Wayfinding for a Conscious City

Our environment provides us with different levels of information that facilitate and enable our orientation and navigational skills. This information is formed of visual cues (what the environment presents to us) and it is blended with mental cues (what we form in our mind based on what we see and in our memories).

Wayfinding for a Conscious City

David Lynch, in his book The Image of the City (1960) calls these elements sensory cues. These sensory cues play a key part in our orientation and help us create a mental map of a space. He concludes that these mental maps consist of five common elements (specifically in cities): paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks. These elements can aid navigation if they are easy to describe, clearly visible, and highly noticeable and distinguishable. For this to happen, they need to be salient in contrast to the environment they are in.

But what exactly helps us remember directions we have been given or looked at, or the way to a destination we may have been to before? If the best chance to explain or remember a route is by recalling what was most noticeable, then one answer is the salience of the elements that Lynch identifies. A conscious city would be one that facilitates memorable mental maps through carefully designing all its elements by focusing on both the physical and the emotional needs of its users.

In the urban hardscape, buildings can be one of the main reasons we disorientate ourselves in a city. Very often rows of buildings and blocks look too similar (wall colours, features, height, style) and block our lines of sight, and without the aid of maps, directions or landmarks, we can easily lose our way. They are simply not memorable.

According to Tristan Gooley, the Natural Navigator, we can obtain at least 19 cues from a tree to help us orientate ourselves, if we learn to identify them. Nature seems to have the kind of consciousness we want urban environments to have embedded, but if we don’t learn how to work with it, we are only half way there.

On the other hand, smartphone dependency is on the rise. It seems that many people rely on smartphones to do the thinking for them. The use of GPS and map apps encourages ‘head down’ navigation behaviour and therefore stops the user from picking up as many cues from the environment as they would if they were not staring at their screens for most of the way.

If building facades were designed to give us orientation cues and to adapt to the natural elements, like trees do, perhaps city planners and designers could turn to biomimicry (defined by the Biomimicry Institute as design that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies) to make buildings react and become more in tune with our needs, and to help develop our navigational skills rather than make us dependent on mobile apps to guide us through a space. An interesting project along these lines is the WZ Hotel Jardins in Sao Paulo by Estudio Guto Requena. The facade reacts to sound and air quality in real time via the use of sensors. It interacts with the environment giving passers by and drivers visual feedback about pollution levels in their immediate surroundings via LED lighting.

A conscious city will be one that uses technology to encourage thinking and contributes to the development of the user’s spatial awareness, not one that substitute their ability to think.

This contribution is featured in the Conscious Cities, Architecture and Neurosciene anthology realised for the Conscious Cities Conference in London that took place on March 1st, 2016.


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