Applied information design: The City

Since ever I have been fascinated with how cities are organised, particularly the nomenclature used to referring to the location of a specific house, building, etc. (the address!) and the types of street names/numbers, house names/numbers, and landmarks. Each city has its own nomenclature according to the culture, and way of organising its houses/buildings based on the structure in which the city was built. Each city can also be seen as an information design system in which different parts (i.e. addresses, maps, postcodes) follows the same and unique principles. The way addresses are written is an example of how information is being designed particularly for one city. Sometimes, these principles can be applied to a whole country.

Like everything, cities have a set of characteristics that defines their style and rationale (in which the mentioned unique principles are based on), which people who live in a particular city know and use to navigate and commute through it. Foreign people don’t have to be necessarily familiar to those characteristics as they might be different than that of their cities. These characteristics can be grouped according to the type of information of a city they refer to:

– The structure
– The location of the street names/numbers
– The street names typologies
– The references
– The codes
– The rationale of the houses’ numbering

The structure: some cities have been built following a plan while others had had a less rational growing and development plan. However, in both cases the cities have a structure (what in design is called grid system), that when it is understood, it becomes easier to navigate through. Cities like New York and most from Argentina were built on rigid grids that make easier for foreign people to navigate and find a particular place once they can locate theirselves in a map, while cities like London and Lisbon are much more organic cities. In organic cities, finding two parallel streets it’s quite a challenge and thus they can be seen as more complicated to navigate. However, this characteristic can be used as an ‘orientation-strategy’: if people knew in advance that most of the streets don’t follow a straight line, they would not rely on that and would walk around with this in mind. Some cities have a combination of both structures; such is the case of Barcelona, which has an organic structure in the oldest districts, like the Barri Gòtic, and a rigid grid in the most modern districts like L’Eixample. It worth saying that although most cities merge both types of structures, they have one leading structure that defines the whole city.

Different typologies of structures (grids)

The location of the street names/numbers: another type of information I find useful is to know where the names of the streets and numbers of the houses/buildings are located. In some cities, each block has a stick in each of its four corners which indicates the name of the two intersecting streets, plus the houses’ numbers included in those streets. Other cities only have the names of each street on the walls of the corner buildings, but no numbers, such as Leiden (Holland); while in others it is quite difficult even to find the names, as there are no names or they are placed in unusual places. As an example, in Buenos Aires almost corners of the centre have the names of the streets, while in neighbourhoods, the name of the streets cannot be found at all. Street names in Barcelona are quite well identifiable in most areas.

Leiden, Holland

Downtown, New York

New York

The street names typologies: I have enlarged this type of information since I moved to London, before houses and buildings could only be on ‘streets’ and ‘avenues’. Now, this type of information covers many more possibilities, including roads, mews, squares, places, walks, gardens, and lanes. In London, a same street name can refer to different addresses according to the characteristics of each street: Hogarth Road, Hogarth Place, The Boltons Road, The Boltons Gardens, The Boltons Place. A totally different nomenclature is used in New York (Manhattan). Streets are called by numbers and organised following the cardinal points (see The codes below), using the 5th Avenue as the middle point, which divides Eastern from Western streets. So, basically New York addresses are composed for the number of the house: [20], plus the street ‘name’ of the house: [E 23rd Street]. This city also has street names, mostly in the Downtown and in the Upper side.

London, UK

The references: great number of European cities has geographic references, such as rivers (i.e. in Rome, Paris, London, Berlin) and green spaces (i.e. in London, Barcelona), but as I have mentioned in a previous post, the references don’t have to be only geographic. Many cities, such as New York and Barcelona have landmarks, i.e. Empire State, and main streets that are used references, i.e. 5th Avenue, Av. Diagonal, Las Ramblas, respectively.

The codes: Each city has particular codes that local people are familiar with. On the one hand, local people refer to the different areas of their city using the cardinal points, such is the case of London, which something can be: on the West or on the South, or on the North of … and though the postcodes are essential to find a place, as each place has a attached a particular postcode. While on other cities, local people refer to the different areas according to the main characteristics of each area. The terms Downtown, Midtown, and Uppertown are daily used in New York. In Barcelona, for example, local people talk about ‘mountain streets’ and ‘sea streets’, as the city is located between the Tibidabo Mountain and the Mediterranean Sea. In Mar del Plata (Argentina) everything is defined according to the beach, and to some particular beaches, like La Bristol and La Perla, and the whole city has only one postcode. I find this type of information one of the most important to know how to navigate in a foreign city.

The rationale of the houses’ numbering: This type of information refers to the number attached to each house, building or office (some houses don’t have a number but a name instead, something quite common in Europe, but not in Argentina), and the rationale each city adopts to organise each house/building/office throughout the streets and blocks. In Argentina each block contains one hundred numbers, so all houses/buildings starting with the same digit are in the same block. This rationale is applied throughout all the streets and thus all parallel streets have the same numbers. Barcelona applies a different rationale, which sets that the quantity of houses/buildings per block varies from one block to another, so some blocks contain three house numbers, while others may contain ten. In addition, not all houses/buildings are numbered, which makes a bit difficult to find a place, and of course there is no number correlation between one block and its parallel block. Even numbers tend to be grouped in one side of the street and odd numbers on the opposite side. However, here in London, the rationale is as organic as the structure of the city. Even and odd numbers can be found on the same side of one street, and it is not a rule that they constantly increase or decrease, as there can be a gap in the frequency and the numbers can start from the beginning again.

Examples of numbering rationale between Buenos Aires and Barcelona. Each city is organised using a different rationale.

I haven’t been in any Eastern or Middle Eastern city, but friend of mind used to tell me that there, there are not street names and mostly local people know how to navigate following landmarks, such as old shops. Definitely, those countries may have less, more or, simply, different types of information. Information design principles are being used everyday even in the little things.

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