When I was a student, I went to Barcelona. I was meant to be studying urban planning, so I wandered around the ‘superblocks’ system of traffic-calming, pavement-prioritising streets. Oververlooking one of the many pedestrianised intersections, I even drafted a cliched blog post about how nice it all is (this will never be published). Day turned into night, which turned into a night out - the type of night out organised by €10 hostels.
Walking home in the dark, I discovered a problem. Barcelona's streetscape is unique. In pre-hangover darkness, the grid becomes very repetitive. It is easy to stay put when every corner has a bar spilling out onto the pavement. If the same bars are closed, empty and shuttered, they aren't much use as waymarkers. I was lost, 2 miles and 200 wrong turns away from bed.
“There are several ways to react to being lost. One is to panic: this was usually Valentina's first impulse. Another is to abandon yourself to lostness, to allow the fact that you've misplaced yourself to change the way you experience the world.”
― Audrey Niffenegger, Her Fearful Symmetry
I eventually found my hostel, but the experience left question marks; can streets invite you to linger and show you how to move on? Are destinations and routes mutually exclusive, or can urban design bridge the gap? If you lack local knowledge and a shared language, how might cities help you find your way? For the last few months, I have been travelling through Latin America. This time, I am with my Spanish speaking partner and abundant digital maps. We still get lost.
Paula’s childhood involved a lot of Memory, a card game which you might have played. The game starts with a deck of cards. Each card has an identical twin. These are shuffled, and placed face-down in a grid across the table. With each turn you flip two cards face up, aiming to find matching pairs.
Initially you almost always turn over unmatched cards, which you must return to their original position. When you do reunite two identical cards, you get another go. When all the cards have been matched, the player with the most pairs wins. As the game develops, it swings from blind luck to some sort of skill. By paying attention to the cards revealed as players fail, you can build up an idea of where twins lie. You flip one card and frantically try to recall its match. Even when you get it right, this often feels more like intuition than precisely memorised coordinates. Often a card is flipped, clashing with where you thought it was. The panic feels like getting lost, groping around an unknown city and half-remembering the route home.
After a few rounds, the dynamic switches.When the cards are reshuffled and dealt out again, you encounter mental friction - between the old, memorised locations of cards and their new positions. The trick is to intensely hold information in your mind, then push it out just as comprehensively. Memory becomes a test of focused forgetting. To be competent is to be able to tear up your mental map and make a new one.
Moving through Mexico can feel like losing a game of Memory. When the Spanish invaded, they dealt out their version of urban planning, on top of existing settlements. Colonisation is regularly expressed in geometric grids of streets. Right angles are great, when you know where you are going. Progressing through a grid, watching the numbers tick down towards your destination, provides a satisfying sense of urban agency. It is the perfect infrastructure for estimated times of arrival, redirecting traffic and extending the city limits.
Unfortunately, regularity can also be forgettable. As I found out in Barcelona, when every crossroads looks the same, you need extra help to pick a direction. Numbers are hard to keep in mind, and make it easy to write down precisely the wrong address. To the annoyance of emergency responders and delivery drivers, the corner of 4th Avenue and 9th Street is very different to the intersection of 4th Street and 9th Avenue. The confusion compounds over centuries of urban sprawl and jockeying for the most prestigious addresses.
"The numbers of Carreras [avenues] increase from East to West, while Calles [streets] increase South to North - except ones South of Calle 1. These increase towards the South and have a 'sur' suffix. Let's use Calle 9 Sur #36-128 as an example. This is on Calle 9 Sur, between Carerras 36 and 37. The address will have a doorplate that says 36-128."
- A sign at our hostel (even less than €10 this time!)
Arriving in Mexico City laid the cards out for the first time. Here, planners forsaw how easy it would be to get entangled in numbers. They superimposed the grid with some memorable names, mostly referring to politicians, saints and important dates. After a few days of wild, looping detours - it clicks. Turn right off Bolívar onto 16 de Septiembre, and after a few blocks you reach Zócalo, the main square. The grid becomes legible - until you realise that every planner decided to use the same politicians, saints and important dates.
Miguel Hidalgo was an revolutionary priest, largely credited as the catalyst of the anti-colonial struggle. There are 760 Hidalgo streets in Mexico City, and 14,000 in the country as a whole. Benito Juárez was the first indigenous president of Mexico. He left behind a country where it is possible to live on Benito Juárez street, located in a borough also named 'Benito Juárez'. On a night bus from from Mexico City to Oaxaca, the cards are redealt. The game swings from Memory to focused forgetting. At the end of Juárez, instead of reaching the main square, you find the main lunch spot: 20 de Noviembre Mercado.
We visited on the 21st of November, but it was still open - thankfully the name indicates an adjoining street, not its opening days. Nationwide, there are thousands of '20 de Noviembre' streets. All of these are named after a date: the Mexican revolution began on 20th of November 1910. This year, the 20th fell on a Sunday so revolution was celebrated a day later. For this reason, the 20 de Noviembre Mercado was heaving with revellers on the 21st of November. It was at this point that I begun to look for alternative strategies to understand Mexican cities.
The inhabitants of early colonial cities largely spoke one of Mexico's many indigenous language. Predictably, this was framed as a problem of illiteracy, where illiteracy meant not reading and writing in Spanish. One set of solutions relied on pictograms - most notably in the public transport system of Mexico City. To this day, each of the 195 subway stations has its own unique image, often referencing the culinary heritage of the local area. These now provide a lifeline to frustratingly monolingual travellers.
In Oaxaca de Juárez, as in every major city, there is a sizable minority of d/Deaf Mexicans. Their first language is Mexican Sign Language, which bears little grammatical similarity to Spanish, but does share an alphabet with most local languages. Here, the streetscape was used to educate; decorating public space with one of the countries most colourful linguistic communities. In San Cristóbal de las Casas, signage is used to improve accessibility and raise awareness of local languages
In Mérida, you navigate by corners. The most prominent junctions are decorated with ornate tiles. In any language, these images make it possible to orient yourself without the need to memorise the names of dead Spanish people or a string of numbers. The tiles have become illicit collectors items - some look rather new, surrounded by the scars of chisels and drillbits. The city is in the process of installing thief-proof plastic signs, along with explanations of why this particular corner is signposted as "the Cedar", "Two Donkeys" or "a Mermaid". Wayfinding can be creative and functional, an intuition and a science. Grids have their use, but cities can aspire to better than bewildering monotony.
Memory, like navigation needs context. Getting lost in Mexico demonstrates that context is unshared, between each and every navigator. There is no one solution: names and numbers, colours and pictures, streets and avenues, blocks and corners are all tools for imaginative urban plan. Yes, this is messy. All the same, if we must to the corner of Calle Profa. María Adelina Flores and Av. General Miguel Utrilla, I would rather meet under The Aubergine before we go.
*Zócalo means 'plinth', in Spanish. Mexico City's main square was meant to have a huge statue in it, but they ran out of money after installing its base. To the embarassment of everyone involved, the square became known for its empty plinth, even when this was eventually removed. Now, most major cities in Mexico call their main square a Zócalo, whether or not it has a plinth in it.
Enriching Wayfinding Instructions with Local Landmarks (https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/3-540-45799-2_17)
Determinants of urban wayfinding styles (https://repository.tudelft.nl/islandora/object/uuid%3Ac47ba8ce-c101-4cd1-a803-3229277fd433/datastream/OBJ/download)
Making sense of the city: A collection of design principles for urban wayfinding (https://www.jbe-platform.com/content/journals/10.1075/idj.17.2.03fen)
Wayfinding in Real Cities: Experiments at Street Corners
The effect of built space on wayfinding in urban environments: a study of the historical peninsula in İstanbul
Wayfinding design: logic, application and some thoughts on universality (https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/0142694X96000014)
Investigating the Effectiveness of the Least-Angle Strategy for Wayfinding in Unknown Street Networks (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1068/b31160)
Grid Patterns and Cultural Expectations in Urban Wayfinding (https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/3-540-45424-1_27)