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Eric O

Interesting, I (a mapmaker) feel instead the angst in the statement going the other way. I relate well to the angst a mapmaker or a statistically minded person shares with fellow investigators in relating the observed reality you encounter on the ground to those whose experience of the city travels only paths familiar to their well-traveled assumptions. We encounter this is our work as consultants all the time, no?

This, btw, is the way the angst might be taken by Edwin Heathcote in his article on city lists (mentioned by Katz) "Livable, Lovable - and Lauded" (on FT.com) to make a point about the "personal" nature of city lists. Relates perfectly to some angst displayed in previous posts on this blog. :)


We may aspire to a city in which everyone can aspire to private motoring, yet the city is not destroyed in facilitating that - actually, many people do exactly that. But for that soft urban space of illusion, myth, aspiration, and nightmare to exist, we must understand why we mustn't destroy it in that manner.

And if we've decided not to destroy our city so that we can all drive cars all of the time, we must still be able to experience the city beyond our front door, and that means understanding what makes transit networks work properly.

That soft city is something we build in our own and/or a common imagination on top of the hard city of buildings, roads and so on that we can reasonably establish to exist. That maps are any different is a strange argument.

Firstly, maps must be designed to communicate what matters to us - on a city map, that's where streets, buildings etc. are, on a transit map, that's where transit goes and preferably how often it runs. Inclusion on a map is based upon a judgement of what's important.

Secondly, once we've got that information, we add our own understanding of the city to it. When I see the districts that I've been to on the New York Subway map, I think about what those districts mean to me, and what I'll find when I go there. When I see 8th Street/NYU station, I think of my experience in the vicinity while staying with a friend nearby. And so it goes on, in a way that will be different for every user of the map, because they have all had different experiences in, and understandings of, the city. But they all share the same reality of where the subway goes.


My issue with the quote is not that it somehow distorts how we understand cities, but that it totally rips off Italo Calvino.

More seriously, I think the Raban quote gets very well at the distinction between "thick" and "thin" accounts of the social world, and the crucial importance of the "thick". CrookedTimber held a nice discussion of this distinction as it arises in Calvino's Invisible Cities: http://crookedtimber.org/2009/09/17/in-which-italo-calvino-discourses-on-the-fundamental-cleavage-of-the-social-sciences/

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