Different Approaches for Urban Mapping (and Meanings)

01 The Derive_Paris

French situationists were pioneers in exploring the spatial, physical and psychological effects of the city, circa the late 1950-1960s. Guy Dubord, their most eloquent spokesperson, described the method of “drifting” through the city in his essay “The Theory of the Derive”:

“One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive [literally: “drifting”], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. Dérives involve playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.

In a dérive, one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.”

Here, Guy Debord introduced the term Psychogeography whose definition describes “… the study off the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. [1] ”Pick up the map, go out into the city, and walk the circle, keeping as close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favor… Complete the circle, and the record ends. Walking makes for content; footage for footage.” [2]

Inspired by a 1948 American detective film called Naked City (directed by Jules Dassin), Guy Debord and Asger Jorn designed in 1957 a subversive map of the same name in order to remap Paris on the basis of ‘a mobile architecture of living’. The map of the naked city was brought into being by 19 fragments, cut out from a travel map of Paris, whose montage remakes ”… an urban topography into a social and affective landscape”. Through the fragmentation of Paris and its situationist re-construction, the map forms new relations among the city’s parts and their inhabitants and reconfigures them with red directional arrows that link the cut outs. In short, through the map of The naked city, the Situationists attempted a remapping of Paris by considering the relationship between spaces and emotions, and as Guy Debord himself stated ”… spatial development must take into account the emotional effects”(Guy Debord, Report on the Construction of Situations, 1958).

The naked city

‘The naked city’ by Guy Debord & Asger Jorn

In some way, the Derive avoids normative/rationalist modes of operating in the city, giving over to the “psychogeographical” vibe of one’s surroundings (sometimes a hard one for a designer to wrap their heads around). As their focus was on the experience itself (and political stance), there doesn’t seem to be much visualization artefacts left behind. The derive method and situationist ideas have hung around design schools for some time, to provide a different, less technical way of experiencing the city.

(Please also look at this interesting critique_Against Situationism by Kazys Varnelis)


02 Photo-stitched_L.A./Las Vegas.

Around the same time in the States, there’s a self-published landmark artist book-Every Building on the Sunset Strip by Ed Ruscha, Ruscha mounted a motorized Nikon to the back of a pick-up truck and photographed every building he passed and documented ordinary aspects of life in Los Angeles. The resulting book, with the picture printed in order and labelled with their street numbers, achieved an effective non-judgemental and almost anthropological record of previously unexplored details and aspects of the urban experience.

(More Information: Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip”: Plotting a motorized city, paper route style)

sunset strip

Edward Ruscha: Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966)

And, probably the earliest example of the photo-stitched method – Learning From Las Vegas.

learning from las vegas

Along with Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), Learning from Las Vegas (1972) forms Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s classic articulation of a new path for architecture in the face of late Modernism. This work, as a call to reinvigorate architectural design with symbolic content, advocates the study of the commercial strip and in particular, the role that signs play in conveying meaning and providing order to the landscape. The study begins with a discussion of an architectural studio project conducted at Yale in 1968. The mission of the studio was to document and analyse the physical form of Las Vegas in order to learn from contemporary urban sprawl. During the process, the studio attempted to develop a set of graphics methods for analyzing and representing the commercial strip.


03 Project 360º_Amsterdam

Another good example (moving towards recent years) – Project 360º by a Dutch graphic designer Frank Dresmé, this one used the idea of the “transect” as a way to map and graphically depict pedestrian movement through urban space. As Dresmé explains, he found existing maps of Amsterdam both navigationally inadequate and conceptually boring, so he sought to find new ways to represent how the city really feels as a sequence of spatial opportunities and physical obstacles. This meant, among other things, focusing on and highlighting the signs, paths, turns, landmarks, and other bits of the city that stand out to someone intent on moving through it. The results were “four psychogeographical maps,” as he described them, that unpeeled and restitched Amsterdam back together again. “These maps are the routes between personal destinations in Amsterdam,” he explained. “Every destination in a different wind direction; north /east /south /west back to the north.”While the final images are perhaps not navigationally useful for other pedestrians, they are certainly visually striking; what is more important, in any case, would not be the use-value you can extract from Dresmé’s project, but the methods and techniques it suggests for breaking down and understanding your own use of the city.



Project 360º by Frank Dresmé


04 The Safari 7_New York

Another good one is the A map of the 7 train’s ecological route. Safari 7 is a self-guided podcast tour of urban wildlife along New York City’s 7 subway line. The project engages the broadest range of New Yorkers, from commuters and school children to urban explorers and designers, in active research and exploration of their own environment.

This line is a physical, urban transect through New York City’s most diverse collection of human ecosystems. “Affectionately called the International Express, the 7 line runs from Manhattan’s dense core, under the East River, and through a dispersed mixture of residences and parklands, terminating in downtown Flushing, Queens, the nation’s most ethnically diverse county. Here, in territories excavated by Robert Moses’ transportation networks, watersheds constructed by the World’s Fair, and tree canopies stretched across residential street grids, species find systems necessary for survival, develop mating rituals and behaviors amidst inter-species competition and cooperation, and respond to migration, colonization, and disturbances of this dynamic urban landscape. By mapping the complexity, biodiversity, conflicts, and potentials of our urban ecosystems Safari 7 aims to unpack the role of architecture and the related disciplines in the construction of networks, spatial patterns, enclosures, grounds, rituals, and policies that are the city’s life support mechanism.”

safari 7-1

safari 7-2

The Safari 7: Urban Safari on New York’s No.7 subway line


In conclusion, different types of urban mapping embodies a narrative voyage. That is, it visualises, in the form of a landscape, an itinerary of emotions which is, in turn, the topos of the novel.” In that sense, ”… the exterior world conveys an interior landscape… ” and the way ”… to traverse that land is to visit the ebb and flow of a personal and yet social psychogeography.” Hence, the map itself becomes the voyage and the spectator, its passenger.


  1. Debord, G. Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography
  2. MacFarlane, R. A Road of One’s Own. Times Literary Supplement, October 7, 2005

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s