“You Are Here:” Anchoring Place in the City

Maps help us navigate places of all scales, but how do we usefully contextualize that geographic information?

The process of interpreting a map of the city requires knowledge of important visual cues that help anchor our sense of “here.” Boston’s coastal geography provides these identifiable cues for easy navigation. How do other cities differ?

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Instead of geology, residents of Tulsa rely on the tangle of highways that tie the suburbs together:

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Because getting anywhere in Tulsa almost completely depends on an automobile, a Tulsan’s sense of place is obviously established relative to the highways. After all, people use roads to get from point A to point B. But these highways are more than simple transit routes. They are identifiable markers that help residents see where they are in relation to each other.

562648_484671461588571_93437534_nThe visual cues that make geographic information useful depend on the unique regional qualities of a city, like transportation, geology, or even the weather. For example, Tulsa is notoriously positioned in Tornado Alley. As a native of Tulsa, some of my earliest memories of the city’s geographic boundary were associated with numerous tornado warnings that flashed across the television screen.

It’s probable that many young Oklahomans learned their county’s political boundary at a very early age thanks to┬átornados. But everyone experiences geography differently – sometimes as a function of class or race. Maps of New York’s subway system famously depict an enormous Manhattan:

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In the “digital age,” cellphone reception certainly plays a role in our sense of place and its relationship to the broader geography. Its probable that the internet will play a growing role in what “here” means.