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“Excuse me… can you help me find this address?”

In a life-sized city, people get around with visual clues instead of street names and house numbers.

Hi… excuse me… can you help me find this address?

An oft-used phrase for visitors in a foreign city, albeit less these days with the rise of smartphones and google maps. A few years ago I met up with an American visitor here in Copenhagen. When we were done, he showed me an address for his next meeting and asked how to get there on foot. I suggested he head down the street to the Central Train Station and then ask someone else for the next leg.

That’s what everyone here says!”, he said with a smile. He was in town for two weeks and was doing a cool, little experiment. He only got around by asking people for directions. Soooo old-school!

One of his observations is that Copenhageners, like me, besides being helpful, never really gave him complete and specific directions. They sent him in the right direction and then suggested he ask someone else for further details once he got closer. I found that so incredibly interesting.

I spent an awful lot of time thinking about it afterwards. I made mental notes of my own experiences and asked friends about their wayfinding habits.

The baseline of my observations it that us Copenhageners aren’t very good with street addresses. We won’t be able to tell you what house number a certain establishment is at on a certain street. Indeed, many buildings don’t have any decent signage telling you what number the building is. Nor do street names roll easily off the tongue when describing how to get somewhere. Unlike cities in North America, for example, where wayfinding is largely based on street and house numbers and street names.

I thought about how many numbered street addresses I know and only ended up with three. My own flat, my ex-wife’s flat and my favourite wine bar. The latter simply because I meet a lot of foreign visitors there and it’s easier to give them the full address so they can find it. Although sitting here I can’t remember if it’s 14 or 16.

Here in Copenhagen we live with pretty much everything we need in close proximity to us. There are fixed points on our personal maps, absolutely. Shops, supermarkets, cafés, bus-stops, corner shops, train stations, schools, parks. When something new appears on our map, people have to start telling each other how to get there. A new café or restaurant, for example.

“I was at this cool, new restaurant last night. It was great.”
“I’ve read about it, heard good things about it. Where is it?”

At this point a street name might come into the conversation but never, ever a numbered address. The description of the restaurant location will involve describing the new place’s proximity to other established points on our urban map.

“It’s just up from XXX supermarket. You know… near XXX café.”
“Okay. Which side of the street? Heading towards the city centre or away from it?”

I did my own experiment, playing around with friends and colleagues, asking them if they know a certain place and how to get there. In fifty or so attempts, this is the overwhelmingly the pattern. You’ll never get a specific location. You’ll end up riding your bike to the new restaurant and, as you approach, you’ll narrow down your wayfinding using the locations of the known establishments and finally spotting the sign for the new restaurant.

I’ve also used a valuable resource at my disposal — all the guests who stayed with me in my flat, in a room rented out on Airbnb. I asked many of them if they asked anyone for directions while out in the city. If yes, I’ve asked what kind of response they got. Again, the same pattern emerged. Copenhageners were helpful but described things around the desired destination. Visual and textual clues to help them narrow the wayfinding journey.

And there’s the rub. I realised that it’s all visual.

It’s just after a green building. There’s a supermarket with a big sign reading FØTEX. It’s just after that. Heading towards the city, not away from it.” And so on.

Copenhageners are’t shockingly bad at finding their way. Of course not. We’re Vikings… we discovered America and sailed at will around the known world, as though we designed it ourselves. Hey, we even invented the first compass — the Viking Sunstone.

But here’s the thing. Copenhagen is a city of densely-populated neighbourhoods. It’s a city where 75% of the population do not own a car and where the vast majority of people transport themselves around their urban landscape on bicycles, public transport and walking. We spend great amounts of time not sitting in boxes of steel and glass with restricted vision but instead on cycle tracks and sidewalks — or even on busses staring out of the window.

Our wayfinding is shop signs, building colours, proximity to fixed points on the map like train station or parks. With so much time spent looking at our city from the seats of our bicycles or on foot, the need for specifics like street names and house numbers dwindles. In communicating wayfinding to others, we describe the visual images imprinted on our inner map in our head.

Years ago, me and my friends all got our hair cut at the “camel” — a barber with a big stuffed camel in the window. A café in my neighbourhood is just referred to as “the coloured chairs” by the locals because that’s what’s outside for us to sit on. I’m sure it has an actual name, but I don’t know what it is.

Mistakes may occur. “ You said past the green building… that’s not green, that’s blue…” Or you discover that the café across the street from the desired destination closed down and is now a flower shop, throwing us off. You often have to think about the age of the person you’re talking to. A 20-something will have no idea where an iconic business like Yvonne’s Video was located until it closed in the early 2000’s, but someone over forty will most likely remember it. Sometimes you end up using non-existent places to find existing ones.

Not to worry. You can always just stop somebody on the street and get some more visual clues. You’ll get there eventually. And your journey will be a human one, worthy of a truly life-sized city.

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“Long time, no see!”

Then there is the whole human aspect of how being closer to your city on bicycles drastically increases your chances of spotting friends — and stopping to say hello. You see it all the time. Someone on a bicycle chatting with a friend on the sidewalk. Or two bicycle users who ran into each other and are having a chat at a red light.

I recall one bizarre coincidence. I was heading to the beach with the kids and, at a roundabout, a man in a pedicab hailed me down. He — and the pedicab rider — wanted to know where the Bicycle Innovation Lab was. They decided to ask the first person they spotted. That was me.

Bizarre, because I was involved in starting the Bicycle Innovation Lab — the first cultural centre for cycling — and the Bicycle Library. Even more bizarre because the man in the pedicab was my friend Karta from London. He used to run, among other things, The Bicycle Library in London.

It was a wild, unfathomable coincidence. He was in town for 24 hours, having flown in from Hong Kong. And boom… I’m the guy he spots on the cycle track to ask about the whereabouts of the Bicycle Innovation Lab.

Even more bizarre, as we’re standing there talking on the cycle track, two German guests in my flat from Airbnb roll up behind us. My daughter Lulu, sitting on the cargo bike, said, “Look, Daddy… it’s our guests.” They were heading to the beach, too.

There’s no way I’m playing the lottery. I used up my wild odds on a roundabout in Copenhagen.

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Lulu finding her way

I continued to get all nerdy about this wayfinding in a life-sized city thing. Out of the blue during dinner one evening, I asked my daughter, Lulu, who was aged 6 and a half at the time, if she thought she could find her way to the local swimming pool by herself. I had been explaining directions to somewhere else to my son, Felix, aged 12, and I realised that all the references were — as ever — visual. “Go down that street and when you see that shop, turn right…”. To which he would reply, “is that the shop with the red door?” or “is that the shop across from that other shop with this or that recognisable feature?

I wondered how much Lulu has registered in her daily, frequent journeys being chaperoned around our neighbourhood. So… I laid down the challenge to her. Find your way to the swimming pool on foot. Felix and I would walk behind her but she wouldn’t be allowed to ask for help.

At six, she finds it difficult to describe how to get to places. There is no “go to the end of this street and then turn left…”. It is more vague and hard for me, an adult to understand. Try it with your own kids, or other peoples’ kids, to see what I mean.

So we just set out on her journey, letting her show us the way. I didn’t know if she could pull it off. I literally had no idea. When she was younger she was pushed through the neighbourhood in a stroller, we walk and we cycle everywhere… but always with me or her mum leading the way.

It was a fascinating exercise. Felix and I watched her finding her way, looking around and using visual references to guide her. Walking up to the end of the street and scouting left and right, remembering visual clues to send her in the next direction. She was pleased as punch when we ended up in front of the swimming pool.

I asked her about her journey. “Why did you turn right there?” To which she replied, “Because that shop on the corner is where we always turn right. Duh, Daddy…

So… indeed… she was remembering visual clues like shops and trees and bushes and what not.

Then I asked her to find our local ice cream shop. It would involved a totally different route than our normal A2B from home to ice cream. Again, she rocked it. Using the most logical way from where were standing, instead of taking us back home and then back down to the ice cream shop. I was impressed.

Lulu at the time was already looking forward to turning eight and being allowed to walk to school alone. Her big brother, Felix, did it for the first time at eight so Lulu had it in her mind to do it at that age, too. After thinking so much about wayfinding and learning that kids see more than we realise, that wasn’t going to be a problem. She knows her way around like a boss.

Indeed, at eight she walked to school by herself and never looked back.

Bicycle-friendly cities or cities with a strong pedestrian culture allow a closer contact with the city for those living in it — or visiting it. They are cities that are imprinted more indelibly on the retina of our inner cartographer. I like that. It’s human.

Urban playmaker, designer, host of The Life-Sized City tv series about urbanism. Author of “Copenhagenize”. Impatient Idealist.

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