Getting Orientated, and Why It’s Important

For any traveller, their arrival into a new city can raise any number of anxieties. Among those in my study tour group less travelled than myself (and substantially less conceited I suspect), I observed the anxiety of not knowing the language, of missing a connecting flight or train, of getting lost, of losing a passport or boarding pass, of not being able to access money, or of looking like a tourist. These are anxieties that are easily understood, and easily reconcilable, really. Mine is more inherent, it would seem. More a part of my DNA.

Take a seat... if you dare (title and artist unknown), Freiburg.

I simply cannot relax until I know where I am, and how to get to where I need to go. Orientating myself to a new place is quite simply the single most important thing on my list when I travel. It may have something to do with my productivity complex; I don’t like letting time slip away by having to find or ask directions. I need a map, and I need to know where I am on it.

I’m a map person. I come from a long line of map people, it would seem. Among the first conversations I have with family members when I visit them almost inevitably gravitates to what route I took to get there, or the alternatives I could have taken. Cartography however, isn’t what interests me. I think it has more to do with knowing where I am, and how I might get to somewhere else. Somewhere else it seems, is where I often think about being.

Today’s ‘somewhere else’ is Freiburg, Germany. As the first stop on a university group study tour, Freiburg is the place where my puffy ankles will have a chance to recuperate after nearly 30 hours of inflight fluid retention. It’s the place where I can recharge my batteries, and those of my fruity phone and fruity pad. It’s my first real chance to reconnect with the outside world (aka home), but there’s a problem. It’s Sunday.

Bündelstele 1, by Roland Phleps.

Sunday morning in Freiburg is, well… closed. Almost everything is closed. I don’t begrudge this by the way. I believe resting on the seventh day is a sign of a civilised and respectful society, disregarding any religious connotations this may have. But it’s a little inconvenient. Didn’t they know I was coming? Aren’t they aware of the need many of us have, to buy stuff on a Sunday?

So, armed only with a partially downloaded map of Freiburg on said fruity phone, and no idea where I was let alone where I might pick up a pocket map of the city; I set off in search of my locality.

I’ve found that the secret to orientating yourself is to wander aimlessly. Counterintuitive, I know, but eventually you find yourself heading in one direction, then the next, until there comes a point where you realise that you’re back where you started, or somewhere very close by. Particular landmarks soon become familiar and pathways, intersections, barriers and nodes all begin to contribute to the mental picture you need to find your way back. This is how urban places work, or don’t.

For an urban space to function effectively I think it’s important for planners and designers to remember that it’s the features that are universally familiar that will enable people to relate with, and use the space best. Allowing people to orientate themselves with ease, be they visitors or locals, is a basic foundation of land use planning. Laying streets in pretty patterns may look good on a plan may, but may not be conducive to good patterns of usage.

Gartenschlauch (Garden Hose) by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Stühlinger Park, Freiburg

As a visitor, its easy to become entranced by the aesthetics of a strange place – it’s architectural, natural or spacial features. It’s easy to become distracted with the unfamiliar, and forget to notice those familiar features of a place that help us to orientate ourselves. As a student of land use planning and urban design, perhaps it’s important that I look for the things that are familiar in a place that is not, and to look only for those things that make a space unique when the orientation test has been applied.

After all, the mild anxiety of being lost or disorientated can detract from the pleasure of being enchanted by the new and unfamiliar features of a place. For me anyway, function comes before form in the urban design context. They may be attractive cobblestones, but if I don’t know where I am, I’m unlikely to care where they lead.

Although, I must admit, they are attractive cobblestones.

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