Essay on narrative cities: Is visual clutter and wayfinding technology getting in the way?

Posted January 15, 2016

SGS Economics and Planning city narrative

Also published in Assemble Papers and The Fifth Estate.

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” – Dr Zeuss

Provoked by his own experience of walking through London, Gill worries that visual clutter and wayfinding technology are detaching us from the places we move through, risking the loss of our narratives; the invisible stories and personal marker-points by which people over centuries have navigated the city and identified with it. He teases out the problem drawing on the thinking of eminent philosophers, writers and landscape theorists (Alain de Botton, Friedrich Nietzche, W.G Sebald, Kevin Lynch and Christophe Girot) and finally makes an eloquent plea for us to consider exploratory, awareness-based ways of walking through the city, that will keep creating narratives and sustain our physical relationship to the environment: "where the awareness of our surroundings becomes our map and sensory receptivity to them our compass".

Most of our walking is purposeful. Our daily commute begins with an exercise routine, the journey to work, or a trip to the shops. Rarely do we walk to simply observe. However, when we do, we can see our cities in a different light, even along the paths we travel regularly. What quickly becomes apparent is the amount of clutter we collect in the public realm.

By way of example, there are 411 pieces of street furniture and signs littering a 160 metre stretch of Rye Lane in South London. These consist of 63 traffic signs, 69 poles, and 24 bins, phone boxes or electrical cupboards. There are 266 separate pieces of promotional signage, from shopfront signs to advertising boards, logos, sale posters and random flyers. This isn’t an isolated example, rather a snapshot of the visual jungle that our city streets are becoming. Today’s cities are filled with an immeasurable volume of physical and visual clutter and its proliferation is partially responsible for altering how we interact with the urban environment. So overwhelmed are we becoming by the volume of sensory information that many of us are tuning out; searching for the simplest way to interpret and move through our territories.

Where once we relied upon an innate understanding of the landscape itself, our navigational ability is becoming increasingly reliant upon information signs and mobile maps to distil the complexities of urban landscapes down to coherent modicums of information. As a result, we are becoming increasingly detached from place. In Rings of Saturn, W.G Sebald’s dreamlike exploration of the Suffolk coastline in England, he recalls discovering stories in the pages of an old ship’s log, tucked away on the shelf of an old reading room. Until he rediscovered these historical records of everyday events, they were lost in the passage of time. The landscape too holds onto such stories. These countless narratives add to our environment the intangible dimension of time. By cluttering the places to which these narratives are attached, we risk detaching ourselves from these links to our past.

The attachment of narrative to place: a brief summary

Since our earliest histories, humans have relied upon an innate ability to understand and interpret our surroundings as the primary means of navigation. Mountains, rivers and other geographical features aided our ability to locate and identify with place. The cycles of life and death so bound to seasonality guided those seeking out shelter, food or water. The sun and stars enabled us to navigate across vast expanses of land and sea with confidence. Such was the strength of attachment that cultures had to their surroundings and their movement through them that their stories share an absolute bond to the places that gave rise to them. The voyages of discovery by seafaring explorers in search of new lands are, at their core, stories of faith placed in knowledge and expertise of those who could translate positions of the sun and stars into positions on an open sea. And in Australia, Aboriginal songlines act as pathways across the landscape – mapping as song, story, painting and dance. Across cultures, the bond between navigation, narrative and identity is universal.

Evolving technical proficiency saw navigation enhanced through the development of instruments such as sextants, chronometers and compasses. Their use enabled us to abstract the landscape, a necessary step in the production of flat maps representing sections of a curved earth. Due to the impossibility of conveying every feature of the landscape on a scaled representation, maps began to tacitly favour certain narratives, depending on the individual map’s intended purpose. Certain topographical features were deemed to be of greater or lesser importance and included or excluded accordingly. In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton relates the story of the Spanish explorer Alexander von Humboldt’s journey to South America in 1799. Upon arrival, Humboldt found that existing maps often located key landmarks such as mountains and bays, and in some instances even cities, incorrectly.

Cities throughout have evolved from what were once smaller villages. Established for a multitude of reasons, including proximity to a water source, good soil, trade routes or strategic defensive position, cities often grew around key civic buildings, according to their regional importance. City histories are composed of alternating periods of growth, decay and renewal, resulting in an intricate trans-generational patchwork of cultural artefacts ­– buildings, monuments, parks, streets – that engender a sense of identity. For city dwellers, these markers contain the daily narrative of life. Over time, an infinite number of public and private narratives build up like the sedimentary layers of history, presenting a collective story of the city and its inhabitants. These stories become invisible, highly personal marker-points by which people physically and temporally navigate the city. The freedom to add to this storytelling process, overtly or tacitly, is why cities (despite the political leanings and dictates of their rulers) are inherently democratic. The urban landscape becomes a space where the collective accumulation of stories prevails.

Seeing the wood through the trees

A build-up of urban artefacts begins to have an inverse effect on our attention and navigation – we become overwhelmed by the sea of signifiers. Kevin Lynch, in his seminal book The Image of the City, suggests that wayfinding – the way we navigate through our cities – is directed by the consistent use and organisation of definite sensory cues within the environment. These sensory cues form what he calls imageability, an environmental image by which people have navigated throughout history. As the number of visual cues increases, our ability to absorb the information they convey reduces. And so, in an attempt to rationalise the urban landscape’s increasing complexity, we resort to the use of directional signage as a means of simplifying our environment. We are then presented with a catch-22 scenario – in order to rationalise and define our complex urban environments, we require the addition of clear signage to aid our movement through it in the most logical way. This in turn, adds to the clutter.

On any given day, it has been estimated that we are confronted by up to 5,000 marketing messages; add to this the number of directional signs we pass on a daily basis, and it becomes evident that the visual cues designed to aid our understanding of place is having the opposite effect. An over-abundance of these cues devalues their potency. This may be, in part, why mobile and GPS-based navigation has been taken up so voraciously. These devices provide us with the capability of distilling our sense of direction down to a responsive, palm-sized screen, eliminating ambiguity and confusion and treading paths of least resistance so we don’t have to wander. The prevalence of GPS tools is such that there is no longer a need to visually engage with the urban landscape for the purposes of navigation. The visual saturation present in our cluttered streets has driven us to look down, not up, in our search for destinations, absorbed in the comforting certainty of a matrix of glowing pixels.

Narrative in decline

The trend towards introspective navigation is concerning, for the sensory cues to which Lynch refers act as more than just directional beacons. Navigation-by-device renders these visual cues obsolete, and in so doing, consigns their attached narratives to historical anecdote rather than living threads of the social fabric. These narratives can only remain alive and valid through their continuous association with the everyday. Navigation-by-device abstracts the concept of the landscape further than traditional mapping techniques. The cues it provides are ephemeral, moving with us. Moments that happen along such journeys are relative to a digital beacon rather than physical space and as such, the narratives of these journeys no longer have a visual cue upon which to attach. These digital navigational methods also provide us with only one solution to directional problem-solving. Predating the digital era, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe held contempt for the unambiguous certainty that can arise when direction is reduced to the singular. Nietzsche quoted Goethe in his 1874 essay, On the Use and Abuse of History for Life: “I despise everything which merely instructs me without increasing or immediately enlivening my activity.” If we continue to rely on such digital certainty, we are in danger of removing ourselves and our stories from the environment. Our narratives begin to exist at half-measure, between two realities, without “increasing or enlivening” our activity.

The future of narrative

Consider instead a means of exploration that encourages both the creation of narrative and physical association. A journey unshackled from explicit instruction, where the awareness of our surroundings becomes our map and sensory receptivity to them our compass. A journey that feeds off the landscape, with all its clutter and visual cues; where our perception of a place shapes the course of actions we take. The French landscape architectural theorist Christophe Girot reasons that the initial moment upon one’s arrival into a space ­– what he refers to as ‘landing’ – is the most important element of a journey. “During landing, nothing is allowed to remain obvious or neutral… rather everything is apprehended with wonderment and curiosity, with subjective and interpretive eyes”.

The act of landing immediately attaches our journey’s narrative to place. Such a journey must actively disregard directional signage and GPS certainty, intentionally challenging the prevailing logic of distance and speed. Perhaps then, we should undertake more meandering and leisurely journeys through the streets and spaces of our public domain – think an unhurried river across a broad floodplain. Instead of travelling according to time or convenience, one could journey via streets never before trodden. Or by only turning left. Or by following any cues the landscape provides to you that pique your interest. There is no logic to it, no ‘best’ way. Nor does there need to be. The “subjective hierarchy of interest” to which de Botton refers to in his writings on Madrid is justification enough for a journey’s commencement – the physical act of walking thus becomes subservient to the encounters that occur along the way. It is these encounters that shape our ever-evolving narrative. De Botton supposes that by embarking on our journeys in a ‘Nietzschean’ way, we might return from them “with a collection of small, unfettered but life-enhancing thoughts”. Without a physical relationship to our environment, it is difficult to store these collected thoughts. By reducing the association between our experiences and the location they take place, we risk reducing the shared memory of space to such a degree that eventually, these stories will be lost. Perhaps, by looking up rather than down, we can begin sagain to attach our narratives to the landscape from where they came – and to which they belong.

An extended version of this essay originally appeared in This Mess is a Place: A collapsible anthology of collections and clutter edited by Zoe Mendelson, published by And Publishing in London. Details of the book and where to purchase it can be found here. Jeremy Gill is an urban planner at SGS Economics and Planning and the editor of Citysmith. For more essays and observations on urban life, visit Jeremy’s blog:

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