A recent study highlighted a curious aspect of urban living. People who grew up with a complex road system appear to have better navigational skills later in life than those whose youthful road network was simple. Complexity can come either from rural living or from an urban environment with a high street network entropy (SNE), or what is known as a non-linear grid. Consider the rectilinear streets of Seattle versus the twisting, convoluted streets of London.
The reason one benefits from a youth navigating serpentine streets could be that a high SNE “requires keeping track of direction when you’re more likely to be making multiple turns at different angles, while you might also need to remember more streets and landmarks for each journey,” said co-author Antoine Coutrot, in The Guardian. (Landmarks though can be problematic particularly when long-time residents suffer from the “Used to be” curse, as in “Turn right where the Chubby and Tubby used to be.” Not that I would do anything like that.)
As someone who grew up in Seattle and has resided here for most of my life, I have long enjoyed finding quirky, and sometimes quicker, ways through the city, though this can be problematic. During my youth, I biked everywhere, which tended to take me on backroads. When my wife and I moved back in 1998, and I drove more, I had some challenges because many of my bike routes were not the best for a car: one-way streets and shortcuts through parking lots aren’t terribly car friendly. But I have adapted and learned and still revel in finding new ways to navigate.
Although Seattle’s low SNE should translate to poorer navigational skills we do benefit from a few features. (The researchers also noted that those who grew up in places like Utah (where an anal grid is taken to its extreme) actually fare better in other low SNE landscapes than those who grew up amid complexity; we just don’t do well in cities like London.)
Here are a few of my favorite Seattle attempts to aid navigation.
• Directional parking signs and hatch covers - Other cities must share the directional sign quirk but I don’t know of any. We also have our lovely hatchcover maps to help people downtown, though the covers are not always oriented correctly.
• Twinned street grid - Also downtown is the infamous, paired pattern of Jefferson/James, Cherry/Columbia, Marion/Madison, Spring/Seneca, University/Union, Pike/Pine (Pine is north), remembered by one of the lesser known Biblical verses, which rumor holds originated in a long lost version of Lamentations or Proverbs.
This ditty helps you figure out where you are but is a bit misleading. Downtown roads don’t run due north/south. According to legend, when Seattle settlers Arthur Denny and Doc Maynard initially platted the streets, they took opposing tacks. Denny, a surveyor, mirrored the waterfront, which ran a bit west of north. Maynard, whom the teetotaler Denny disdained as a sot, ran his streets in the traditional grid. The two couldn’t compromise because Denny believed that “Maynard had taken enough to make him feel that he was not only monarch of all he surveyed but what…I surveyed as well,” wrote historian Murray Morgan, in his book Skid Road. And now our roads kink as they run from north of Denny Way past Yesler Way.
• Mt. Rainier, the Cascades, and the Olympics - The Mountain is always a good guide; no matter where you see it, Rainier is to the south, further complemented by the two ranges, one to the west and one to the east. I have only lived in one location for any length of time that didn’t have a cynosure mountain or range. In Boston, the high point was the Prudential Center, which had a tendency to move, or at least could be north, south, east, or west, depending on my location.
The Bean Town’s directional challenges were further compounded by the high SNE of the city, where the famous transcendentalist-rumor monger Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “We say the cows laid out Boston. Well, there are worse surveyors. Every pedestrian in our pastures has frequent occasion to thank the cows.” (The bovine connection is bunk; early roads followed topography and practicality. The quote comes from The Conduct of Life, page 99.)
I may not have grown up with high street network entropy but I do feel that I am pretty good at knowing where I am and which way is north. I like to think that it has to do with paying attention to the world around me and noticing features that connect me to place. When I lived in Boston, I realized how much I missed having a mountain, such as Mt. Rainier, to help me orient in the urban environment. It gave me the feeling of being alone with no massive natural feature in sight, which is one reason I so enjoy Seattle and its proximity to polestar topography.
And, if you use other navigational guides in Seattle, please let me know. I am always looking for ways to learn.
Word of the Week - Cynosure - A guiding star, or something that serves as a guide. Back in the day in Greece, the constellation Ursa Minor, or the Little Dipper, was called Kynosoura, or “dog’s tail.” Initially, the term referred specifically to the North Star but by the seventeenth century, cynosure had taken on its modern definition.