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.


The future is here: Register now for Barcelona’s New Economy Week

Barcelona New Economy Week (BNEW) starts this Tuesday with the goal of turning the Catalan city into the "global capital of the new economy".

BNEW runs from 6 to 9 October, with registration remaining open throughout the event, offering insight from 350 speakers on how businesses can bounce back from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It will feature top speakers from the business sectors of real estate, logistics, digital industry, e-commerce and economic zones.

The hybrid, business-to-business event – which is taking place in physical and virtual forms – is organised by Consorci de la Zona Franca (CZFB) and will showcase the way in which Barcelona is preparing for the post-Covid world and the "new economy". It is the city’s first big business event of the year and aims to help revitalise and restart the local economy.

“BNEW will be the first great event for the economy’s global recovery that will allow the redesigning of the productive fabric,” says Pere Navarro, state special delegate at CZFB. “It is an honour to have the participation of renowned professionals and attendees from all around the world.

“As we are not in a position to do a proper ‘in person’ fair, we decided to adapt by creating a disruptive and useful event in this way to relaunch the economy.”

The conference will encompass five interconnected events incorporating real estate, logistics, digital industry, e-commerce and economic zones. More than 8,000 professionals from 91 countries from all over the globe will take part virtually. A further 1,000 delegates are expected to attend the five events in person. Over 200 speakers will take part physically, while the rest will give their talks via a digital platform especially created for the unique event. An advanced digital networking platform – using artificial intelligence – will cross-reference the data of all those registered to offer a large number of contacts and directly connect supply with demand.

The conference will also be simultaneously broadcast in high-quality streaming on six channels, one for each of the five interconnected events and an additional stream showcasing Barcelona’s culture and gastronomy.

BNEW will take place in three venues in the city: Estació de França, Casa Seat and Movistar Centre. All are open, digital spaces committed to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda. Estació de França will host the BNEW Logistics, BNEW E-commerce and BNEW Real Estate events, while Casa Seat will be home to the BNEW Economic Zones event, and the Movistar Centre will host the BNEW Digital Industry.

Some 36 companies are sponsoring BNEW, and 52 start-up companies will take part and present their highly innovative products and services. A further 128 firms will participate in BVillage, a kind of virtual stand where they can show their products and schedule meetings with potential clients.

Highlight sessions will include: "the era of humankind toward the fifth industrial revolution," by Marc Vidal, a digital transformation expert; "rational optimism," by Luca Lazzarini, a commercial communications specialist; and "future smart cities’ challenges and opportunities," by Alicia Asín, a leading voice on artificial intelligence. Sandra Pina will also talk about how sustainability is transforming us, Jorge Alonso on the humane future of cities and Pilar Jericó on how to face changes in the post-Covid era.

BNEW is described as a new way of developing your know-how, expanding your networks and promoting innovation and talent.

“Networking is always one of the main attractions of the events, so to carry it out in this innovative way at BNEW – with the high international profile it boasts – is a great opportunity for companies,” says Blanca Sorigué, managing director of CZFB.

Readers can register for BNEW for free via this link using the discount code BNEWFREE.