Throughout college, I had to travel from one end of the city to another. Avadi to Adayar every day. Peak time traffic was so bad that I used to get nightmares about being stuck for hours on a crowded bus with hardly room to breathe. That being said, sometimes I took the auto to reach college faster, but mainly for the myriad shortcuts through the city that an auto driver invariably knows, to bypass the traffic.
Now these shortcuts meant I had to venture into places and streets I didn’t know before, routes that were alien to me. The watchdog inside of me was constantly on alert, looking out for any deviations from the usual route. The first time this happened I spotted it too late. We were already in the middle of nowhere. Lost for all I knew! I instantly went into panic mode, imagination on overdrive, desperately searching for signs, clues, anything at all to figure out where the auto driver was taking me.
Then, I spotted it. Rows and rows of nameboards outside shops with one thing in common – Addresses written proudly beneath their names, showing exactly where I was.
Navigation and way finding issues have been largely ignored when it comes to urban planning and design of Indian cities. Yet they are fundamentally important in orienting ourselves in a new place and makes acclimatising to unknown contexts easier. Our brains subconsciously map and keep track of the routes, taking orientation cues from the surrounding contexts like street signs, buildings, and landmarks, anything that triggers memory of a place. Cities that make this process easier are naturally easier to navigate.
Google Maps and the Smartphone Revolution
Without a doubt, wayfinding is certainly much easier than it was before. But, here’s the thing- nowadays we are so dependent on Google Maps for finding our way through our cities that it is hard to remember that there was no Google Maps before 2005. We find it hard to get out of our houses without consulting our phones and plotting our route inch by inch. Traffic analysis, time-distance appraisals, travel mode comparisons are all put together to give us the ‘recommended (read safe) route’. We let artificial intelligence make the judgements for us (“Google shows this, so must be right”); wayfinding through the city is largely enabled by, and limited to our phones.
This type of Google-based route planning is radically different from how our parents found their way through cities, using their own internal cognitive map of random points and landmarks in the city, both familiar and unfamiliar, like that cousin’s house here or that temple there, and form a sequence of these landmarks to reach their destination. This might have been less accurate, but this was when travelling and navigating was enjoyed for the joy that is itself, when they actually saw the city and were guided by the city.
In this constant point-to-point travel, we forget to enjoy the actual experience of travel.
Wayfinding is essentially a mix of logic, accident, and most importantly, our basic human navigational instinct. But Smartphone navigation narrows our perspective of the world, reducing it to the singular route between the two points of travel, leaving nothing to chance. In this constant point-to-point travel, we forget to enjoy the actual experience of travel. In the guise of exploring the city, we see less of the city and more of the tiny map of the city inside our phones.
The charm of wandering through the city, lost in reverie, can’t be predicted by an app nor can it be calculated by any algorithm.
Most cities abroad invest millions of dollars on installing way finding systems like signage and maps to aid in moving through an urban landscape. The best part about Chennai or any Indian City, for that matter, is that we already have one! A system that has organically evolved over the years, to become the quickest, most original way of orienting ourselves in the city – the nameboards. This curious practice prevails in shops big and small, and has unconsciously played a major role in making places more legible.
All this fuss about a nameboard, you ask? But it’s not just a nameboard of a shop, it’s a crucial marker in the wayfinding process. With changing times, there has been an increasing shift towards fancy, minimalistic nameboards without the addresses. The important thing to realise is that despite all its good looks, it doesn’t add any value to the urban environment. The legibility of a city largely depends on the intuitiveness and creativity of the wayfinding systems. Of course, there’s a lot more to wayfinding than just these nameboards. But preserving this practice is a start to making Chennai coherent as a whole.
I realised the extent to which this influenced my perception of the city when I moved to Bangalore last year. The first thing I noticed was the lack of address on the ‘modern’ nameboards, in some of the posh, commercial areas like Indira Nagar. I had become so dependent on them for orienting myself and tracking my route that I was lost everytime I stepped outside!
There is a lot of joy in being lost in the city, and chancing upon hidden streets you didn’t know existed, exploring less known routes that take you to new places, new sights. Nothing can compare with the moment of revelation when you connect the dots and think “Oh! I know where I am now!” A good wayfinding system gives us the confidence to chance getting lost. It makes us feel like we belong.
All we need to do is look outside the window.
Preetika Balasubramanian, co-founder of Hashtag Urbanism, is an architect, urbanist, who thinks of a city as collective of human absurdity; a complex spatial reproduction of human value systems, behaviour patterns, and the stage where economic and political models play out. She is currently studying Masters in Urbanism at TU Delft, Netherlands.