Digital Humanities
@ Pratt

Inquiries into culture, meaning, and human value meet emerging technologies and cutting-edge skills at Pratt Institute's School of Information

Grant Proposal for a Historical GIS Study of White Plains, New York

Sara Sheer

Grant Proposal

For this grant proposal, I have identified the following real funding opportunity – the Levy Grant offered by the Steven D. Levy ’72 Fund for Urban Curricular Programs organization. The Levy Grant is a grant of up to $1,500 that is offered to ”All students undertaking investigations of urban issues for a Trinity [College] course, or who are doing similar work under the direct supervision of a Trinity faculty member” while researching a complex urban topic. The grant is for students to “to attend conferences, visit libraries, conduct fieldwork, or offset other research-related expenses.” The Levy Grant requires that applicants submit their application by March 31 and make use of the grant by September of the following year. Once the project is completed, the student must submit a report to the Center for Urban and Global Studies describing the activities made possible by the grant.  

My intention would be to request a Levy Grant for a proposed historical GIS project where I will examine the changes and indicators for the “edge city” of White Plains, New York, since 1990, with the additional aim of extrapolating trends for the near future from this data. This project will be connected with the areas of urban scholarship that deal with the phenomenon of edge cities and demographic and economic changes in urban areas.

The Levy Grant application requires applicants to provide the following information:

  1. Describe the research questions and goals of this proposed project/activity and how it is connected to a broader area of urban scholarship.
  2. Explain the significance of this project for understanding a critical urban issue that will confront humankind collectively in the 21st century.
  3. Describe how this project is related to your coursework and will facilitate your intellectual development.
  4. Describe the feasibility and time frame of the project and how you will execute the research such as data collection.
  5. Provide an itemized budget and its justification for a Levy grant. Be as specific as possible.



My project will consist of the creation of an interactive website that brings together an inquiry into how White Plains may evolve along with data from a Geographic Information System (GIS), which readers will be able to examine themselves. A GIS “is a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present all types of spatial or geographical data.” I will make use of GIS data, particularly maps, to analyze recent demographic and economic changes in White Plains in support of my conclusions to the questions I seek to explore in this project.

White Plains is one of New York City’s many “edge cities.” An edge city is “a concentration of business, shopping, and entertainment outside a traditional downtown (or central business district) in what had previously been a residential or rural area.” Washington Post reporter Joel Garreau popularized the term in his 1991 book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, where he argued that edge cities were the characteristic form of urban growth for the late twentieth century all over the world. However, in the twenty-­first century, there is much debate over whether edge cities have a future or not. Some argue that edge cities have become unpopular with young adults, who prefer to move into central cities, and will thus decline. The rapid gentrification of New York City and several other major American cities is offered as evidence that Millenials do no not want to live in edge cities or suburbs.

My project aims to explore several questions about White Plains as an edge city using GIS statistics from 1990 to the present. These statistics will show the recent trends of the city and its potential future. The first question is, has White Plains grown, declined, or stayed the same as an economic center? Second, have rates of poverty and crime grown, declined or remained stable? From the answers to these two questions I hope to extrapolate what challenges White Plains will face in the near future. All of this ties into the current debate about the recent past and probable future of edge cities: will they, as some have predicted, decline economically and face

growing levels of poverty and crime? If not, will their status as economic centers remain stable or grow?

The first set of GIS statistics I will look at relate to the economic status of White Plains’s population. Using GIS data from the United States Census Bureau, I will create GIS maps showing the median income of White Plains residents for the 1990, 2000 and 2010 censuses. Using that same resource, I will create maps showing the poverty and unemployment rates of White Plains for 1990, 2000, and 2010.

The next set of GIS statistics I will examine relate to White Plains’s status as a center for business and retail, as opposed to being a bedroom suburb. Again using GIS data from the United States Census Bureau, I will create maps showing the percentage of White Plains residents who work in White Plains itself for 1990, 2000 and 2010. I will also use GIS census data to create maps showing occupancies and vacancies in downtown White Plains for 1990, 2000 and 2010. This will help me measure whether the number of businesses and retail outlets have increased, decreased or stayed the same in White Plains since 1990, a sign of the city’s economic health.

The final set of GIS statistics I will make use of in my project is real estate prices in White Plains 1990­-2015, which I will display with maps. I will use a line graph to chart White Plains real estate prices over that period alongside those of New York City. This will show whether White Plains has become more or less affordable since 1990, or stayed the same. By comparing White Plains real estate prices to contemporaneous ones for New York City, I will determine whether White Plains remains significantly less expensive than New York City and thus an attractive place to live.

Another set of statistics I will include in my project relate to the quality of White Plains’s school system. I will create charts showing the annual performance of the city’s school system on both K­8 and Regents tests between 1990 and 2016. For Regents exam performance, I will measure White Plains High School’s relative performance compared to the New York State median, the percentage of students passing each exam, the percentage passing at the advanced level, and the percentage who are rated as being below standard.

I will also chart the White Plains High School graduation rate for that period. Other charts will measure the ethnic makeup of the school system and the percentage of disadvantaged students.

Once completed, my project can continue to incorporate new data and explore how White Plains is changing. It therefore has the possibility of being ongoing and open-ended.

This project will be significant concerning several critical urban issues that will confront humankind collectively in the 21st century. First, will edge cities continue to be viable or not? If not, then business and government should not plan further development in edge cities. Also, it is important to determine what challenges edge cities are currently facing and what challenges they will face in the near future. This will help local, state and national governments deal with these challenges successfully.

Another critical urban issue that my project will address is the level of carbon emissions and use of petroleum. Because edge cities are built around the automobile, they consume large amounts of petroleum and result in high levels of carbon emissions. This is important for two key reasons. First, carbon emissions cause global climate change, which threatens every person on earth, and every non-­human species as well. If the United States is to reduce its level of carbon emissions, which are the highest in the world, it will have to address the issue of the car­-dependent lifestyle of the edge cities where many Americans live and work. By extrapolating as to whether the edge city of White Plains will continue to be a desirable place to live, my project is relevant to the questions as to whether the government should try to reduce carbon emissions by cars through retrofitting edge cities, or if it is not worth doing so because edge cities are declining on their own.

My project is also highly relevant to the question of the planet’s limited and shrinking supply of petroleum. Petroleum is a non­renewable resource, its extraction often highly damaging to the environment and its price unpredictable. Americans have little control over the price of oil, and high oil prices are damaging to the oil­-dependent American economy. More use of petroleum also means more carbon emissions, which of course cause highly damaging climate change. Edge cities like White Plains consume large amounts of petroleum due to being based around the automobile. If America is to reduce its dependence on oil as well as reduce carbon emissions, it must become less car-­dependent. Highly car-­dependent edge cities like White Plains present a major obstacle to this goal. If edge cities like White Plains continue to be important economic centers, then the government should focus on retrofitting edge cities to be less car­-dependent. If edge cities are declining, then the government’s efforts and resources for reducing oil dependency should be directed elsewhere.

The final critical urban issue that my project will help understand is the issue of urban congestion and whether edge cities are a good solution to this problem or not. New York City’s population has been growing, causing the city to be more crowded and congested. In addition, property prices and the cost of living have been increasing there. By examining whether property prices in White Plains have increased, decreased or stayed the same since 1990 relative to New York City, I can help answer the question as to whether edge cities are a viable and affordable solution to congestion in central cities.

One course that this project will be relevant to is URST 301,

Community Oriented Development Strategies to Address Urban Decline in the United States. This course is organized around four questions. One question is, “What are the underlying forces behind neighborhood decline?” My project will seek to determine if White Plains is declining, and if so, why.

Another course that this project will be relevant to is URST 303, Advanced Topics in Geographic Information Systems. URST 303 applies spatial analysis techniques to a variety of topics in Urban Studies and Environmental Science. My project will use GIS spatial analysis techniques to address the issues of urban development.

This project will facilitate my intellectual development by allowing me to develop my GIS skills and design digital humanities projects. It will also help me explore in­-depth the issues of urban development.


My project should take up the better part of a semester while I gather the relevant GIS data and maps. Most of the data will come from the U. S. Census online databases. I will put my GIS data and maps together with the open-source GIS software program GRASS, accompanied by the text of my analysis. I will use the online tutorial to learn how to use the GRASS software, and consult with the technology tutor if I need any additional help creating my GIS project. I will hire a web developer to turn my project into a website.  



Web developer: $1,500.00



I will consult with my academic advisor during the course of my project to see how it is progressing. Once my project is complete, my advisor will evaluate how well it fulfills the objectives of the Levy Grant. My advisor will also evaluate the quality of my GIS maps and data, my technical proficiency in creating the project, and the style and content of my written analysis.


Preservation Plan

I will create an interactive website from my project which I will upload onto the school server where it will be preserved for those who wish to access it.


Similar projects in the field and relevance of this GIS

There are a number of similar projects in the field of historical GIS studies of urban development. One is “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City.” This online project accompanies the book Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City, and uses GIS maps to show how racial covenants, urban renewal and zoning laws contributed to “white flight” and the resulting decline of the once ­thriving city of St. Louis. My project is similar in that it uses historical GIS maps to try to determine whether White Plains is declining or not. Another similar urban studies project is “Mapping Waterville,” an interactive website which uses historical GIS maps to show the effects of urban renewal policy on the town of Waterville, Maine.

“The Valley of the Shadow Project,” one of the first major historical GIS projects, uses large amounts of digital data on two counties, one Northern and one Southern, before, during and after the Civil War. The project makes extensive use of maps showing the geography, infrastructure, agriculture, politics and religion of both counties. The website is part of a larger project, “The Differences Slavery Made,” which attempts to determine how the institution of slavery made the South different from the North. There are maps for both of the individual counties as well as comparison maps between both counties.

A similar historical GIS project to “The Valley of the Shadow Project” is “A Tale of Two Cities,” which compares Alexandria, Virginia in 1860 with Newport, Ohio in 1873. Alexandria is across the Potomac from Washington, D. C., while Newport is across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio. Alexandria in 1860 was a prosperous, slave-owning city with very few foreign immigrants, while Newport in 1873 was also prosperous but had few blacks and a very large number of Irish and German immigrants. Alexandria’s economy depended on the shipping of agricultural products from the inland Shenandoah Valley, while Newport’s economy was based on its growing heavy industry, particularly steel and iron production. The project is “a socio-political examination of these two cities at the high points of their economic prosperity, with the goal of understanding the relationship between social and political life.” It compares and contrasts in detail antebellum Alexandria, a commercial city built on slave labor, with postbellum Newport, an industrial city built on immigrant labor.

The New York Public Library has created “The New York City Historical GIS Project” by digitizing the NYPL’s own historical paper map and atlas collections. For the project,

maps [were] scanned (shooting a high resolution digital image), georectified (a.k.a. warped, rubber-sheeted, i.e. aligning pixels on an old map to latitude/longitude on a virtual map), cropped (removing extraneous non-map information from the collar area around a map), and digitized (think of this as tracing).

The long-term goals of the project were to allow researchers to:

  • Conduct a study of the historical evolution of the built environment with an eye towards 19th century architectural styles, building materials, and resource depletion in the region;
  • Build three-dimensional models of New York City for literary, performing, and visual artistic interpretation of the historical landscape;
  • Reconstruct the city, using historical building heights as part of a larger study of the particular history and effects of the urban landscape on the human condition and psychological state;
  • Analyze the material types of residential structures to infer social class patterns on a microcosmic level, cross-referencing to contemporaneous census records;
  • Locate and survey new potential archeological sites;
  • Conduct highly granular studies of the effects of new rapid transportation lines on the built environment; or
  •   Unlock genealogical information by using historical ward and census boundary data combined with old street name and addressing schema.

The New York Historical GIS Project is a massive undertaking with countless applications, but its overarching purpose is to make use of historical GIS maps to analyze social and economic changes in a municipality, as my project would do on a very small scale for the small city of White Plains.


I learned a lot in the course of writing this grant proposal. I learned how to search for a grant that might fund my particular proposal. I also learned how to tailor a proposal to fulfill a particular grant application. While writing about the design and implementation of my hypothetical project, I explored a variety of U. S. Census GIS map data. I also learned about existing historical GIS projects such as “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City,” “Mapping Waterville,” “The Valley of the Shadow Project,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” and “The New York City Historical GIS Project.” I found the St. Louis project to be of particular interest because I am very interested in the subject of why cities (and smaller communities) decline. I have read a little about how racial covenants helped create the urban ghettos of Northern cities, and how ill-conceived “urban renewal projects” destroyed once-thriving neighborhoods, in part by reshaping cities to be based around the automobile. Writing this grant proposal helped open my eyes to the many potential uses of historical GIS, particularly for the field of urban studies. I hope to one day create GIS projects such as the one outlined in this proposal to determine socioeconomic changes and trends, particularly those related to urban studies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *