Tag Archives: mapping

How Do You Navigate a City With No Street Names?

23 May

How Do You Navigate a City With No Street Names?

How Do You Navigate a City With No Street Names?
Courtesy: Regina Mamou

[Reposted from The Atlantic]

To an outsider, Amman, Jordan, could seem nearly unnavigable. Until five years ago, its streets were unlabeled and its buildings unnumbered.* Even now, locals give direction by landmark, narrating the way over the phone or on hand-drawn maps.

“It’s totally normal to be lost and confused,” says photographer Regina Mamou, who spent 15 months studying the people of Amman get around. Once, she remembers getting directions to a party via a map the hostess had Photoshopped herself. “I had recreated it on this Post-It, and i still couldn’t get to her house,” she says.

Finally, her friend climbed to the roof of her building and called for her. “There’s a sense that this was totally normal,” Mamou says. “The fact that we have to get on top of a roof and shout down.”


Circle 1 – 8, courtesy Regina Mamou.

Understanding the “subjective cartography” of Amman is what drew Mamou to Jordan. Over the course of her year there, Mamou followed about ten Amman residents around on impromptu walking tours.*

The key, she discovered, was landmarks. Some were personal. Neighborhood convenience stores often served as key points when people gave directions. Then there were the better-known spots. “People had a tendency to focus on big, major chain landmarks, like a Hyatt or something,” she says. “Hospitals were really big ones, too.”


Untitled (Bird Garden), courtesy Regina Mamou.

Then there were the spots everyone knew, like a bird garden across the street from her home. “I could tell a taxi driver, ‘take me to this bird garden,’ everyone would know where to go,” she says. There was also a main artery that bisected the city; people would give directions by saying which roundabout they were near.

“Those roundabouts have names, but everyone would use their colloquial titles – one, two, three,” Mamou says. “It would drive foreigners crazy.”

Mamou quickly learned to distinguish between buildings that once looked the same to her. She noticed when one spot was higher than another and could pick out subtle distinctions in color.

Little has changed even though many houses now have numbers. Mail is still delivered to P.O. boxes; even Fed Ex officials call and ask for an “interpretation” as to where a spot is located.


Some Undefined Boundaries. Courtesy Regina Mamou

This form of urban living has meant that people form very personal relationships with their neighborhoods. But it also means Jordanians may be less likely to explore a city as a whole. “Living in the Middle East, there’s a lot of different ways in which the subjectivity of the landscape is present. As a woman, there are places you will go or won’t go,” Mamou says. “It also depends on where you are in the economic scale as well.”

Mamou says she continued to rely on landmarks even after she returned to Chicago. But it’s different there, because of the grid system and the lake. “I don’t feel that sense of disorientation, of lostness,” she says. “It’s difficult to be actually lost.”

Top photo: Seven Hills. All photos taken from the series Mapping Collected Memory.

* An earlier version of this post misstated when street names were added in Amman. It also incorrectly stated the number of residents Mamou followed around.


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Streetmapping: Artist Lian Bell from Out of Site Festival 2007

23 May

In the summer of 2007, artist Lian Bell took to the pavement of Dublin to better get to know her neighbourhood. Although it’s a little while ago, I love this public art intervention/collaboration for its simplicity and foundation on talking, helping and sharing the city’s public space.

The entire intervention debrief is reproduced here in full courtesy of Lian Bell.

Dean Street pavement, Dublin
Sunday 26 Aug
12pm-6pm 

I planned to draw a map in chalk on the pavement of the Liberties area of Dublin, by asking passers-by for advice. The Liberties is an old area of the city full of intricate streets which have seen vast development recently and which looks set to continue at a hectic pace. The local community is an eclectic mix of older people, people who’ve lived locally their whole lives, immigrants, students and young professionals moving in to newly built apartment blocks. There is a lot of social housing in the area, with the reputation of being one of the poorest parts of the city centre, as well as having a recognised drug problem. However, parts of the Liberties are being gentrified and local businesses combine traditional markets (Thomas Street and Meath Street) with architecture and design studios, art galleries and antique shops (Thomas Street and Francis Street).

I moved into an apartment on Francis Street recently and don’t know the layout of the area at all well. To draw a map, I’d need a lot of help from passers-by. I was a little worried that if it didn’t work, or if something negative happened I would still be living around the corner. I did an hour of mental preparation before I headed out. It was a warm Sunday afternoon at a busy intersection with a wide pavement. Businesses nearby were open – a video, tanning and internet shop, a bookmakers, two pubs (Fallon’s and Nash’s), a Spar and a gallery.

As soon as I’d written a sign on a sandwich board (Hello. I’m drawing a map of the area. Can you help?) someone stopped and asked what I was doing. A young man living locally who was so enthusiastic about the idea even before I’d opened a box of chalk I was quite surprised. He promised to return later in the afternoon and even to bring me some water.


I drew the opening part of the map: what I could see from the pavement of the intersection and the street signs that were visible. I marked where we were with an X. Though I do know many of the main roads (probably about 15% of the map) and their names, I only wanted to fill in what people told me to, with the spelling mistakes, the warped scale, the missing streets.

Apart from one bathroom break, from about 12.15 to 5.45 I had about four 5 minute breaks – the rest of the time was filled with talking to people, explaining the project and filling out the map. In terms of getting people involved the event was far more successful than I had imagined it would be. People stopped and talked for long periods of time, argued with each other about the layout and names of streets, phoned and texted friends for help, returned through the afternoon, went to get other people to come and help, went to find out the names of streets they had forgotten. There were no negative comments (to me anyway) and the enthusiasm people had for the idea was a little overwhelming.


I regret not having more time to take stock of what was going on, maybe make a note of some of the stories and local history that people came out with and ask more about specific things that arose.

Attitudes towards the map ranged from puzzle-solving to friendly competition. Some people focuse¬d on how to make sections join up, some wanted to have their street put on it, some wanted to just make sure they added some street or placename to it. Some people sounded concerned with my request for ‘help’, asking if I needed directions. A couple of people offered maps.

All kinds of people stopped – tourists, locals, Dubliners, immigrants, kids, architects, a local historian, a couple of junkies, an alcoholic street artist, students. Irish, French, Swedish, German, Polish, American. Men came back and forth from the two pubs. A passer-by insisted on giving me 5 euro. Someone bought me a coffee. A young man from the bookies and a young woman working in a gallery around the corner came back throughout the afternoon. People chatted to each other around me.

Someone started talking about how there wasn’t enough street art in the area. A woman living in Blackpitts said the council should have a ‘real’ map of the area carved into the pavement – she was always giving directions to people who were lost around the area. Someone suggested varnishing the chalk map to the pavement. Some people were happy for me to cheat the map in the areas where the scale didn’t match up, others got me to rub out bits that were wrong.

The first man came back and talked about doing a version based around disabled access. One woman marked in a local food co-op with its opening times. One kid wrote his name in a corner. A man marked the layout of a local derelict church and an underground river. I gave a couple of boxes of chalk to kids and one to the street artist, who said he liked to draw Vikings and then played Raglan Road on a tin whistle for me.

At 5.45pm I packed up. Someone in the doorway of Fallon’s offered me a pint, but I was tired and went home. 





-Posted courtesy of Lian Bell