I wanted to build a better map.
Maps have had a strong hold on me ever since I was a kid. It seemed like a natural topic for me to explore in my thesis. I thought I could make something that changed people’s lives by showing them where they were in the world. My head began to swim with ideas of interactive maps and holograms and teleportation.
I immediately became concerned about distancing my project from what had been done before and drew up some boundaries around what this project would and would not be:
- Not an iOS app. There are too many out there as it is. iOS (and mobile applications in general) is definitely in vogue and doesn’t have the hard-hack allure it once did.
- Not going to be a Google Maps mashup. This isn’t 2005.
- Should try to avoid the screen whenever possible. I’m looking for interactions that make people connect better with the places around them. Avoiding screen-based interactions should be the first step in that direction. Instead, I’ll be looking at the tangible and the temporal.
- Should be primarily concerned about how people connect to where they are and who they are with. Just like how a postcard lets your friends and family know where you’ve been.
I was very concerned with staying clear of certain trends, hoping to focus instead on what was the right from for my project. Not all of the predictions came true, of course. Locus wasn’t able to avoid the screen, and it does use maps in a very boring (but I think useful) way. On the other hand, apparently I was on to something when I was thinking about postcards.
When I was done saying what I wouldn’t do, it came time to start thinking about what things I wanted to get done.
I looked at a variety of topics: some closely related to mapping, others not. I read up on architecture, sustainable thinking, streets, transportation, psychogeography, more psychogeography, ubiquitous computing, photography, Voronoi diagrams, and video games.
Through all of this exploration, I realized that I didn’t really want to build a better map: I wanted to find ways in which maps could be better put to use. It turns out that maps work pretty well as they are. Tools like web maps and geo-location are revolutions in technology, not interaction. They still do the same thing: tell someone where they are in relation to other things.
Putting that information to use in new and interesting ways represented the challenge I now had.
First Draft of Thesis Statement
The reading and conversations continued until October, when I posted the first draft of my thesis statement.
Initially meant for urban exploration, the first draft “was a better map for people who want to explore the city around them—to discover a city they never knew.” The big hook for me was linking people—strangers, even—together in physical space around shared interests.
Of course, how that was all supposed to happen remained a big question mark. The possibility of having an interactive map in a public place like a park or street corner was appealing, but even then I knew it lacked originality.
At this, point, I was feeling like I needed a more primary knowledge of what it was like to construct a map. How could I critique something I didn’t first attempt to create myself? I constructed a plan to see how these things were made.
As a small experiment, I asked some friends to recite for me a trip they took recently. This could be a commute, an excursion at lunchtime, or a date. It didn’t really matter where or why they went; I was interested in their process of taking the trip. To the best of their ability, I asked for a recitation that was as detailed as possible (so as to determine what was memorable and what was not).
What emerged was—to borrow the semantics of Kevin Lynch—a description of:
- Paths. Specific streets, subway lines
- Districts. An identification of one being in a neighborhood
- Modes of transit. Walking, bicycling
- Nodes. Points of interest, landmarks
The Mental Map
A person’s self-reported mental map is therefore a collection of urban components utilized and remembered in their travels.
To use one friend’s example, the journey started down one street, taking a left turn before arriving at the destination. In this case the mental map formed—if overlaid onto a traditional map projection—a rough L-shape. The only paths present were the two streets walked down, and the nodes were the representations of the origin, the destination, and the intersection where the turn took place. The parts of the city tangent to these components are part of the periphery, but quickly fade out of view in the mental map.
Since my friends were all in the same room as they recited their trips, others felt comfortable enough to jump in and interrupt with their own anecdotes and commentary. The friend would then respond to this addition with their own opinions, and layers of information would start to build. Even still, to me acting as the audience, I was able to determine to a certain extent what information belonged to whom.
The Map Division
At this point, I wanted to take a big step back and review the core of my idea. Some suggested that might be a bit drastic, and that my reservations about having a concept with too narrow an audience were unfounded. To paraphrase, they were more concerned with having a concept that totally succeeds for a niche audience than one which is partially successful for a larger one. This was a big relief for many of us, and echoed my sentiments about where we should be heading as a class.
Another recommendation was to “find a room full of maps” and lock myself in for a few hours. In January I was able to do just that. I headed over to the New York Public Library’s Map Division.
I spent my time exhausting their public book collection, looking for titles primarily about city planning, urban design, communities and public policy, and so forth. I found quite a bit, and that was just on my own; I made a note to go back and enlist the help of the staff now that I better knew what I was looking for.
Some Map Room highlights, for posterity:
- Rethinking the Power of Maps
- Street Mapping
- Beyond Maps: GIS and Decision Making in Local Government
- Making Community Connections: The Orton Family Foundation Community Mapping Program
- Community Geography: GIS in Action
- Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History
- Cybercartography: Maps and Mapping in the Information Era Cartographica. Volume 41, Issue 1.
- Supporting Map-based Geocollaboration Through Natural Interfaces to Large-Screen Displays Cartographic Perspectives. Number 54, Spring 2006.
In the days that followed, I had a chance to talk with some other people who were involved with mapping projects both big and small: Michael Lenczner of Île Sans Fil and Scott Lederer of the Google Maps team here in NYC.
From there spawned three different ideas that began to germinate in my mind:
The Passage of Time
Cities and environments change over time. Think of a fixed point in geography as a time-lapse video. Is there a “best time” for this point in the context of a specific activity?
There is a place you inhabit. you know the boundaries, so to speak, of your ‘home turf’. It’s not a simple radius, but probably follows the paths of the area. How do you know when you are out of your turf, and on someone else’s? Are those lines blurry or well-defined?
If every map has an agenda, who is driving that agenda? these are the people & authorities who provide maps. How are these roles changing?
End of Semester 3 Concept
The final concept I presented in December of 2010 was heavily influenced by the Street Design Manual deployed by the New York City Department of Transportation.
The Urban Design Concept is a web application which allows citizens and city government to better understand the effect planning projects have.
The Urban Design Concept was pitched in class as sort of a real-life Sim City application in which a resident could view the work (construction projects, city zoning issues, or other manifestations of city progress) about to start in their neighborhood, interact with the data, and come away with a better understanding of why it is taking place.
Using a set of ‘city components’ (not unlike those found in the Street Design Manual) which can be dragged onto the map, people can create their own solutions to specific issues planners have identified. The map will show the placement of the components, their cost, and the effect on the surrounding area. The map becomes a kind of derivative resulting from people and the built stuff around them.
Planners can use the site to showcase problems they are considering. Each problem can be given a budget, timeframe, constraints, and other parameters. Planners can also respond to citizens’s questions, provide feedback on solutions, and create a positive environment to discuss the solution’s impact among the people who will have to live with it.
Even at this early stage, I was keen on the idea of city planners and residents working together:
I see the planners as a group with experience providing design solutions, and citizens with knowledge about the neighborhood in question, and as the party that will be most effected once a solution is implemented.
It is possible that something like this can also address the sometimes antagonizing behavior that accompanies changes in city policy. By billing this as procedure that is inclusive, conflicts might be easier solved. Planners can benefit by getting a greater number of citizens to buy into a particular design and into the planning process in general. By seeing the designs that are submitted by residents—and by talking with them about their ideas—planners might learn more about the people they are designing for.
To conclude the semester I wrote a process post collecting the thoughts I had after the semester critique. Where before I was musing about the notion of incorporating city planning, it was now full steam ahead:
As part of my research, I looked back on what I thought my thesis was going to be early on. In an email to my department chair dated in April of this year, I said:
I’m interested in the ways people are shaped by the built and natural environments that surround them.
To that end, I’ve been thinking about urban planning. As far as I can tell, there are two main schools of thought: top down and bottom up. Top down is about imposing design upon a place. Bottom up is about letting design follow the need. Things seem to be trending towards bottom-up at the moment.
In looking into how urban planing works, I began to take the whole industry practice and break it down. My hope was by classifying and defining each part, I’d be better able to spot trends and places where my work can fit in.
The two major ways of thinking about planning are top-down and bottom-up. Top-down is a way of imposing a design upon a place, where a bottom-up approach seeks to find a more holistic design based on empirical information. Let me break it down the reigning schools of thought when it comes to the bottom-up approach.
One way to go about planning is to find the essence of the place. Dive in, observe, and experience it. Then report.
After reading Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City, I’ve been toying with this romantic ideal of what it is like to explore a city.
In my opinion, Lynch balances pragmatism and creativity to great effect. Within his descriptions, he decomposes a whole city into paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks. He performed thorough studies of the city’s residents, probing them to define their location—even asking them to describe the way their neighborhood smelled.
Lynch was seeking city literacy. He wanted to know a city well enough to give directions to strangers in every neighborhood. He wanted to describe his current location by the quality of limestone used in local masonry. And by the time he wrapped up his tenure at MIT, he had amassed such a body of knowledge I would not be surprised if he could do just that.
A more contemporary thought is ‘P2P Urbanism’. Coined—as far as I can tell—by Nikos Salingaros at the University of Texas at San Antonio, P2P Urbanism gives people the decision-making and concept-generation abilities needed to affect change in their own environment.
Largely a reaction against large-scale development, P2P Urbanism feels that patterns are the future, that every idea counts, and co-creation with planners yields the best outcomes. From Salingaros’ PDF on the subject:
Lots of people have big ideas that may not work (e.g. “they should make all of downtown pedestrian!”), yet everyone has small ideas that are almost certain to work (“that derelict sidewalk could very well be a tiny garden”; “that bus stop could really use a simple roof”). It is hard to find like- ‐minded people who, once grouped together, may actually turn thought into action. It would then be useful to know about similar projects that have succeeded or failed. The dissemination of knowledge would tell everyone the current state of the practice of urbanism, where lots of central planning is invariably bad, academia is fixated on improvable philosophies, and money- ‐oriented development rules without any controls.
What happened to be an offhanded request to talk to Cassim Shepard turned out to be the biggest turning point in the development of my thesis.
Cassim is probably best known as founder and editor of the Architectural League of New York’s Urban Omnibus publication. Cassim shined a light on many of the gaps present in my thesis concept.
Too Late For Design
I first thought that I could work exclusively with citizens to showcase potential design concepts. I learned early on in our conversations that the community reviews take place only after final designs has been developed; people weren’t discussing multiple options – they were discussing final renderings.
If people were going to have a stake in the design process, design was going to have to happen much earlier on.
It’s All About Participation
When I asked Cassim about his thoughts on participation, he referenced Carl Skelton, creator of Betaville:
Participation is a coalition of two different registers of confidence: professional intelligence and deep, local knowledge.
Which is a fantastic way to frame my idea getting citizens more invested in the future of their neighborhood. I’d like to see all of these different camps coming together and form a community that is sustainable, achievable, and livable. Amending the adversarial and obtuse relationship is the first place to start.
By focusing too narrowly on “the map”, I was unable to see the contexts in which that object is used. But with this new knowledge, for the first time ever, I was able to see how my thesis might exist within a larger system.
Final Concept: A Community Vision
Speaking with Cassim last week got my mind thinking in a few interesting directions. Here I’ve taken a first stab at my thoughts on the new model of interaction I’m developing: one in which resident participation shapes the future of a community.
Participation Leads to Success
Change in a neighborhood happens through community board meetings. This process is centralized and the methods used make it hard for many people to get involved. My project attempts to change the processes used in hopes that this will lead to greater participation within communities.
I define participation as the marriage of professional experience and local knowledge. When city officials, developers, and residents come together they can arrive at better solutions.
Participation in any form happens too late in today’s process. And sourcing that local knowledge is difficult, but can yield positive results for both the community and the developer. So how do we fix this?
A Neighborhood Charter
I think one way to achieve higher levels of resident buy-in is by having them create & share their ideas of what their community could be. In doing so, citizens can merge their deep local knowledge with that of professionals. This sort of forward thinking is not unlike the charters enacted by cities.
Let’s build charters for neighborhoods.
This chartering process could be an ongoing and evolving activity in which residents take part. This process should be interactive. At a high level, it should:
- show residents that they can expect things from their community, and that things will be expected of them
- teach residents the realities of building
- help manage expectations among all parties
- show developers that their customers are well-informed
- More than anything else, it should encourage the kind of participation which makes the most of the change inherent in any community.