Maps make sense of the world around us. They are both descriptive (think of the elevated ridgelines of topographic maps) and prescriptive (the Google maps navigator telling you how to get from here to there).
And they don’t always match reality. As this Slate slideshow of strange maps demonstrates, maps may not fit so much into neat categories of right or wrong, but they do shed some light on our perception and experience. At right is one of the classics of perceived landscape, Saul Steinberg’s 1976 New Yorker cover, “View of the World from 9th Avenue.”
Maps also tell stories. In The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, Reif Larsen’s recent novel of a boy cartographer who maps everything from the concentration of Chicago litter to the flight paths of bats above his family’s Montana Ranch, the maps show what exist and they propose what might. Spivet’s earliest vision is a six-year old’s map to God.
Maps can help you see your downtown anew, and they can point to the vision of what it could be. Try it.
As a conversation starter at your next design committee meeting, consider doing a cognitive mapping exercise. On blank sheets of paper, have each person draw a mental map of their downtown— the buildings and streets as they experience them. Then discuss them. How are they different? How are they alike? How is a young person’s different from yours? What places aren’t part of anyone’s downtown at the table? Who else should be invited to draw their downtowns? Are their obvious natural districts?
Your discussion is sure to be be rich and specific, and best of all, fun. Send us imagesof a map or two and we’ll share your results on the blog.