The wise traveller will prepare for a visit to a strange land. Off to the bookshop for guide books, maps and gazetteers describing things to do, things to see, and things to distract.
Holidays are too precious to be squandered, and an ill-prepared trip can lead to disappointment, arguments and broken marriages. After the purchase it's time for a suitable glass of wine and a table-top exploration of the impending destination.
Everything is spread over the kitchen table and the search begins. A quick flip through the plethora of literature quickly reveals that not only have you bought far too much, but that there is much duplication of information.
After 30 minutes I often find myself staring at a map, looking for clues for interesting roads to drive and strange geographical features to find. The reading of the map is an activity I find fascinating. All those physical geography lessons suddenly become relevant as you observe the contours, scarp faces and river patterns on the piece of paper. Looking at a good map of an area you do not know is one of the most enjoyable occupations available to us. This apparently simple device contains all the possibilities of wonderful picnic locations, spectacular scenery and extraordinary times. This experience of looking extends to the individual's maps of the various towns and cities. These often sketchy plans contain the same interpretation that give rise to initial speculation of a visit and, later, actual comparison.
We relish visiting new places, and the more odd or unusual features on the map, the more we are attracted to it. There are examples, such as Venice, where the absence of roads, when seen by the uninitiated, is bound to raise both the imagination and curiosity of the observer. You feel compelled to visit if you are in the vicinity. Less obvious examples include the 40 miles of straight road to the north of Lincoln. If you drive south you can see Lincoln Cathedral from miles away. This can be discerned from a good map.
Barcelona, with its grid dissected by a diagonal, looks extraordinary on the map, but in one of those examples which does not translate into one's perception on the ground.
Yes, there are pitfalls in the map game.
We tend to judge maps by the map of our own town or city. The more unfamiliar, the better. Grids do not often appear on UK maps as they do in other places, such as Melbourne.
Most of these grid iron patterns originally related to a plan laid out by the military, which is unusual in this country, so they become pattern of the attraction.
I have observed this act of map reading over a number of years, as I repeatedly make for new destinations, but more recently I have looked at it in a different way. A flash of recognition started while I was working on the Rotterdam Centraal masterplan. I realised that we were making significant changes to the map; the very map that a tourist might be poring over at the kitchen table. For me, this added a dimension I had not considered previously, and which I do not think I fully exploited in Rotterdam. The city is not perceived as a tourist destination (although I think it should be), and here in my hands I had the opportunity to redraft the map. My plan does include new streets and connections but does not offer anything unusual to the casual map reader. Recently, I have exploited the idea of the map in Barnsley, by placing a living wall around the town centre. This will look intriguing on the map as it defines the town.
Change the map, change the place and change the perception. Barnsley will be on the 'must do' list for every UK visitor.