Figure ground diagrams tell stories about cities

A figure ground diagram of Washington DC. Image: Mayr & Mayr.

There are a lot of ways to communicate information about cities. We can read lettering describing city phenomena. We can examine snapshots of cities like drawings, pictures or photographs. We can watch videos, which include the dimension of time. We can even use augmented reality, adding a layer of external information to the real physical environment.

However, the most important source for information about a city is provided by the city itself. It is the least manipulable, the least abuseable, and the most honest.

The most crucial intention of languages is to produce meaning. Language can never mean nothing, because otherwise it wouldn´t fulfil its function, and would therefore not be called a language. Physical built structure can never mean nothing, either. (Juan Pablo Bonta wrote about the impossibility of meaningless architecture in his 1982 work, Über Interpretation von Architektur.) By always meaning something, physical structures, such as cities, have value like a language.

Just as a sentence is an expression for content, the built structure can be understood as only an expression of content. In Invisible Cities, the Italian writer Italo Calvino provides us with a simple example: Isaura is an oasis-city. The city on the surface only develops as far as the underground lake reaches, as the city is dependent on vertical fountains.

So, the built city on the surface is only an expression of something underneath the surface. This “something underneath the surface” is content.

Figure ground diagrams, which show the relationship between built and unbuilt space, are one method of abstracting information about cities’ expressions. We can study this abstracted expression in order to find out something about the cities’ “content underneath” without even knowing the city.

A figure ground diagram of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Click on image to enlarge.

Using maps to find out something about a city one doesn´t know isn´t unusual. But it is surprising how much various information a map, simplified to just black and white areas, can contain.

In terms of language, this simplification transfers the observer’s focus from analysing simple letters, to analysing the content of the letters using knowledge about syntax. In terms of a city, the question of whether a flat roof is more beautiful than a slide roof is like asking if the letter “C” is more beautiful than the letter “K”. The relevant part in most city observations should be the content embedded in its syntax – the meaning behind built structure known as “genius loci” – and not just solitary analyses.

Figure ground diagrams proved to be a great method of directing one’s focus from singular expressions onto the underlying meaning of city-structures. This kind of map has turned out to be very successful over centuries, despite its very simplicity.

Every city planner, architect and theorist works with them either intentionally or inadvertently, as they inevitably come across these diagrams in their professional environment.

Figure ground diagram of Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. Click on image to enlarge.

Because of the buildings’ resistance against changes, figure ground diagrams allow you to draw conclusions for a variety of city characteristics and the meaning behind them: the structural age of an area, historical power structures, socially- and politically-influenced building programs, their historical development, the principles of organising the inhabitants’ activities, density, and so on.

Beyond that, figure ground diagrams convey a comprehensive picture instantaneously – whereas studying literature and pictures would take considerably more time.

Figure ground diagram of Yaren, the de facto capital of the island of Nauru. Click on image to enlarge.

A decade ago, creating figure ground diagrams was still time consuming work, and therefore only created for precise tasks. There are no figure ground diagram atlases available, although they would contribute a lot to city planner’s work, as well as being of use to every day city-travellers or to common city-walkers.

But times are different now. We discovered the database of the OpenStreetMap (OSM) project as a welcome (and open) source of data for figure ground diagrams.

OSM was found in 2006 by Steve Coast and is best described as a Wikipedia for maps. Everybody can contribute data, by either tracking a route with a GPS device or drawing features using aerial photographs as a backdrop. Constant quality control is provided by the community itself.

If any data deviates from reality, it is only a matter hours until the error is corrected. This system works so well that the “Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team” (HOT) provides corrected maps to first aid responders in regions of crisis such as Haiti (after its 2010 earthquake) or Guinea (during its 2014 ebola outbreak) within hours after the catastrophe.

Figure ground diagram of Brasilia. Click on image to enlarge.

The original focus on recording streets is no longer true. By now, all different kinds of objects are mapped, with buildings among the more prominent examples. With the gaining popularity of the project, all over the world, cities´ buildings receive more and more attention and are added day by day.

Geographical information technology and the OSM project have allowed us to create the – as far as we know – first figure ground diagram atlas addressing capitals all over the world. Our book shows figure ground diagrams of 70 cities around the world. 

René Mayr and Markus Mayr are the authors of Schwarzplan: Open Street Map basierte Schwarzplänem ”, the figure ground diagram atlas. The atlas is now available on Amazon. This article was originally published on Cities+, and appears here with permission.

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All ground figure diagrams in this post courtesy of the authors.


Sadiq Khan and Grant Shapps clash over free bus travel for under 18s

A London bus at Victoria station. Image: Getty.

The latest front in the row between Transport for London (TfL) and national government over how to fund the capital’s transport system: free bus travel for the under 18s.

Two weeks ago, you’ll recall, TfL came perilously close to running out of money and was forced to ask for a bail out. The government agreed, but offered less money, and with more strings attached, than the agency wanted. At present, there are a range of fare discounts – some up to 100% – available to children depending on their age and which service they’re using, provided they have the right Oyster card. One of the government’s strings, the mayor’s office says, was to end all free TfL travel for the under 18s, Oyster or no Oyster.

The Department for Transport’s line on all this is that this is about maximising capacity. Many working-age people need to use buses to get to their jobs: they’re more likely to be able to do that, while also social distancing, if those buses aren’t already full of teenagers riding for free. (DfT cited the same motivation for banning the use of the Freedom Pass, which provides free travel for the retired, at peak times.)

But in an open letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, wrote that TfL believed that 30% of children who currently received free travel had a statutory entitlement to it, because they attend schools more than a certain distance from their homes. If TfL doesn’t fund this travel, London’s boroughs must, which apart from loading costs onto local government means replacing an administrative system that already exists with one that doesn’t. 

Some Labour staffers also smell Tory ideological objections to free things for young people at work. To quote Khan’s letter:

“It is abundantly clear that losing free travel would hit the poorest Londoners hardest at a time when finances are stretched more than ever... I want to make sure that families who might not have a choice but to use public transport are not further disadvantaged.”

London’s deputy mayor for transport, Heidi Alexander, is set to meet government officials next week to discuss all this. In the mean time, you can read Khan’s letter here.

UPDATE: The original version of this piece noted that the full agreement between the mayor and DfT remained mysteriously unpublished. Shortly after this story went live, the agreement appeared. Here it is.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.