Culture affects how one gives directions

A new study suggests that Europeans and Americans have different ways to give directions:

The researchers brought test participants into a lab and presented them with a map of a small district containing 17 landmarks and 29 streets. These wayfinders were then assigned a starting point and a destination and asked to provide directions to someone navigating the area. Half the time they were told the navigator was driving; the other half they were told the navigator was just looking at a map.The different navigator conditions were meant to encourage different types of directions. Hund and colleagues believed wayfinders would offer drivers more first-person descriptions (including landmarks) and would offer map-readers more third-person descriptions (including street names and cardinal directions).

These conditions did have some impact, but what really influenced the type of directions was the culture of the wayfinder. Americans were far more likely, across all tests, to give navigators a street name or a cardinal direction (i.e. north, east, south, or west). Dutch wayfinders, on the other hand, provided far more landmarks and left-right turn-descriptors…

The researchers note that many of the Dutch wayfinders became frustrated when asked to give map-readers directions. “They realized there might be a more effective way of describing the route on the map, but never came up with the idea to switch from left-right descriptors to cardinal terms,” Hund and company write. They suppose the Dutch would have improved considerably if given enough time to convert cardinal directions into relative terms — equating “east” with “right,” for instance.

I’ve wondered if it isn’t the culture that matters but rather the spatial arrangement of the places of which someone is familiar. For example, a good number of major Americans cities are laid out in grids. Think of Manhattan: the avenues are north-south, the numbered streets are east-west, and this makes it easy to find a lot of different routes to the same place. In contrast, some older settlements such as some older sections of European cities and several American cities like Boston are more prone to have winding streets that are more aligned to the topography. If you are from a grid area, you are used to giving cardinal directions because they are easy to follow. If operating in a less grid-like format, landmarks matter more as one can remain oriented even if the streets don’t seem to be headed in that direction.

I’ve also wondered how this changes in the suburbs. Are landmarks as easy to identify and utilize? Without as many tall buildings plus a landscape that contains more repetitive features (even if the strip malls and big box stores look different, they are not as distinctive), noteworthy landmarks can be hard to find.

A third option: are Americans used to traveling longer distances for each trip, making it more difficult to use verbal turn-by-turn directions?


Making art out of sprawl

The Infrastructurist comments on a story about an artist who uses sprawl and suburbia as his subject. The Infrastructurist and the story commentator suggest these images are alienating and ultimately, tragic:

The suburbs are totally self-contained, labyrinthine, and generally terrifying. The Times describes them as “static, crystalline and inorganic. Indeed, some of these streets frame retirement communities: places to move to once you’ve already been what you’ve set out to be.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

I don’t think one has to see these images as tragic. A couple of possible defenses of such images (and the one The Infrastructurist has on the story is a good one):

1. These can be seen as very ordered places. Not ordered in the sense of traditional city grid ordered but they still have a logic. The streets may be more winding but these communities seem to be centered around retail centers or parks. They may even have their own kind of beauty.

2. If one already thinks sprawl is bad, then viewing these overhead shots may just be throwing fuel on the fire. However, these images can be read as the American manifestation of particular social and cultural values: individualism and privacy as built in single-family homes and suburban streets for our cars. In America, the particular expression of these values may be best exhibited in suburbs. There are other ways suburbs/sprawl could be structured to still support those values – or perhaps these commentators would suggest these values themselves should just be done away with. But that is not a problem with these images; it is an underlying issue with sprawl and suburbs.