Drawing City-Block Style Maps

City-block style maps (sometimes referred to as “European-style”) are characterized by their use of negative space. Shapes – in the form of city blocks – define the positive space, whereas the road areas are negative space. Ortelius excels at designing modern style road maps, with connectable tracks and built-in symbols, and it also has great tools for creating city-block style maps.

Tutorial Details

Program : Ortelius 1.x+
Difficulty: Intermediate
Topics Covered: Combining Objects
Estimated Completion Time: 45 minutes

Source Map


In this example, we trace city blocks from this 1892 map of Odessa (Ukraine, formerly Russia), Wagner & Debe. Some cartographic sleuthing: the map is undated, but was possibly produced earlier than 1892, as the Protestant Hospital, completed in 1892, is not shown (source: North Dakota State University Library online).

When setting up our drawing file, the source map is placed on its own layer and a new layer is created, called “Blocks,” to hold our new drawing objects.

Drawing With the Irregular Polygon Tool


Any of Ortelius’ drawing tools can be used when creating city blocks. Your choice of tool will often depend on the layout and orientation of the blocks you are drawing. The Irregular Polygon tool is an extremely flexible choice when blocks are irregular in shape and orientation. Use the Irregular Polygon tool and a color-filled style to draw individual city blocks, clicking on each corner of the shape. When your final point is placed on top of your first point, the polygon will close automatically. Making sure polygons are closed will assure proper display, particularly if blocks are outlined.

Hint: To clip blocks neatly to maps edges, temporarily disable Layer > Clip Objects To Map Layer in the main menu and draw shapes slightly beyond the map border. Enable it again when you are finished drawing your blocks.

Drawing With the Bezier Path Tool


People are sometimes (quite pleasantly) surprised at how advanced Ortelius’ Bezier Path tool is for drawing shapes with straight lines and curves. Choose the Bezier Path tool and a color-filled style. Although you are drawing a path, it will be represented as a filled object when an area style is applied. Single-click on corner points to trace corners; click and drag curve handles to draw curves; hold the CMND or OPT modifier keys while adjusting the curve handles. Placing your last point on top of the first point automatically ends the path. Optionally, you can formally close the path by choosing Edit > Paths & Tracks > Close from the main menu. Curve handles can be further adjusted as needed.

If you are unfamiliar working with Bezier curves in Ortelius, try your hand with our hands-on exercises.

Hands-on exercise. See Ortelius File > New From Template > Exercises & Demos > 2-Paths Exercise.

Combining Objects


When faced with situations such as this circle with an internal median area (a classic doughnut!), try drawing the circle using the Oval tool and a line symbol then clipping the area out using the Combine > Difference command. Begin this technique by drawing the positive space (the road) and then subtracting it from the background to create your negative space. This technique is described in detail below.

Draw ‘Positive Space’ In Gridded Areas


Where city blocks are laid out in a regularly gridded pattern you can quickly create blocks using path outlines and a few Combine operations. Begin by drawing the road grid with Paths or Tracks. Note you can draw roads of varying widths. Next, draw the background shape (shown here in green) and send it backward under the roads by choosing Graphic > Send To Back from the main menu. We draw the background shape last so you can see your source map while tracing the roads ;).

Edit > Paths & Tracks > Outline


Next, select the roads and choose Edit > Paths & Tracks > Outline from the main menu to turn the roads from lines into polygons.

Combine > Union


Combine all the new road polygons into a single object by selecting them and choosing Combine > Union from the main menu.

Create ‘Negative Space’ Combine > Difference


With the background and foreground polygons selected, choose Combine > Difference from the main menu. The roads will be subtracted from the background polygon creating negative space. The blocks are a single object when selected.

Combine > Break Apart


If further editing is desired, select the blocks object and choose Combine > Break Apart from the main menu. Each block is now its own individual shape object. Optionally, even further refinement is achieved by selecting a block and converting it from a shape to a path (chose Graphic > Convert To Path from the main menu). Each individual corner node can then be moved and edited. Path objects can be converted back to shape objects at any time.

Working with all blocks as a single object is the most efficient way to re-color and symbolize the map. Once you are satisfied with the layout of the blocks, select all and choose Combine > Append to combine all blocks into a single object again.

Add Text

Unlike road features drawn with the Track tool, roads in a city-block style map are not objects – they are negative space. Use the Text Box and Text On Path tools to add label text for roads. To label city blocks and other features, right click the objects and choose Add Label.

Some differences between maps with roads as primary feature vs. blocks as primary feature…
neither “right or wrong” it just depends on the style you’re looking for > both use in large scale (local scale) mapping good for showing neighborhoods, towns, small cities;

some applications of city block style > tourism maps, land use planning maps, location maps, campus maps, pedistrian maps, etc.

Differences (pros/cons)
1. blocks can be easily attributed, e.g., land use/land cover or districts, and new styles applied; can add style components such as shadows to enhance look; because they are negative space and not repersented with objects, street text must be placed with Text tool rather than labeling function associated with point, line, and polygon features;
blocks as focus can result in a more organic looking map with irregular shaped blocks and streets – show nooks and cranies, etc., tends to feature the city blocks as the most prominent feature so good for applications where this is important
2. road maps (with tracks) are more easily labeled using tracks; similar look can be had using cased line styles and connector tracks (show example) though result is more regular spacing; can have background ploygons behind road network to show land use or districts; tends to feature road network as most prominant feature so good for transportation/navigation purposes


Using the techniques described above, you can create your own fully editable European-style city block map. With Ortelius’ slick style swapping, the look of your map is easily updated to create unique versions of this classic map style.