Two Patterns for Intuitive Cities

After exploring about a dozen cities in the past year, I’ve come to appreciate two city plan patterns:

  1. A strong core
  2. and rings around that core.

First, I love a city with a a clear focal point. Why? Because, If I can detect where I am in relation to that focal point, well, then I’m not so lost. And if I am not so lost, I am a much happier wanderer.

Second, if that core has a visible, distinguishable ring (or better yet, many rings) around it, I have a continuous point of reference. Recognizable edges in a city are like the walls of a dark, unfamiliar room. You can feel your way along them.

This article is an explorative, rough-cut, meandering, analysis of these two principles.

The Grid System

Many would argue that an unbroken grid system makes a city easy to navigate. But a grid is just one component of a navigable city. It makes the layout tidy, but without points of reference, a homogenous grid is well-organized…but not intuitive. A grid is helpful if you know which block you are on and also at least one more contiguous block. How many times have you tried to walk from 5th street to 6th street to realized that you’ve now at 4th street?

New York City’s overwhelming metropolis is surprisingly easy to navigate. Most travelers give the ultra-linear grid all the credit, but New York has a few unsung heroes when it comes to easy-of-use: Central Park and the water. If you’ve wandered New York, I’ll bet that, consciously or not, you’ve positioned yourself in relation to these elements.

Central Park (with nearby Times Square providing a bright southern-edge beacon) serves as a strong core to the city, a focal point that visitors and residents can orient themselves around. With the Hudson to the west and the East River, well, to the east, the surrounding water provides a crisp edge. It’s hard to walk more than 45 minutes in any direction without hitting the core or an unmistakeable liquid edge.

Kraków’s Planty

Currently, I’m in Kraków, a city with a very clear focal point. Rynek Głowny (Main Market Square) is the largest city square in Europe. The massive square features the two soaring towers of Saint Mary’s Basilica, which can be seen from most vantage points in the Stare Miasto (old town). Back in the Middle Ages, Kraków was a classic fortified city — walls, flagged turrets, and even a badass moat. But by the 19th century, the walls were crumbling and the moat seems a little dated.

The Austrians, who had taken Kraków under their wing, swept up the remains of the wall, filled in the moat, and created the Planty park (translating to “flat” not “plant-y”, a common misconception). The Planty is a gorgeous green space that now encircles the city in place of the medieval fortifications.

Thank you, Austria, for not spackling out this distinctive border with homogeneous streets and buildings! Without the Planty, Kraków would look something like this:

When you compare these two maps, which one do you fee more comfortable processing?

I’m sure the locals love the park for its tranquility and shade, and although I appreciate that as well, the Planty is more navigational lifesaver for me. And I mean lifesaver in the literal definition: a ring used to stay afloat. If I can see the Planty (visible from multiple block away), I can quickly orient myself. When looking up a spot I want to visit, I place it relation to the park and the square — “two blocks outside of the park, on the west side of the square. Look for Karmelicka street.” And I am off…no Google Maps needed.

Amsterdam’s Canals

Of all the cities I’ve wandered, Amsterdam takes the cake (or dutch apple pie) for being the easiest to navigate. As I wove through the picturesque streets, I never once felt disoriented (even when operating with a bit of a Amsterdam-handicap, if you know what I mean).

Amsterdam’s grid is pretty wonky, but it carries a one-two punch when it comes to my cores-and-rings theory. Dam Square is no-brainer of a core: a massive square with the National Monument at the center. But to further reinforce the core, a 10 minute walk up the main drag (the Damrak) leads you right into Amsterdam Centraal, the expansive train station that delivers most visitors into the city. It’s as if the train station is the brain of the city, the Damrak the spine, and Dam Square the heart. Within a few minutes of being in the city, you understand the vitals.

As much as I love the Planty, Amsterdam blows it out of the water (pun intended) with it’s canal system. Why have just one ring when you can have SIX? The canals ripple out from the city’s center of gravity, providing virtual guard rails.

As I wandered aimlessly, the city constantly spoke to me (no, not psychedelically). Crossing a bridge told me I was either moving toward or away from Dam Square and curve of the canal told me wether it was the former or the latter. If I could see the towers of Centraal, I’d be able to tell if I was on the east or west side of the city. Finally, after learning the names of streets that lined the circular system of canals, I could understand if I was on an inner or outer ring. With all of this readily available information, it was pretty tough to get lost.

What would make this even better? Color-coding.

Amsterdam’s layout is delightfully intuitive, but I did need to memorize that the Prinsegracht loop is farther out than Keizergracht loop and that Herengracht loop is the second-most inner loop. Memorizing labels? Ahhnnoying! Also, keeping this straight might be a challenge for anyone experiencing short-term memory problems (a common issue in Amsterdam). So, what if…we color-coded the loops? Red for the loop closest to the center, blue and purple for the outermost loops. Like a heat map.

By adding color to the rings, a traveler could easily recognize their proximity to to the center.

Excuse lazy photoshopping and loud color choice. Obviously wouldn’t want to disrupt the ambiance!

The designer-geek in me is already imagining color-indicators beyond just painting the bridge railings. Color-coded tulips in the spring?! Color-coded lights under the bridges at night?! An Annual Festival of Color in which each loop competes to decorate most vibrantly?! I don’t know about you, but I sure want to go to that festival. Amsterdam City Council, I gift this idea to you. Please feel free to use it and take all the credit.

Atlanta’s Blurriness

I’m from Atlanta, a city notorious even among locals for being difficult to navigate. As New York’s grid gets all the credit for helping people get from MOMA to the Empire State building, Atlanta’s lack of a grid is blamed for the all the frustration. But that’s only half the story. I think a bigger — and more solvable — is Atlanta’s lack of a core and rings.

Ok, Atlanta does have a ring — 65 miles of congested traffic that separates the city from the sub-suburbs. I-285 is even colloquially referred to as “the Perimeter.” ATLiens position themselves “ITP” (inside the Perimeter), “OTP” (outside the Perimeter), and “North/South/East/West of the Perimeter.” This massive suburban ring is helpful as a macro point of reference, but it’s useless from an inner-city pedestrian perspective.

And as far as a core? Well…if you’re not from Atlanta and you had to put money on it, you might guess that the focal point was where those two big roads intersect?

Queue the bitter laughter from all locals. That spot would be a crazy-ass interstate junction that is unsafe to pedestrians for more reasons than just vehicles traveling at 90 mph. This is no cultural or commercial epicenter.

Fortunately, Atlanta is making strides that mimic what’s working in Amsterdam, giving me hope for not only more green space, but also more navigability.

A Supersized Planty for Atlanta

Atlanta is in the midst of a 30+ year project that will carve out a 22-mile loop of green space, paths, and light rail around the city.

As the Beltline plows through the city, it leaves butterflies, street art, happier residents, and soaring real estate prices in it’s wake. The completed fractions of the path are breathing new life into Atlanta. But after recognizing the value of the canals of Amsterdam and the Planty of Kraków, I see even more benefit of the Beltline. Maybe it won’t just make our public transit better, maybe it will actually help the city become more comprehensible.

Centennial Park Renovations

Just this year, the city started renovations and expansions of Centennial Olympic Park, the downtown park born during the 1996 Olympics. This make good sense:

  • The park is walking distance from Five Points Train Station (Atlanta’s Grand Central).
  • It’s flanked by the lion’s share of our tourist attractions (the Aquarium, CNN Center, The College Football Hall of Fame, and the Center for Civil and Human Rights).
  • A few years ago, a brightly lit Ferris Wheel was installed overlooking the park.
  • More and more music festivals are being held in the park ever year.

But, despite all it has going for it, the downtown park doesn’t have much pull for locals. It serves as a pretty welcome mat for tourists, but it’s a far cry from a city square. I’m excited to see the new-and-improved Centennial Park, but I don’t know if it will ever become the “strong core” that Atlanta needs.

North Avenue Park

No, it’s not a thing; I just made it up. But hear me out.

Visible from miles away, Atlanta’s most impressive landmark is the the Bank of America building. Nestled smack dab between Downtown and Midtown, the area surrounding BOA is ripe with potential. The North Avenue Train Station, the iconic Varsity drive-in restaurant, the famous Fox Theater, and Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd football stadium — they’re all right there. In addition, the city has plans to install a street car along North Avenue, connecting the east and west edges of the Beltline.

Despite a perfect central location and bustling (albeit disconnected) activity, this patch of city blocks has ZERO sense of place. The skyscraper provides a useful beacon…but to what? Parking lots and busy intersections.

My call to action for Atlanta’s city planners: develop a park and mixed use hub around between the BOA and the the interstate corridor. It’s as if the gravitation pull to this area is already here, the energy is already here, there’s just no mechanism to capture it.

Because I can’t help myself, here’s some crazy “blue sky” ideas for the swath of real estate at the base of Atlanta’s tallest building.

I know this is all easier said than done. Surely, there are countless constraints that I am ignorant of (zoning, leases, money, right of way, etc), would make this a Herculean effort. But hey, a girl can dream.

Sophiapolis (the Wise City)

Speaking of dreaming, what if I did not have constraints? What would my archetypical city blue print look like? Sounds like a fun exercise.

Using the principles of a strong core and color coded rings, I came up with this city plan that seems like a no-brainer:

  1. A large center plaza with a tallest-in-the-city tower. The tower boldly indicates North, South, East, and West on each side. With quick glance, anyone in the city can see where they are in relation to the center. (Of course, the tower offers a high-speed elevator to whisk people to a dope viewing deck and cocktail bar at the top.)
  2. Circular streets (with big sidewalks and protected bike lanes — duh) loop the center. Each is color-coded to visually indicate its proximity to the center. Flower beds, tinted street lights, Festival of Color, the whole nine yards.
  3. The “green” loop is a dedicated park and a pedestrian/bike path.
  4. Four parks offer big patches of green space. Each park would have a distinct personality and landscaping style to make it easily recognizable. Perhaps the Westpark focuses on open lawn for sports, Eastpark is filled with lots of trees and small cafes, Northpark is a network of fountains and water features, and Southpark…is a huge playground.

Does this not sound amazing? Eh? I am not naive to my naivety, so I expect there are major holes with this schematic. If you have thoughts or feedback, I’d love to hear it! Also, if you know of any cities that follow a core-and-rings pattern, please let me know!

Found and Lead UXer at Rewired. Speaker on object-oriented UX. Recovering perfectionist.