I think one of the key associations with urban planning and cities in general is the connection of a place with a map. Whenever we visit a place we often seek a map to help us get around, trace where we have been or where we live relative to the rest of our city. I think maps have possibly evolved beyond a simple tool for orientation purposes, and have become a more integral part of the way we view and perceive the space around us.

Perhaps I am writing this from a particular bias, possessing a fascination of maps since childhood. Maps have always had this fantastical way of representing places you are familiar, or even unfamiliar with, or even a place in relation to its wider context – so you can figure out how it all relates. Maps can represent the systems of a city (e.g. public transport, natural corridors, development), quite often the history of a city, particularly in terms of development, and can appear as attractive images themselves; a sea of colour and patterns laid out in some sort of ordered chaos. No wonder people, particularly planners and city designers, share a significant love of maps.

I see one of the first significant roles of the ‘map’ in planning beginning in the utopian era and waving its way through garden city developments. Of course maps were used long before this time to represent places all over the world and organise land parcels; however my focus of this article is to explore the romanticism of mapping. It was during these times when planning itself became a romanticised activity. The city became an expression of design and grandeur with large boulevards, gardens and a neatly organised system of uses. The maps began to attribute to patterns, systems, shapes, and figures – anything that caught the eye.

This is where my story begins.

See, I think in many ways we haven’t quite left this romanticism of planning behind. In so many instances I see examples of where planning and design have occurred through ‘mapping’ or ‘map designing’ rather than planning for the context, for land uses, or to solve the particular issues. This is not necessarily a right, wrong, good or bad thing… it just is for some cases.

For example, one of the things I saw recently that sparked this chain of thought was Hourglass Reserve, a local park in Waikiki, Western Australia. I was looking at something in the area and came across Hourglass Reserve, which was cleverly and aptly named being shaped like an hourglass.

On the map, I personally thought it gave some interest to the area and seemed appropriately named. However, I got to thinking about a person using the park. Would they actually notice it was shaped like an hourglass? Obviously the effect could be masked by the scale of the park, but what I mean is, on a map it’s an obvious hourglass, but when you are on the ground it is just a park. Therefore it becomes a pattern or a shape to the ‘maps eye’ but not necessarily to the ‘users eye’.

I think a lot of modern planning tries to emphasise the experience on the ground and how any sort of development could affect the users of an area. This brings to mind the question: Can the modern map then really portray the experience on the ground? Maps can only deliver so much being a 2D tool, and purely representing a geographical area. How would you begin to convert a lived ‘on the ground’ experience into mapping? Even things such as building heights, bulk, scale, culture, richness, colour, climate, activity… how could these be perceived on a 2D sheet of paper? Perhaps this is an issue facing modern planning, particularly with the rapid introduction of 3D modelling and imagery – how will mapping evolve to meet the needs of our planning system? How will our planning system look to use different mechanisms to communicate the built environment?

Perhaps then it is appropriate to ask, are maps just a bird’s eye view of the world? Only one dimension in a multi-dimensional world? It’s clear that consideration of all dimensions in a design is no easy task, and something readily dealt with by planners, architects, designers etc. on a daily basis. For visual people, like myself, I think maps will continue to be a fascinating component of the built environment and remain an integral part of the planning process and our daily lives.

I may have contemplated a lot during this article, so now it is your turn. I want to leave you with two questions to ponder or respond to (if you wish)…

  • Do you think mapping influences the design of our built environment?
  • Where do you think the changes to mapping (if any) will be in the next few decades?