tmap in a nutshell

With the tmap package, thematic maps can be generated with great flexibility. The syntax for creating plots is similar to that of ggplot2. The add-on package tmaptools contains tool functions for reading and processing shape files.

Static plot and interactive view

Each map can be plotted as a static map and shown interactively. These two modes, called the "plot" mode and the "view" mode respectively, are described in vignette("tmap-modes"). In the remainder of this vignette, the "plot" mode is used.

Shape objects

We refer to shape objects as objects from the class Spatial or Raster, respectively from the sp and the raster package. The supported subclasses are:

Without data With data
Polygons SpatialPolygons SpatialPolygonsDataFrame
Points SpatialPoints SpatialPointsDataFrame
Lines SpatialLines SpatialLinesDataFrame
Raster SpatialGrid SpatialGridDataFrame
Raster SpatialPixels SpatialPixelsDataFrame
Raster RasterLayer
Raster RasterBrick
Raster RasterStack

Also simple features from the new sf package are supported. Obviously, shape objects with data (the right-hand side column) are recommended, since data is what we want to show.

Load shape object of Europe (contained in this package):


The tmaptools package contains functions to read ESRI shape files and process them. Many of these processing steps can also be done directly in tmap, e.g. setting to a different map projection.

Quick thematic map

The plotting syntax is based on that of ggplot2. The qtm function is tmap’s equivalent to ggplot2’s qplot. The first, and only required argument is a shape object:


So, by default, the polygons (in case the shape object is a SpatialPolygonsDataFrame) are filled with light grey, and the polygon borders are drawn in dark grey.

A choropleth is created with the following code:

qtm(Europe, fill="well_being", text="iso_a3", text.size="AREA", format="Europe", style="gray", 
    text.root=5, fill.title="Well-Being Index", fill.textNA="Non-European countries")

In this code, fill,text, and text.size serve as aesthetics. Both well_being and iso_a3 are variables of the data contained in the shape object Europe. A color palette, in this case the qualitative palette from yellow to brown, is mapped to the values of well_being. The variable iso_a3 contains the text labels, in this case the country codes. The value "AREA" is a derived variable that contains the polygon area sizes. So text is sized increasingly with coutry area size.

The two arguments format and style are predefined layout settings (see layout).

The other arguments are passed on to the layer functions, which are described below. The argument text.root determines how text size is increased; in this case, the fifth root of the area sizes are taken. The result is that the text label for Russia does not dominate the other text labels. The fill.title argument is the title for the fill-legend. The argument fill.textNA is the legend text for missing values.

The function qtm offers the same flexibility as the main plotting method (to be described next). However, for more complex plots, the main plotting method is recommended for tis readability.

Plotting with tmap elements

The main plotting method, the equivalent to ggplot2’s ggplot, consists of elements that start with tm_. The first element to start with is tm_shape, which specifies the shape object. Next, one, or a combination of the following drawing layers should be specified:

Drawing layer Description Aesthetics
Base layer
tm_polygons Draw polygons col
tm_symbols Draws symbols size, col, shape
tm_lines Draws polylines col, lwd
tm_raster Draws a raster col
tm_text Add text labels text, size, col
Derived layer
tm_fill Fills the polygons see tm_polygons
tm_borders Draws polygon borders none
tm_bubbles Draws bubbles see tm_symbols
tm_sqaures Draws squares see tm_symbols
tm_dots Draws dots see tm_symbols
tm_markers Draws markers see tm_symbols and tm_text
tm_iso Draws iso/contour lines see tm_lines and tm_text

Each aesthetic can take a constant value or a data variable name. For instance, tm_fill(col="blue") colors all polygons blue, while tm_fill(col="var1"), where "var1" is the name of a data variable in the shape object, creates a choropleth. If a vector of constant values or variable names are provided, small multiples are created.

The following layers are map attributes:

Attribute layer Description
tm_grid Add coordinate grid lines
tm_credits Add credits text label
tm_compass Add map compass
tm_scale_bar Add scale bar

The last plot is reproduced as follows:

tm_shape(Europe) +
    tm_polygons("well_being", textNA="Non-European countries", title="Well-Being Index") +
    tm_text("iso_a3", size="AREA", root=5) + 
tm_format_Europe() +

We refer to tm_shape and its subsequent drawing layers as a group. Multiple groups can be stacked. To illustrate this, let’s create a topographic map of Europe:

data(land, rivers, metro)

tm_shape(land) + 
    tm_raster("trees", breaks=seq(0, 100, by=20), = FALSE) +
tm_shape(Europe, is.master = TRUE) +
    tm_borders() +
tm_shape(rivers) +
    tm_lines(lwd="strokelwd", scale=5, = FALSE) +
tm_shape(metro) +
    tm_bubbles("pop2010", "red", border.col = "black", border.lwd=1, 
        size.lim = c(0, 11e6), sizes.legend = c(1e6, 2e6, 4e6, 6e6, 10e6), 
        title.size="Metropolitan Population") +
    tm_text("name", size="pop2010", scale=1, root=4, size.lowerbound = .6, 
        bg.color="white", bg.alpha = .75, 
        auto.placement = 1, = FALSE) + 
tm_format_Europe() +
## Warning: The legend is too narrow to place all symbol sizes.

Things to learn from this code:

Small multiples

Small multiples are generated in three ways:

1. By assigning multiple values to at least one of the aesthetic arguments:

tm_shape(Europe) +
    tm_polygons(c("HPI", "gdp_cap_est"), 
        style=c("pretty", "kmeans"),
        palette=list("RdYlGn", "Purples"),
        title=c("Happy Planet Index", "GDP per capita")) +
tm_format_Europe() + 

In this case, two independent maps are created, with different scales. All arugments of the layer functions can be vectorized, one for each small multiple. Arugments that normally can take a vector, such as palette should be placed in a list.

This method is normally used to show two totally different variables, such as in this example Happy Planet Index and GDP. However, it is also possible to show variables that are related, as if they are subsets from the same data:

tm_shape(metro) +
    tm_bubbles(size=c("pop1970", "pop2020"), title.size="Population") +
    tm_facets(free.scales=FALSE) +
tm_layout(panel.labels=c("1970", "2020"))

Notice that this plot uses panels and that the common legend is plot outside of the maps.

2. By defining a group-by variable in tm_facets:

tm_shape(Europe) +
    tm_polygons("well_being", title="Well-Being Index") +
    tm_facets("part") +

This plot also uses the panel layout with the common legend drawn outside the maps. These options can be changed with the arguments and legend.outside of tm_layout. By default, the panel/external legend layout is used when the group-by variable is specified, since in that case, the multiples share a common legend.

The scales of each aesthetic argument can be set to either fixed or free, and also, the coordinate ranges of the small multiples:

tm_shape(Europe[Europe$continent=="Europe",]) +
    tm_fill("part", = FALSE) +
    tm_facets("name", free.coords=TRUE, drop.units=TRUE)

The argument drop.units is used to drop all non-selected spatial units. If drop.shapes=FALSE then neighboring countries are also visible.

3. By creating multiple stand-alone maps with tmap_arrange:

tm1 <- qtm(Europe, fill = "red")
tm2 <- qtm(Europe, fill = "blue")
tmap_arrange(tm1, tm2, asp = NA)

Map layout

The layout of the thematic map can be changed with tm_layout or one of its wrapper functions. In the next example we use two of these wrapper functions, one for the overall format of world maps, and one for the legend.

pal8 <- c("#33A02C", "#B2DF8A", "#FDBF6F", "#1F78B4", "#999999", "#E31A1C", "#E6E6E6", "#A6CEE3")
tm_shape(land, ylim = c(-88,88), relative=FALSE) +
    tm_raster("cover_cls", palette = pal8, title="Global Land Cover", legend.hist=TRUE, legend.hist.z=0) +
tm_shape(World) +
    tm_borders() +
tm_format_World(inner.margins=0) +
    position = c("left","bottom"), 
    bg.color = "white", 

The wrapper functions starting with tm_format_ specify the format for a specifc shape. In the tmap package, a couple of them are included, for instance tm_format_World that is taylored for world maps. It’s also possible to create your own wrapper function for shapes that you will use frequently.

Besides the shape-dependent tm_format_ wrapper functions, tmap also contains wrapper functions for shape-independent styles.

qtm(Europe, style="natural", title="Natural style") # equivalent to: qtm(Europe) + tm_style_natural(title="Natural style")

qtm(Europe, style="cobalt", title="Cobalt style") # equivalent to: qtm(Europe) + tm_style_cobalt(title="Cobalt style")

Run style_catalogue() to create an extensive catalogue of the available styles. The default style is tm_style_white. This default can be changed with the global option called, which can be get and set with tmap_style:

# make a categorical map
qtm(Europe, fill="economy", title=paste("Style:", tmap_style()))
## current tmap style is "white"

# change to color-blind-friendly style
current_style <- tmap_style("col_blind")
## tmap style set to "col_blind"

# make a categorical map
qtm(Europe, fill="economy", title=paste("Style:", tmap_style()))
## current tmap style is "col_blind"

# change back
## tmap style set to "white"

Also, the outer and inner margins as well as the aspect ratio are determined with tm_layout:

(tm <- qtm(World) +
    inner.margins=c(0,0,.02,0), asp=0))

The behaviour of outer.margins, inner.margins, and asp are correlated. To see the rectangles that these arguments determine, the design mode can be enabled:

tm + tm_layout(design.mode=TRUE)
## ----------------aspect ratios-----------------------
## | specified (asp argument of tm_layout)   0.000000 |
## | device (yellow)                         2.500000 |
## | frame (blue)                            2.500000 |
## | master shape, World, (red)              1.979637 |
## ----------------------------------------------------

The red rectangle is the bounding box of the shape object. Both inner.margins and asp determine the measurements of the frame, indicated by the blue rectagle. Setting the left inner margin is useful to have extra space for the legend.

Setting the aspect ratio is handy when the plot is saved to an image with a specific resolution. For instance, to save a thematic World map as a png image of 1920 by 1080 pixels, the setting outer.margins=0, asp=1920/1080 can be used. When asp=0, as in the example above, the aspect ratio of the device (given the outer margins) is taken. See save_tmap, which uses these tricks under the hood.

Map attributes

The following demo shows how a world map can be enhanced with map attributes such as grid lines and a map compass.

tm_shape(land, projection="eck4") +
    tm_raster("elevation", breaks=c(-Inf, 250, 500, 1000, 1500, 2000, 2500, 3000, 4000, Inf),  
        palette = terrain.colors(9), title="Elevation", auto.palette.mapping=FALSE) +
tm_shape(World) +
    tm_borders("grey20") +
    tm_grid(projection="longlat", labels.size = .5) +
    tm_text("name", size="AREA") +
tm_compass(position = c(.65, .15), color.light = "grey90") +
tm_credits("Eckert IV projection", position = c(.85, 0)) +
tm_style_classic(inner.margins=c(.04,.03, .02, .01), legend.position = c("left", "bottom"), 
    legend.frame = TRUE, bg.color="lightblue","lightblue", 
    earth.boundary = TRUE, space.color="grey90")

Saving maps

A handy function for saving maps is save_tmap:

tm <- tm_shape(World) +
    tm_fill("well_being", id="name", title="Well-being") +
save_tmap(tm, "World_map.png", width=1920, height=1080)

This function can also save interactive maps to stand-alone HTML files:

save_tmap(tm, "World_map.html")

See vignette("tmap-modes") for more on interactive maps.

Tips n’ tricks

  1. Selections can be made by treating the data.frame of the shape object:
tm_shape(Europe[Europe$name=="Austria", ]) +

  1. A manual legend can be generated tm_add_legend:

tm_shape(World) +
    tm_fill() +
tm_shape(rivers) +
    tm_lines(col="dodgerblue3") +
    tm_add_legend(type="line", col="dodgerblue3", title="World map") +

  1. Each drawing element has a scalar argument called scale. The overall scaling and font sizes can be set by the scale argument in tm_layout.

  2. Arugments of the bounding box function bb can be passed directly to tm_shape:

tm_shape(World, bbox = "India") +
    tm_polygons("MAP_COLORS", palette="Pastel2") +
tm_shape(metro) +
    tm_bubbles("pop2010", title.size = "Population") +
    tm_text("name", size = "pop2010", = FALSE, root=8, size.lowerbound = .7, auto.placement = TRUE)