I love maps. I’ve always loved maps. I love how they lay the whole world out so you can see how things fit together and how natural features push human constructions into shape. Maps are amazing tools, particularly if you draw them yourself.
When I was teaching school I used maps all the time. We made maps of the landscapes in To Kill a Mockingbird, we made maps of journeys in Narnia, we made maps of Civil War battles, and I used to have first graders (who are just figuring out the physical world) make a map of the route from home to school, including a drawing of an exciting place, a scary place, your favorite place, and school. I still have the drawing my daughter Lucy made for that project complete with an excellent orthographic drawing of our pink house. (I think I might be the only person in New England who has painted two separate houses pink: you can take a girl out of Florida …)
Maps are crucial in working with towns to determine what residents like about their town and what they don’t like. An exercise I like to use is to post several big maps and ask people as they enter a public meeting to put a sticker on the maps representing their favorite place in town and another sticker in another color to represent their least favorite place. I do the same thing with easy places to walk and hard places to walk; places that feel unsafe and those that feel safe.
Then we take the maps down and do some table work. We talk about what the good places have in common and what the bad places have in common. This gives us a way of talking about how the built environment affects our lives. If we all agree that Grove Street is our favorite place to walk and we can see that Grove Street has buildings that are close to the sidewalk and the buildings have windows we can see into, then we know something about what kind of rules to write to enable more downtown to match the part of downtown we love.
Conversely, agreement on what makes a place terrible for people allows us to have a conversation about what we don’t want to allow. When we look at streets that seem unsafe and unpleasant to walk on we nearly always discover that the travel lanes are too wide and the sidewalks are too narrow and not raised enough above the road grade. We see parking lots separating the sidewalk from the stores or apartments, which makes us feel like fragile interlopers in an automobile world.
Getting people to agree to limit a form of development is sometimes hard: it seems unfair somehow. It’s a leap for residents to believe that physical forms are crucially important to whether we like a place and want to spend time in it. Streets are an easy way to make the case for the importance of physical details. If we examine the streets where cars do drive slowly and note their physical similarities we get to a place where we can understand that physical forms affect behavior.
When we can agree on that, then we’re on our way to being able to create places that we can love.