What a Walkable City Looks Like Inside Your Head

This is your brain in traffic: how we perceive the neighborhoods, streets, and buildings around us—in the car, on foot, and on bike, we create different mental maps.

Last week I was in Orland Park. My in-laws live there, so I get out there about once a month, sometimes more, as I have for several years now. And everytime I go, I have no idea where I am—the only points of reference I can ever keep in my head are Harlem and Oak Park avenues, which I try to extend in my head to orient myself. It never works. I found myself placing my phone, in GPS mode, on the odometer-clock buttons just under the speedometer in order to get from a building I’d never visited before to my wife’s parents’ house, about a ten-minute drive away. Rather than a 3D map of the area in my head, it’s more like a series of photographs: that sushi place with the weird name, the country club with the old sign, the strip with all the stores on it, the sports bar across the street from the forest preserve. It’s hopeless.

Driving around the place I grew up is no better. I can practically drive from my house to downtown blindfolded, but I can’t tell you what any of the street names are. Or what cardinal direction they go (it’s hilly, granted, and there are a lot of disorienting S-curves that make my Midwest-raised wife carsick). I was thinking about that when I read this fascinating post about the research of Bruce Appleyard on how children who are driven around orient themselves where they live, versus children who walk and bike:

Children who had a “windshield perspective” from being driven everywhere weren’t able to accurately draw how the streets in their community connected, whereas children who walked or biked to get around produced detailed and highly accurate maps of their neighborhood street network.

Appleyard followed up with the children in the heavy-traffic neighborhood after improvements were made to pedestrian and bike infrastructure. Not only were they able to draw more detailed maps, they were happier with their environment.

It reminded me of Nick Paumgarten’s conversation about maps with Jim Akerman, who runs the Newberry Library’s Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography:

“The tension between these two modes of navigating goes back to these maps,” he said. “The itinerary represents space as one experiences it on the ground. A map like this has that element, but it starts to introduce the notion that you can conceive of it as a larger unit. It’s a God’s-eye view, which puts you in charge of navigating through space. This is the origin of the notion that you can pull yourself away from the world and see it from above.”

The irony is that centuries later, when we have perfected the God’s-eye map and become conversant with it, we have, in the thrall of technology, turned back to the ancient way: the itinerary and the strip map. OnStar and MapQuest zero in on the information that’s relevant to reaching your destination. “They close down your choices and give you a route,” Akerman said.

Appleyard is following in the footsteps of his father, the legendary urbanist Donald Appleyard, who conducted his own experiments into how people view their neighborhoods and how that varies based on traffic. The external realities aren’t surprising, but Appleyard gives us a look inside, into the internal maps we carry around with us:

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comments
2 years ago
Posted by almartin

This was fantastic. Kevin Lynch is worth a read -- he's really interested in this question about what elements make cities and neighborhoods navigable.

2 years ago
Posted by Dr. JJ

Nice! Ditto on Kevin Lynch!

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