A lot of people in cities are lost, and I mean this literally. According to Mike Rawlinson, of City ID, at any one moment in New York City, “quite a high proportion of people are lost” (Guardian article). This problem isn’t just about tourists and smartphone mapping hasn’t provided a solution. Guerrilla wayfinding tactics, although inspiring direct responses to the problem, aren’t being absorbed fast enough.

Guerilla wayfinding, a street compass stenciled at the subway exit provides just in time street grid orientation without resorting to pulling out your smartphone.

Depending on your smart phone to get to your destination may be the norm, but urban planners and wayfinding consultants must design our cities to be usable for everyone, including those who have no smart phone, data connection or battery power. The latest street map interfaces in London and New York point to one hybrid future of street navigation combining static maps and route planning interfaces, but what about those who lack basic map literacy? And what to do in places where well designed signage doesn’t exist?

Map literacy goes beyond the ability to get from A to B. Orientation in an urban environment can be a fuller way of knowing where you are, what is around you and where within the wider region you are situated. Having this situational awareness engenders a feeling of position and a certain confidence that transcends the immediate utility of a maps app.

When I was a student of environmental science I studied orienteering, as in basic map and compass skills. We also learned more advanced GIS mapping, navigation and even some surveying techniques needed for the fieldwork we were conducting. Not much of the more advanced mapping techniques have stuck with me, but as someone who tends to get lost (and I do enjoy the adventure of it), I know these skills come in handy. I’ve also come to realize what wayfinding skills mean for those who have it and for those who don’t. Orientation is a form of awareness, in a larger contextual sense, both spatially and socially. Getting lost in a city is a different matter from getting lost in the woods, however some of the skills of orienteering do carry over. Thinking along those lines I’ve outlined a set of urban tactics for orientation and wayfinding to build personal spatial confidence.

I believe this feeling of orientation is in short supply would be useful and empowering for many groups. Including school children, immigrants, elders, researchers and artists alike. My fieldwork as a parkour researcher opened me up to the revelatory aspects of practiced, and often bodily, cognitive (re)orientation. In order to distribute and teach geospatial orientation tools that have the potential to enable new transcendent modes of understanding our environments I put forward that a modular toolkit may be an effective teaching method. Urban tactics drawn from emerging technologies, old fashioned orienteering and performative actions would be taught in the field. Taken as a whole, this toolkit might be described as a “course” teaching participants how to swim in complexity and how to navigate dense information environments. It is my hope that newly gained perspectives on physical environments, mobility and wayfinding may lead directly to other routes of urban inquiry based in the present realities of the spatial and digital flows we’re immersed in. A proposed toolkit of movements, orientation skills and mapping techniques is as follows:

Learning Units:

  • parkour
  • urban exploration network
  • panoramic viewing (connecting observation points)
  • orientation skills (compass+map skills)
  • dynamic mapping technologies: google earth / remote person view drone / panoramic ball camera