Simplifying geospatial features in R with sf and rmapshaper

When working with geospatial data, memory consumption and computation time can become quite a problem, since these datasets are often very large. You may have very granular, high resolution data although that isn’t really necessary for your use-case, for example when plotting small scale maps or when applying calculations at a spatial level for which lower granularity is sufficient. In such scenarios, it’s best to first simplify the geospatial features (the sets of points, lines and polygons that represent geographic entities) in your data. By simplify I mean that we generally reduce the amount of information that is used to represent these features, i.e. we remove complete features (e.g. small islands), we join features (e.g. we combine several overlapping or adjacent features) or we reduce the complexity of features (e.g. we remove vertices or holes in a feature). Since applying these operations comes with information loss you should be very careful about how much you simplify and if this in some way biases you results.

In R, we can apply this sort of simplification with a few functions from the packages sf and, for some special cases explained below, rmapshaper. In the following, I will show how to apply them and what the effects of their parameters are. The data and source code are available on GitHub.

First, let’s load the required libraries. Besides the already mentioned sf package, we also load ggplot2 for visualization and magrittr, because I will use the %>% pipe operator sometimes.


I will also use a utility function plot_map() which is capable of plotting geospatial features, zooming into certain spots and highlighting differences between two features. The lengthy source code for this function is available in the Rmarkdown document of the related GitHub repository.

Loading and transforming our sample data

Let’s load our first example dataset. It represents the German federal state Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (or Mecklenburg-West Pomerania) that features a ragged coastline at the Baltic Sea, which is nice to show the effects of feature simplification. I will abbreviate Mecklenburg-Vorpommern by MV to spare us the complicated name.

mv <- st_read('data/mv.geojson') %>%
  st_geometry() %>%
  st_transform(crs = '+proj=aeqd +lat_0=53.6 +lon_0=12.7')
    # centered at input data for low distortion

The dataset contains only a single feature (a multi-polygon, i.e. a set of polygons) with some metadata from OpenStreetMap. I use st_geometry to access this feature (i.e. dismiss the metadata) and st_transform to transform it to an Azimuthal Equidistant map projection. The latter is quite important. Most functions that I’ll use don’t work with spherical coordinates as used for example by the WGS84 (GPS) standard, where longitude and latitude in degrees describe a position on a sphere. We need to project these coordinates on a plane using a coordinate reference system (CRS) with a specific projection. All projections distort in some way, but we can choose a CRS that accurately represents certain measures. For example, I chose an equidistant CRS because it accurately represents distances up to 10,000 km from the center of projection. Another important aspect is that by using this CRS, we move from degrees to meters as units for our coordinates.

Let’s plot our projection of MV. Note the axes which represent the distance from the projection center (I chose the geographic center of MV for that) in meters.

plot_map(mv, graticules = TRUE)

Let’s zoom in on the island of Rügen with it’s ragged coastline (west of it is the peninsula Darß, east is a part of Usedom).

plot_map(mv, graticules = TRUE, zoom_to = c(13.359, 54.413), 
         zoom_level = 8)

Removing vertices with st_simplify

We can now continue to apply different simplification methods to the displayed features. We will start with – no surprise – st_simplify. This function removes vertices in lines or polygons to form simpler shapes. The function implementation uses the Douglas–Peucker algorithm for simplification and accepts a parameter dTolerance, which roughly speaking specifies the distance in which any “wiggles” will be straightened. It’s in the same unit as the input data, so in our case it’s meters (the unit used in our CRS). There’s also a parameter preserveTopology which, when set to TRUE, makes sure that polygons are not reduced to lines or even removed, or that inner holes in them are removed during the simplification process.

Let’s apply st_simplify with a tolerance of 1km:

mv_simpl <- st_simplify(mv, preserveTopology = FALSE, dTolerance = 1000)

We can see that the geometry is much simpler, especially when zooming in:

plot_map(mv_simpl, zoom_to = c(13.359, 54.413), zoom_level = 8)

We can also confirm the memory usage is much lower for the simplified feature (shown in kilobytes):

round(c(object.size(mv), object.size(mv_simpl)) / 1024)
[1] 960  13

The purple areas show the differences between the original and the simplified version. We can see for example, that some smaller islands were completely removed.

plot_map(mv, mv_simpl, zoom_to = c(13.359, 54.413),
         zoom_level = 8)

When we set preserveTopology to TRUE, we can observe that the small islands are retained:

mv_simpl <- st_simplify(mv, preserveTopology = TRUE,
                        dTolerance = 1000)
plot_map(mv_simpl, zoom_to = c(13.359, 54.413), zoom_level = 8)

Increasing the dTolerance parameter to 10km gives us something that is more akin to a Cubistic painting:

mv_simpl <- st_simplify(mv, preserveTopology = FALSE, 
                        dTolerance = 10000)
plot_map(mv, mv_simpl)

st_simplify limitations

Using st_simplify comes with a limitation when working with multiple, adjacent features which I’d like to demonstrate using a map of the federal states in Germany.

fedstates <- read_sf('data/germany_fedstates.geojson') %>%
  st_transform(crs = 5243)  # ETRS89 / LCC Germany (E-N)
fedstates[c('name', 'geometry')]
## Simple feature collection with 16 features and 1 field
## geometry type:  MULTIPOLYGON
## projected CRS:  ETRS89 / LCC Germany (E-N)
## # A tibble: 16 x 2
##  1 Baden-Württemberg (((-112269.7 -363339.8, …
##  2 Bavaria           (((-109036.3 -104479.2, …
##  3 Berlin            (((175933 160909.2, …

This time, our spatial dataset contains 16 features which represent the boundaries of each federal state:

plot_map(fedstates, graticules = TRUE, strokecolor = '#097FB3',
         fillcolor = '#AED3E4')

Let’s apply st_simplify with a tolerance of 10km and preserving feature topology:

fedstates_simpl <- st_simplify(fedstates,
                               preserveTopology = TRUE, 
                               dTolerance = 10000)
plot_map(fedstates_simpl, strokecolor = '#097FB3',
         fillcolor = '#AED3E4')

Ups! We can see that st_simplify produced gaps and overlapping features, i.e. shared borders were not handled correctly! The problem is that st_simplify simply doesn’t consider the topological concept of shared borders between features (like federal states in this case). When setting preserveTopology = TRUE it means that each feature’s topology is preserved, but it doesn’t mean that the topology between features is considered.

Luckily, there’s the package rmapshaper that contains a function that does the trick. Before you install the package, please note that it requires a lot of (system-) dependencies to be installed.

Visvalingam’s algorithm, which is used in this function, let’s us specify the portion of vertices that should be kept after simplification. This can be specified with the keep parameter. The parameter keep_shapes controls whether complete features such as islands can be removed in the simplification process.


fedstates_simpl2 <- ms_simplify(fedstates, keep = 0.001,
                                keep_shapes = FALSE)
plot_map(fedstates_simpl2, strokecolor = '#097FB3',
         fillcolor = '#AED3E4')

As can be seen, ms_simplify respects the shared borders. The result is also much smaller in terms of memory usage:

        object.size(fedstates_simpl2)) / 1024)
[1] 7757   71

Expanding and shrinking with st_buffer

st_buffer lets you expand (positive buffer distance) or shrink (negative buffer distance) polygon features. This may not per-se result in a simpler feature form, but it allows you to close holes (by expanding) or remove solitary, small features (by shrinking).

Let’s try a first example. Again, the buffer distance is in the same unit as our CRS, which is meters in our case, and we’ll expand by 1km. When the buffer is generated, new vertices are added to form the expanded shape with round edges. The parameter nQuadSegs specifies how many segments are generated per quadrant and feature.

mv_buf <- st_buffer(mv, dist = 1000, nQuadSegs = 1)
plot_map(mv_buf, graticules = TRUE)
plot_map(mv, mv_buf, graticules = TRUE,
         zoom_to = c(13.359, 54.413), zoom_level = 8)

The memory usage is not so much reduced:

round(c(object.size(mv), object.size(mv_buf)) / 1024)
[1] 960 265

Now we shrink MV by 1km:

mv_buf <- st_buffer(mv, -1000, nQuadSegs = 1)
plot_map(mv, mv_buf, zoom_to = c(13.359, 54.413),
         zoom_level = 8)

We can also combine both buffering options, by first shrinking in order to remove small isolated features and then expanding again by the same distance so that the result has more or less the same extents as the original:

mv_buf <- st_buffer(mv, -1000, nQuadSegs = 1) %>%
  st_buffer(1000, nQuadSegs = 1)
plot_map(mv, mv_buf, zoom_to = c(13.359, 54.413),
         zoom_level = 8)

Note how this is more aggressive than st_simplify but the result uses more memory. We could now additionally apply st_simplify to arrive at a very reduced feature.

round(c(object.size(mv), object.size(mv_buf)) / 1024)
[1] 960 239

When we apply st_buffer to a dataset with multiple features like the federal states dataset, the buffering will be applied to every feature (i.e. every state’s boundary) separately. This will result in either overlapping features (extending) or gaps between them (shrinking).

Joining overlapping and adjacent features with st_union

The last function that we will look at is st_union. It can be used to join overlapping and adjacent features. With this, we could for example join all features of the federal state boundaries in Germany and get a single feature that represents the national boundaries. But let’s look at a more interesting example and load a new dataset. It contains a sample with regions with street noise of 50dB or more in Berlin at night.

noise <- read_sf('data/noise_berlin_sample.geojson') %>%
  st_transform('+proj=aeqd +lat_0=52.51883 +lon_0=13.41537')

plot_map(noise, graticules = TRUE)

You may notice the ragged edges in the picture above. Furthermore, the dataset is quite large and contains a lot of rows (i.e. features):

[1] 48795

Why is that so? When we zoom in and also plot each feature’s boundary, we will notice that we actually have some sort of vectorized raster data! The noise regions are tiny raster cells:

plot_map(noise, strokecolor = '#097FB3', fillcolor = '#AED3E4',
         zoom_level = 15)

Most cells cover 100m² and come along with the noise level at this spot (L_N column):

summary(noise[c('Shape_Area', 'L_N')])
  Shape_Area         L_N                 geometry    
  Min.   :100.0   Min.   :50.00   MULTIPOLYGON :48795  
  1st Qu.:100.0   1st Qu.:54.10   epsg:NA      :    0  
  Median :100.0   Median :58.50   +proj=aeqd…:    0  
  Mean   :105.1   Mean   :59.12                        
  3rd Qu.:100.0   3rd Qu.:63.80                        
  Max.   :700.0   Max.   :75.40  

If we don’t care for the specific noise levels and only want to form a single feature that represents noise levels with 50dB or more, we can apply st_union on the whole dataset:

noise_union <- st_union(noise)
Geometry set for 1 feature 
 geometry type:  MULTIPOLYGON
 dimension:      XY
 bbox:           xmin: -2218.35 ymin: -2035.134
                 xmax: 2174.847 ymax: 845.1362
 CRS:            +proj=aeqd +lat_0=52.51883 +lon_0=13.41537
 MULTIPOLYGON (((-1931.274 -2034.915, -1941.274 …

As we can see in the output above, only a single feature is left (and all feature-specific “metadata” such as level of noise is gone!). We can confirm this visually:

plot_map(noise_union, strokecolor = '#097FB3',
         fillcolor = '#AED3E4', zoom_level = 15)
plot_map(noise_union, strokecolor = '#097FB3',
         fillcolor = '#AED3E4')

Additionally applying st_simplify removes the ragged edges:

noise_union_simpl <- st_simplify(noise_union,
                                 preserveTopology = FALSE, 
                                 dTolerance = 50)
plot_map(noise_union_simpl, strokecolor = '#097FB3',
         fillcolor = '#AED3E4')

Note how much the memory consumption was reduced from initially 42 megabytes to 282 kilobytes or even 18 kilobytes when further simplified:

round(c(object.size(noise), object.size(noise_union),
        object.size(noise_union_simpl)) / 1024)
[1] 41959   282    18

Applying simplify without union before would not have had the desired effect since st_simplify is performed per feature:

st_simplify(noise, preserveTopology = FALSE,
            dTolerance = 10) %>%
  plot_map(strokecolor = '#097FB3', fillcolor = '#AED3E4')

If we want to retain some of the noise level information, we can quantize (“bin”) the noise level data into different ordered categories and apply the union operation per category. I’m used to the dplyr package, so I’ll first create a quantized version of the noise variable L_N with three equally spaced levels between 50dB and 80dB and then use group_by in conjunction with group_modify:


noise_per_lvl <-
         level = cut(L_N,
                     breaks = seq(50, 80, by = 10),
                     right = FALSE,
                     ordered_result = TRUE)) %>%
  group_by(level) %>%  # ".x" is refers to the current group:
  group_modify(~ st_union(.x) %>% as_tibble()) %>%
  ungroup() %>%
  st_as_sf()      # convert back to "sf" object since this 
                  # information is lost during group_by()
## Simple feature collection with 3 features and 1 field
## geometry type:  MULTIPOLYGON
## dimension:      XY
## bbox:           xmin: -2218.35 ymin: -2035.134
## CRS:            +proj=aeqd +lat_0=52.51883 
## # A tibble: 3 x 2
##   level   geometry
## 1 [50,60) (((1908.792 -1950.634, 1898.792 -1950.854
## 2 [60,70) (((1758.789 -1953.926, 1748.789 -1954.146
## 3 [70,80) (((-527.0325 -373.2836, -537.0327 -373.50…

Again, the result is much smaller in terms of memory:

round(c(object.size(noise), object.size(noise_per_lvl)) / 1024)
[1] 41959  1090

The following gives us a plot with the three noise levels:

ggplot(noise_per_lvl) +
  geom_sf(aes(color = level, fill = level)) +
  coord_sf(datum = NA) +


All in all, it’s wise to first think about simplifying your spatial data before you continue to work with it. Spatial datasets are often very large and depending on your use-case you may not need a high level of detail. It may even be absolutely necessary to reduce the complexity of your data, e.g. when the computational capacities are limited or when you produce interactive maps for the web. As shown, R has all the tools that you need to simplify spatial data with the packages sf and rmapshaper.

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