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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

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


Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.