I may be an urbanist with a love for cities, but I am one of those people who get lost a lot. I have trouble reading maps and depend on my GPS. It takes me a few years in any city (or in my own neighborhood for that matter) to intuitively grasp how to get around.
Now this new book,You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall, by Waterloo University psychologist and behavioral neuroscientist Collin Ellard, explains why. Centuries of development of locational aids have sapped our instinctive ability as a species to find our way around.
- According to a survey of 12,500 people in 13 countries conducted by Nokia, 93 percent of people reported becoming lost on a regular basis. 30 percent blamed their partners. Almost half of respondents admitted to giving wrong directions on purpose.
- One out of 10 people have missed a job interview, an important business meeting, or a flight because they lost their way.
- Men may not ask for directions because they have greater difficulty following them. Women navigate using routes and men navigate using compass orientation.
- A poorly designed you-are-here map can actually make it more difficult for you to find your way than no map at all.
- The top five cities in which residents report becoming lost are (in order) London, Paris, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Beijing.
Here’s a snippet from Johan Lehrer’s review in the New York Times Book Review.
One of Ellard’s best chapters focuses on urban planning. He starts by picking on an easy target: the massive, concrete public housing projects that were, once upon a time, championed by visionaries like Le Corbusier. (The architect wanted to replace much of central Paris with residential skyscrapers and highways.) Sadly, the modernist dream quickly turned into a grim dystopia, as the inhuman scale and “poor arrangement of space served to break down social networks.” The end result was isolation, litter and crime.
Ellard’s hero is the activist and author Jane Jacobs, who championed wide sidewalks, short city blocks and mixed-use zoning. According to Ellard, the advantage of such a setup is that it creates vibrant streets that reflect the needs of human beings, and not just their cars. Furthermore, because life attracts life — people want public places that are filled with other people — these organic neighborhoods create a positive feedback loop of livable density. We don’t need to print out directions because most of what we need is nearby.
The larger lesson is that the form of an urban space is often more important than its supposed function. Odd as it seems, Ellard writes, “I can predict exactly where you will go based on how the streets are connected together without needing to know that you have set out to, for instance, buy a pair of shoes.” Because our spatial instincts follow a few simple rules, scientists who use “space syntax analyses” are able to envision how a place will be used before it exists.