing text analysis to uncover more about the kinds of conversations happening about particular places in the city and how they are being thought about.

Collectively, “Mapping Silicon Valley” will critically reflect on these projects and their evolution as research and public history projects. The paper will further delve into the opportunities for deep mapping and interactivity for exploring the changing landscapes of Silicon Valley.

Host: Digital Humanities 2017 | Aug 12, 2017


Greetings! My name is Jason Heppler. I am a Digital Engagement Librarian and Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a scholar of the twentieth-century United States. I often write here about the history of the North American West, technology, the environment, politics, culture, and coffee. You can follow me on Twitter, or learn more about me.