Stephen Kennedy makes use of maps for distinctive have a look at Madison

Stephen Kennedy’s maps are not just designed to get you from here to there. They’re maps that raise an eyebrow, furrow a brow — or spark an idea.

“Fantastical Rail Connections,” for example, is Kennedy’s map showing train routes designed to zip Madison passengers east to Milwaukee or northwest to the Twin Cities (dream on). His map “Sounds of State Street” pinpoints real local landmarks for live music, from The Orpheum theater to the bygone Factory, where Otis Redding was booked to play in 1967 before his plane went down in Lake Monona.

It’s what Kennedy dubs “creative cartography.”

Stephen Kennedy exhibited his data-driven maps at the Dane County Farmers’ Market this year, including on a late-October day when forceful wind made him take down the awning over his booth. Kennedy will exhibit Dec. 2 as part of the Fair Trade Holiday Festival at Monona Terrace. 

A frequent exhibitor at the 2023 Dane County Farmers’ Market, Kennedy runs, an online and in-person business selling original maps that are both thought-provoking and whimsical. And all through November, he is designing more artistic maps – a new one every day – as part of a daily social mapping project called the 30 Day Map Challenge.

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It was that same daily challenge in November 2022 (find it on Instagram at #30DayMapChallenge) that led to Kennedy’s map series on Madison. This year he plans to broaden his subject matter to more of the Midwest. So far, his imaginative takes range from a map of Wisconsin’s density of cows vs. humans to a bird’s eye view map of the “Relative Abundance of Sandhill Cranes.”

Kennedy mines data from sources like the U.S. Geological Survey and the Wisconsin Elections Commission to make his data- and fact-oriented maps. For a recent map of UW-Madison fraternity and sorority houses, he used OpenStreetMap, a free wiki world map. For “Mass Rabid Transit,” Kennedy zeroed in on the sewer network that raccoons might use to travel the city underground – with commuter lines he calls “Muck Loop” and “Shredbag Speeder.” (A primary source for that project: the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District.)

A native of Atlanta, Kennedy and his husband, Vijay Limaye, a Madison native and climate scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, lived in San Francisco and Brooklyn, New York, before buying a house in Madison’s Dudgeon-Monroe neighborhood three years ago.

Map on display table

Maps of Madison by Stephen Kennedy often take a new look at the city. Kennedy himself has lived here only three years. 

Kennedy – whose mother grew up and went to nursing school in the Philippines before she immigrated to the U.S. – has some Wisconsin heritage, too: His paternal grandfather grew up in Madison and met his future wife, Kennedy’s grandmother, at UW-Madison. Now Kennedy lives just a 15-minute walk from his grandfather’s childhood home.

“Doing the maps has been a great way to learn about Madison, from many different angles,” he said. Examples: Kennedy’s map of the spots for buildings that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Madison but that were never built; and an upcoming density analysis map showing just how many backyard chickens local regulations allow.

Roots in urban planning 

By day Kennedy works in mapping technology software; his current company works on projects such as the interactive maps on the New York Times’ website. He earned his undergraduate degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology, or Georgia Tech, where he studied product design.

“It was really how I honed my chops for doing visual design as a craft,” he said. “After my undergrad, I got a master’s in urban planning (at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), which is really how I got exposed to spatial data and the role that maps and visualizations play in the planning process.”

Stephen Kennedy with customer

Stephen Kennedy, center, works with a customer at his booth at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. At right is his popular map titled “Archipelago of Madison,” which shows Madison’s lakes as land forms and its land as lakes. 

“A lot of the work I have done professionally is tools for urban planners – that allow them to look at development, the existing conditions of the city they’re working in, how the changes they’re proposing will impact a city,” he said. “So map-making has been kind of a core through-line through all that.”

In graduate school, Kennedy worked on his thesis in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collecting data for that city’s first bus map. That experience gave rise to his first side business in 2014, a fair trade clothing line called New Market Goods.

“Being on the ground in doing that project, I met a lot of folks in different parts of the creative community in Bangladesh,” he said.

“I met a couple of artists who had started their own clothing brands but only sold locally,” he said. “The designs were all featuring traditional, hand-woven textiles found throughout the country, and they were trying to find new ways to revive that industry, as a counterpoint to the fast-fashion, mass-production that had been steamrolling the country for decades at that point.”

So Kennedy launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to found a company that would sell goods from those artists, and also designed clothing himself.

He was looking for another creative challenge when he took on the 30 Day Map Challenge in 2022. When some of his unique maps of Madison went up on Twitter, they drew positive feedback.

“I sort of connected with this niche on Twitter that’s interested in progressive development and progressive urbanism,” he said. “There were common reactions here and there, such as, ‘This is beautiful. If it were printed, I would totally buy this.’”

An accidental business

Kennedy started to print and frame his maps, and applied to be a vendor at the 2023 Dane County Farmers’ Market on Capitol Square. He initially intended to sell his clothing line produced in Bangladesh, but when he brought along some of his Madison maps that he’d printed and framed, he found that they sold even better.

New Market Goods and — the “latlong” stands for “latitude” and “longitude” — has provided a “counter-balance” to Kennedy’s digitally focused career, he said.

“Most of the work I do is on the computer, and both of these are about creating tactile things” and interacting with people at the markets.

His customers include a mix of longtime Madisonians, tourists and UW-Madison students who want a souvenir of their college town before moving elsewhere. On Dec. 2, Kennedy will be a vendor at the Fair Trade Holiday Festival at Monona Terrace. And next spring, he’ll return to the Square along with the Dane County Farmers Market. He also sells online.

Meanwhile Kennedy is seeking out partners to collaborate with on more maps — in whatever field they’re interested in. An avid bike commuter, he recently hosted a workshop with Madison Bikes to add more local bike infrastructure data to OpenStreetMap, making that information more broadly available to the public.

“I’d like to work with people who have a particular idea but aren’t really able to execute the map for it,” said Kennedy, who noted that each map he makes teaches him something new about Madison. “That is something I’m looking forward to doing more and more of in this process, to meet experts in the community to collaborate with.”

Photos: Shifting Gears Bike Path Dance Festival

Shifting Gears

Augusta Brulla, left, and Tania Tandias, with Tania Tandias Flamenco and Spanish Dance, perform at McPike Park during Shifting Gears, an outdoor celebration of dance by Madison-area performers. This marked the third straight year for the festival, organized by Isthmus Dance Collective.

Shifting Gears

Raka Bandyo, with Karmicflower Dance Company, performs traditional Indian dance Monday at McPike Park during Shifting Gears.

Shifting Gears

Four Madison parks hosted dancing Monday as part of Shifting Gears, a dance event by Isthmus Dance Collective. Lily Edgar performed on the basketball court at Wirth Court Park.

Shifting Gears

KLJ Movement, from left, Aczareyen Lyles, Madalin Berube, Kyra Johnson, Nathan Castro and Terrianna Bradley perform at Brittingham Park during Shifting Gears. Isthmus Dance Collective was formed in 2020 with the nonprofit starting the dance festival the following year.

Shifting Gears

From left, Sophia Borger, 15, Innes O’Connor, 7, Annette Tansey, 11, and Winifred Mittag, 7, with Breckenridge Scottish Highland Dance, perform at McPike Park during Monday’s Shifting Gears dance festival.

Shifting Gears

Bob Kerhin, of Milwaukee, with his grandchildren, Cole Buelow, 2, left, and Abigail, 6, from Madison, watch performances at McPike Park during Shifting Gears, a bike path dance festival held Monday and organized by Isthmus Dance Collective.


Katherine Kramer, right, with Katherine Kramer Projects Tap Dance and Jazz, performs at McPike Park during Shifting Gears Bike Path Dance Festival put on by Isthmus Dance Collective in Madison, Wis., Monday, Sept. 4, 2023. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL


Scratch Dance performs at Wirth Court Park during Shifting Gears Bike Path Dance Festival put on by Isthmus Dance Collective in Madison, Wis., Monday, Sept. 4, 2023. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL

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