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Walking in the City
Geoff Manaugh, 25 Nov 06

The Economist reports that a "massive street-renaming project" is now underway in Shanghai. "Some 838 streets are involved in the overhaul," the article explains. "Many of the names will be changed completely, others will be altered and a few, somehow, will be eliminated altogether." Incredibly, the project will involve "the revision of 106 traffic signs, 1,667 road signs, 9,807 personal-identification cards, 10,726 building address plates, 17 bus lines and 972 bus signs." There's no word how much all that will cost, nor whether individual residents and businesses will foot the bill, but, in the interest of clarifying the city, Shanghai's Municipal Urban Planning Bureau is determined to see the program through to completion.

For me, this story raises the larger and more interesting question of how streets are named in the first place – including what effects new names might have on the public's sense of the city. If 5th Avenue in New York was renamed The Avenue of a Thousand Buddhas, for instance, or London's Tottenham Court Road became, say, The Way of Quantum Electrodynamism – or Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin turned into Tongue-Of-The-Silver-Dragon-Allee... clearly, people would see these streets somewhat differently.

New names can stultify or invigorate whole neighborhoods – or do nothing at all, as streets named after Ivy League universities and Greek philosophers seem destined to do. Living on Harvard Street sounds imaginatively bankrupt at best, whilst Euclid Avenue does little to raise the intellectual hopes of the local community.

In any case, this revision of names, signs, and other urban orientations is certainly not unique to Shanghai. Right now, for instance, at New London Architecture, there's an exhibition called Legible London.

Legible London confronts the city on the level of typography: focusing almost entirely on graphic design, the exhibition hopes "to make it easier to walk in and around the capital by developing a coordinated wayfinding system to serve Londoners and visitors alike."

Rather than rename entire districts or sections of streets to make the city more coherent, Legible London convincingly argues that you just need to install better signage.

As the exhibition guide points out:

London is one of the most beautiful walking cities in the world, but it’s often hard to navigate above ground. Many people use the tube map to find their way walking the streets, even though it distorts our perception of distance and direction. As a result, people often use other transport modes even for short distances, when walking would be quicker and more pleasant: 1 in 20 people exiting Leicester Square tube station were found to have travelled a distance of less than 800 metres.
To combat this over-use of motorized transport, and to get people out there using their feet, the exhibition proposes that London unite its myriad of bewildering street signs both typographically and formally: the same height, dimensions, fonts, terminology, etc. This will make it harder to lose oneself – and, in theory, it will also encourage people to go for a stroll around "one of the most beautiful walking cities in the world," without relying on mechanized transport.

However, not being able to lose oneself in the city does have drawbacks; there is psychological value in not knowing, or even understanding, where you stand. In a review of Iain Sinclair's new book, London: City of Disappearances, for instance, we read how London "is a city of the forgotten," where anyone "can still disappear without trace."

Indeed, the reviewer claims, London "calls to those whose one desire is to vanish," because it is a city "built upon lost things." London "towers above forgotten underground rivers and discarded tunnels. It is built upon old graveyards and burial pits."

Without turning the city into an encyclopedia of itself – or some massively cross-referenced self-documenting archaeological site, inspired by Borges – these things will never receive their own signage. They exist between addresses, in the general atmosphere of the city, and it would seem no amount of urban typography could satisfyingly locate them.

Further, entire streets have disappeared: "Catherine Street, Jewin Street, Golden Place are just three of the vanished thoroughfares named in a litany of sorrowful mysteries," our reviewer explains. "Other streets have been curtailed. Swallow Street has been swallowed by burgeoning London. Grub Street has been renamed Milton Street."

The city erases itself as it expands through history; its continual self-renewal leaves behind old signs like fossils in the midst of untrafficked junctions, where obsolete arrows point to sites that no longer exist.

Of course, the purpose of Legible London is not to signpost every square inch of the city, marking every historical artifact in every remembered location. Its purpose is altogether more simple and municipally well-timed: through signs, Legible London hopes to make London more accessible to pedestrians, to get people off of public transport and into the streets together.

If the everyday poetry of losing oneself in the city is not something we should design out of the human experience, then we need to recognize that, if no one bothers walking at all because they don't know how to get anywhere – and so they simply take a bus – most people will never find themselves pushing the boundaries of urban familiarity in the first place.

A good pedestrian sign system will show us the way, providing enough information for us to set off on foot – whilst leaving specific incidents and exploratory details up to the walker's own mood and imagination.

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Comments

This is a great article. One other consideration in the renaming of streets is the cultural and political statements made by a government in doing so. Not knowing much about Shanghai's streets, I can't give a true example, but if, say, a street named in honor of the Qing emperor Qianlong were renamed for Deng Xiaoping, that definitely makes a statement.

Consider too that the renaming may actually confuse people further. Residents may keep using the old names in conversation, despite maps to the contrary, confusing out-of-towners more than the original streets.


Posted by: Graham on 26 Nov 06

Hey Graham - Good point. On the other hand, I'm all for radical and weird renamings of famous streets: LA's Pico Boulevard becomes the Avenue of Lost Coastal Slip Faults... Just to confuse people.

Makes life a bit more interesting.


Posted by: Geoff Manaugh on 26 Nov 06

In my city the sign "No Through Road" only indicates that the road is a dead end for cars, even though there may well be a lane or pathway down the end open to walkers and bikeriders. That's a system of signage in need of improvement.

When I lived in the US I was impressed by the variousness of American street names: in Australia we seem about limited to the names of civic notables and indigenous places names. I loved in fact that I could walk on a street called Euclid, it has a beautiful sound, and I don't see anything inert in naming a street after a mathematician.


Posted by: Andrew Kelly on 27 Nov 06

I've been interested in wayfinding for a long time. I highly recommend the book "Wayfinding in Architecture" by Romedi Passini. I also highly recommend Kevin Lynch's "The Image of the City" in regard to thinking about how people compose cognitive maps of cities through experience.

I agree that mystery in a city is beautiful. There is nothing I love more than to be dropped in a new city by way of train or bus and then to find my way and whereabouts. And even if one has a map, the process of aligning the physical and real landscape with the coordinates and presumed organization of the map is an exciting experience.

Organizing a wayfinding system as a means to get people out into the streets is a good idea, with a kind and conscious social motive.

The discussion of wayfinding should expand to include new media mapping technologies, such as Google Maps and Google Earth, both of which, through use, augment the process by which we psychologically perceive the world.

Has anyone explored a city by way of Google Maps and Google Earth and then attempted to explore the same city in the real by way of 'memory'? It is a fascinating experience. I did it this past August with San Jose, California, a city I've always been geographically close to but quite far away from in my knowledge of its composition. I must admit, I was afraid at first that my exposure to mapping software might have corrupted my ability to wander into the unknown... but I was wrong, it simply added another layer to the experience... instead, I was confronted with assumptions based on an aerial and plan-aligned view. An interesting part of the experience was then how my mind -- with a rendering of the city from an aerial photograph -- imagined what it would be like to zoom-out from where I was standing in the urban fabric and see the city from above. Eventually, though, I find myself wandering 'off-map' and into areas not drawn to by visual cues in the aerial photography.

It is also fascinating to revisit locales discovered in the real world in mapping software. I was in the little village of Vytina in Greece a little over a year ago and hadn't known the place existed until my visit. A wonderous experience it is to then find the location in Google Earth, become lost beyond the known landmark, and then lost a-wandering into the periphery of one's memory.


Posted by: matt waxman on 27 Nov 06

Great post, Geoff. I think that in addition to improving signage, if cities are spending money on pedestrian experience already, they should assist in non-sign wayfinding.
Public art and institutional architecture (in the 30th street station sense, not the grim, prisons-for-children sense) are great ways to locate yourself in a city, and reduce the need for signs. They are signs of a different kind, related not just to the whims of the namer, but ideally to the history and culture of their place.


Posted by: justus on 27 Nov 06

I'd live on the Avenue of a Thousand Buddhas in a second. Nice article.


Posted by: bjenkins on 27 Nov 06

I have to say I am almost worried about the psychological effects that renaming so many streets may have on the people of Shanghai. Being a college student away from home I have noticed I have a psycholocial tie just to the names of the streets in my home town, and memories connected to them.
But I also have to say that I enjoyed Matt's comment on the beauty and fun that can be found when exploring a new city. I had that experience for the first time this summer when I visited Europe for the first time. It was so exciting to have to connect the dots on the map in my head with the sights that I was seeing. And i suppose that wouldn't change much with the change of street names, but I do hope they don't reach out of their culture and go too western culture. I think it is important for every culture to hang onto their heritage rather than acclimating to the one most popular at the time.


Posted by: kaychad on 28 Nov 06

There is currently a street renaming controversy in Montreal. Park Avenue or Avenue du Parc is to be renamed Boulevard Robert Bourassa Boulevard. Park has been the name of the street for about 123 years and it actually runs by Mount Royal Park (The Mountain in the center of our city) while Robert Bourassa is a former provincial premier who died a few years ago without ever having had a profound effect on the province- though that, of course, may be very debatable. City Hall came up with the idea without public consultations and there has been a general upset amongst the public. Today city council voted to go ahead with the change by a majority vote thus setting the stage for a bitter battle which will, at the very least, challenge concepts of democracy at City Hall.

Neath


Posted by: Neath on 28 Nov 06

I found signs generally terrible when I lived in England. At one point I was in Stratford-upon-Avon with a friend trying to find my way on foot to a Shakespeare house. The signs instructed us to turn right, then left, then left again. When we found the house we looked behind us and could see directly down the block the point from which we had started. Whoever made these signs evidently enjoyed confusing tourists!


Posted by: Andrea on 7 Dec 06



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