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

I met a man who was in Copenhagen for two weeks and was only getting around by asking strangers for directions — and the results were fascinating.

It was a few years back when this man from Providence, Rhode Island — Andy Cutler — was in Denmark and asked for a meeting to explore opportunities for his city and Copenhagen to hook up on a creative and business level.

We had a meeting at a café and, when we were done, he asked for directions to his next meeting. I looked at the address and pointed him in the general direction and then said he should ask someone else when he got closer.

He smiled. “That’s what everyone says here”.

He then revealed that he was doing a cool little experiment during his stay. He would check a map in the morning to get a vague idea of where he needed to be that day but then only asked people on the street for directions. No tech involved. How cool is that?

His primary observation was that Copenhageners — 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 interesting. I’ve spent a awful lot of time thinking about it since. Making mental notes of my own experiences. Asking friends about their wayfinding habits. In addition, I’ve used a valuable resource at my disposal — guests who have stayed in the Airbnb room in my flat.

The baseline of my own observations it that Copenhageners aren’t very good with street addresses. They’ll rarely be able to tell you what house number a certain establishment is at on a certain street. Street names, too, are not something that roll right off the tongue when describing how to get somewhere.

We live in densely-populated neighbourhoods with pretty much everything we need in close proximity to us. There are fixed points on our personal maps, sure. Supermarkets, cafés, banks (although less so these days with online banking), bus stops, train stations, parks. Even things like colourful signs or quirky architecture.

Like anywhere, when something new appears on our urban radar, like a café or restaurant, for example, people have to start telling each other how to get there.

“I was at this cool, new restaurant last night. It was great.”

“I’ve heard good things about it. Where is it?”

At this point a street name may come into the conversation but rarely a house number. 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 or away from it?”

“You know the barber shop with the camel in the window?”…

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 took Andy Cutler’s experiment and starting 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.

I also discovered that I didn’t know the exact street address of my regular haunts, be it cafés, restaurants or even friends’ homes in apartment buildings or houses. Regarding the latter, I might use a house number the first time I visit them, but then it’s promptly forgotten because I’ll use visuals to get there the next time — well… if they invite me back, that is.

When sending someone to a place, I’ll mention some cross streets but I’ll mostly mention shop names or subtle landmarks nearby. Little pins on a mental map that will help the person find the place.

This life-sized city navigation causes me some minor problems in hotels — and I stay in a lot of hotels. I get a room number and find it after checking in and I’ll throw my stuff in the room and head out again. If I need to talk to the front desk during my stay and they ask for the room number, I can never remember it. Only the floor. I realised that I remember which door it is, using visual clues on the floor, but I don’t retain the number.

I enlisted the help of my Airbnb guests and asked them if they got any help with directions while out in the city. If yes, I 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. I also catch myself telling my guests how to get to places using visual references.

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. That last part is a classic — a street is one thing, but which side of the street is important and in Copenhagen it’s described as on the right/left side if you’re “heading into town” or “heading out of town” which, I just realised, gives you four different options to use.

Although since I began this experimenting a few years ago, I will admit that I have memorised the address of one wine bar I recommend to people because I know they’ll use their phone to find it.

So what’s up with all of this? Here’s what I think.

Copenhagen — like many European cities — is a city of densely-populated neighbourhoods. It’s a city where 75% of the population don’t own a car and transport themselves around their urban landscape on bicycles, on foot and using public transport. Especially in our local neighbourhoods there’s a lot of walking. We spend great amounts of time not sitting in boxes of steel and glass with restricted vision but on the cycle tracks and sidewalks — or even on busses staring out of the window.

When living in North America, I learned that street names and house/building numbers are integral to directions both pre- and post smartphone. There are fewer visual clues. In addition, I’ve noticed that the numbers are prominently displayed on addresses because — well — car-centric society and all that. In Copenhagen, it is often difficult to find an address if you only use the number because especially shops don’t even display them. I guess the whole system is geared towards our visual wayfinding. Instead of numbers, we have 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 — especially — the seats of our bicycles, 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.

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 our tracks. Then there is an issue with age. A younger person who is new to Copenhagen have little use for vintage directions like, “you remember where Yvonne’s Video Shop used to be?”, when Yvonne’s closed down over a decade ago.

Not to worry. 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. I’ve noticed the same patterns in other cities in Europe. Few street names are mentioned, just visual directions involving establishments, certain bridges, etc.

Bicycle-friendly cities 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.

With the rising ease-of-use of smartphones and the services we are handed, I’ve discovered myself getting sucked into using map navigation in cities. I always try to use the satellite layer as opposed to the graphic layer because it helps me recognise squares and features. I used google maps in Luxembourg a while back, in order to get from my hotel to a restaurant. I followed the map dutifully and arrived. Then I looked up and saw a street I walked down ten minutes before and discovered that I would have been able to see the restaurant sign from there — and get to the place through a passageway — instead of slavishly following the route on a massive detour. It’s important to feel stupid sometimes. I now make sure I look up a street view of the place I’m going in order to get a visual memory of the facade — in combination with using the smartphone.

The effects of technology and wayfinding may not be a good thing. This recent article entitled The Dawn of the Reliance Economy highlights the challenges.

Lulu-Sophia embarking on a wayfinding journey.

So what about kids? They grow up following us around like puppydogs but at some point, they have to find stuff themselves. It’s part of the parenting workload to equip them with wayfinding skills.

Quite out of the blue during dinner one evening a few years back, I asked my daughter, Lulu (you may know her as the world’s youngest urbanist…) if she thought she could find her way to the local swimming pool by herself. She was six years old going on seven at the time. I was explaining directions to somewhere else to my son, Felix, aged 12, and — as ever — all the references were visual. No street addresses or anything, just directions like “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?” Felix had been riding his bike alone around our city since the age of eleven and walking freely to school and activities since he was eight.

I wondered how much Lulu has registered in her daily, frequent but accompanied journeys around our neighbourhood. I laid down the challenge to her. Find your way to the swimming pool on foot. Felix and I would walk behind her but wouldn’t offer any help and she couldn’t talk to us.

At six, she found 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.

But that day 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, and now we walk and 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.

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

So… indeed… she was remembering visual clues like shops and trees and bushes and what not. She was pleased as punch when we ended up in front of the swimming pool.

Then I asked her to find our local ice cream shop. It would involved a totally different route than our normal A to B 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 down to the ice cream. I was impressed.

An experiment like that helped me release her more confidently into the urban wild when she got older. Knowing she knows her way around like a boss. Now she is eleven and has total control over her own independent mobility. Walking alone in her neighbourhood or taking public transport with friends to the far reaches of the city. I don’t know where she is half the time.

We have the benefit of living in a life-sized neighbourhood and city where wayfinding and navigation is the same as it ever was in our urban history. Kids who are driven around in cars, however, don’t know where they’re going or how to draw a map of their routes.

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

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