Does the Way We Give Directions Influence Urban Planning?

Ever been asked how to get to place you’ve been to a million times and completely draw a blank? Good news. You’re not an idiot. According to a new study by a group of German psychologists, there are differences in the route a person creates for others to take, the route a person creates for themselves to take, and the route a person actually takes.

Actual route navigation is predominantly direction-based and characterized by incremental perception-based optimization processes. In contrast, in-advance route descriptions draw on memory resources to a higher degree and accordingly rely more on salient graph-based structures, and they are affected by concerns of communicability.

When people actually walk from point A to point B, they tend to take a lot more streets, make a lot more turns, and focus on direction rather than landmarks. Alternatively, when people give directions to others, they tend to pick a route that is much simpler and relies on landmarks or salient structures.

It’s a stretch to apply these findings to urban planning, but I’m going to try anyway. On a very simple level, the study shows that we tend to place a greater emphasis on the aesthetics of buildings when we think about walking around than when we actually walk around. This may lead us to inefficiently emphasize form over function. The study also reveals a connection between buildings and knowing how to get places. When people envision getting around in places where there have been major changes to building height, style, or age, they are likely to feel a little more uncomfortable, a little more lost, and a little more biased against change.

The study may also hint at a less salient bias against change. The mindset of preservation activists, zoning board members, and other planners most likely focuses on what it will be like for others to walk around. If creating directions for other people rather than for yourself leads to a more structure-dependent viewpoint, it’s possible that planning neighborhoods with others in mind also leads a more structure-dependent view. That view would over-emphasize the importance of existing structures and further bias planners against changes to building styles.
Hölscher, C., Tenbrink, T., & Wiener, J. (2011). Would you follow your own route description? Cognitive strategies in urban route planning Cognition, 121 (2), 228-247 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.06.005

One Response to Does the Way We Give Directions Influence Urban Planning?

  1. This isn’t really surprising. When walking (or driving) it’s easy to take shortcuts that you know about but couldn’t necessarily clearly explain to someone who is unfamiliar with the area. Likewise, if you are giving instructions you have to anchor those with specific landmarks; signs, buildings, etc. that are distinct markers that will be recognized by the other person. I don’t know if this actually contributes to urban planning, but it very well might.

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