Book Club
Tales of the City
Urban Design


Inner Navigation - Erik Jonsson
Russell Degnan

Given the majority of books I purchase these days are recommendations creamed from assorted bloggers, it is nice to stumble across a book that was simultaneously fascinating, completely unknown to me, and extremely useful. The sub-title of this book is "Why we get lost and how we find our way". Jonsson seems more fascinated by the former than the latter in this breezy and entertaining read. Each chapter placing another brick or two in the argument through a wealth of interesting stories about lost people, and confused internal maps.

In a basic sense, we seem to have two methods of wayfinding. The first is our 'dead-reckoning' system, our ability to say roughly what direction we are heading, and keep track of how far. The second is complementary. It is the landmark method where a person walks from known place to known place in a sequence.

A Landmark's usefulness is based on our ability to integrate the knowledge it gives us into the current mental map we have of where we are. The interesting parts therefore, are how we actual orientate ourselves, and how we assess our position, and to Jonsson, how these can go wrong.

Although he mentions other orientation systems, the author, to me, overemphasises the compass points as means of orientation. Probably because of his background in orienteering and non-urban navigation. For probably two reasons I can't say I have much use for north-south at all -- though I can generally point them out with a bit of thinking. Firstly, Melbourne has an imperfect north-south street grid, a perfect one to its north, confusing curves in North Melbourne and something else south of the river. Secondly, when travelling overseas, and as Jonsson describes, it can be quite difficult to work out which direction the train is travelling as it curves into town. In addition, the sun, being in the southern sky in Europe throws my northern sky orientation so much I can't trust it.

My method of orientation is different. It might be more unreliable at times, but it is easier to construct. Instead of compass points -- useless on curving medieval streets anyway -- I generally orientate myself according to a line from the railway station to the town centre. A sort-of town-north if you will, that may or may not resemble an actual north. I therefore have an odd directional sense: in Bologna north is actually south-south-west; while in Ravenna it is east, which an abominable west to the top tourist map made even more problematic. Though this isn't always the case, in Genoa's maze of twisty little streets, all alike, it is easier to orientate yourself by the harbour, and to pray. While in Florence I orientated myself by the river (and it seems strange to me that the old Roman part of town is orientated differently to the Uffizi gallery).

The book doesn't provide all the answers. Navigation seems to remain something of a mystery to cognitive scientists. But it does provide an excellent basis for thinking about navigation, about how people get lost, and more interestingly (to me), how to try and prevent that happening through good urban design and better maps.

Book Club 19th July, 2005 02:17:20   [#] 


Sounds like a good read.
Russ, a nice wrap up of a great book. You brought the pages to life with your summary and opinions. Thanks for doing that.
Lisa  19th July, 2005 17:20:30  

Desert People
I don't find it neccesary to relate to compass directions in cities other than Melbourne, instead I find it easier to recognise patterns of travel and positions of locations and suburbs in relation to each other rather than to everything. What you/the author calls complementary/sequential.

It is more logical to find your way to somewhere in relation to the best travel routes and places you are familar with than compass points be they official or personal constructs. Your own variable compass is interesting, but in most cities it will not correspond to the best alignment of things in the one city as the landscape changes too frequently.

All of the desert people in all of my favourite science fiction literature shun maps and use their minds instead for complementary navigation. The official compass or any other has many more useful uses so I am not disparging it.
Benno  24th July, 2005 23:51:44  

Different circumstances...
...require different methods. Interestingly the author talked about how desert people navigate at length without concluding anything. They don't use compasses as you say, but they don't use landmarks either, because there are none to be had. Instead they seem to be able to pinpoint to incredible accuracy (within a degree) where something is, and keep on that course even when detouring around various objects. But Jonsson indicates that noone knows how they do it. They just do.

With city navigation it depends on how well you know the city. I am more interested in how people go about it when they don't. The author seems to rely on maps and north-south bearings. As I said, I don't because I don't have a good feel for north, but I normally have an accurate idea of where I am relative to a central axis, or other highly visible object.

I think it is an area where mileage really does vary. So I am interested in how other people go about it.
Russ  25th July, 2005 13:18:59  

i hate this required field
Real desert people I am not familiar with, but these science fiction ones do have plenty of objects/landmarks to relate things to, deserts aren't neccessarily entirely barren and continous.

About cities I have no idea about, I am not sure how I orientate myself, but I have had plenty of experience with cities that I know a bit of and thus have some pieces to relate things to. I will refer this thread to my friend who never gets lost anywhere anytime, he should be interesting.

In a completely strange city then I would go with your method and anchor myself around the railway system.
Benno  25th July, 2005 15:02:05  

Inner Navigation - Erik Jonsson
I should add, when I say 'landmark' I mean something that you recognise and can use to unequivocally determine your position and orientation. The desert as Jonsson descibes it has lots of small features that give an orientation -- the sun, wind and small grass hummocks. But in order not to get lost they need to keep in their mind how far they've travelled and what direction. Which they seem to do subconsciously.

Projecting that onto others, Jonsson seems to say that it doesn't matter what you use as an anchor, as long as you have one. But there seem to be big differences in people's ability to navigate, and moreover to find their way in different environments.

PS I've changed the title field to be non-required for you. It will use the post title by default.
Russ  25th July, 2005 17:03:11  

Of course the answer to your question now is that I would use Google Earth!
Benno  29th July, 2005 14:05:06  


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