Philadelphia Wayfinding

I've been studying wayfinding for my thesis project. I'm specifically interested in how we learn new places. After some initial research, I decided that to really understand wayfinding, I needed to experience it for myself. To that end, I drove to Philadelphia this weekend with the goal of just tossing myself into the middle of town with no real map or plan... just experiencing the city and seeing what I could figure out about where to go or what to see.

Philadelphia is a good case study for pedestrian navigation. Every block in the city center has an overview map, along with lists of contextual destinations near the intersections. It's pretty amazing. Within about two hours I felt like I had a handle on the city. It wasn't until Saturday morning that I found out about South Philadelphia... which turned my image of the city upside down.

Here's the problem. All the maps in the city center are oriented to the direction of travel. That's good for following a route, but it played havoc with my overall sense of orientation... probably because I arrived after dark, and didn't notice the discrepancy at first. If South Philly had been plotted on the map, I might have figured it out, but by the time I realized my mistake, it was too late. South Philly is permanently in the northeast corner of the city in my mind, and no amount of mental gymnastics can put it back. Erik Jonsson talks about this problem in a book called Inner Navigation. The lesson? North goes at the top of the map. The top.

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