Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Psychogeography? What's that? An enormously rich worldbuilding topic

I attended a fascinating panel at WorldCon in Reno about Psychogeography, featuring David Cake, Cory Doctorow, Ian McDonald, and Renée Sieber - and I was amazed at how well it fit my worldbuilding interests, so I thought I'd share a few thoughts about it. Here's a (rather daunting) quote from the convention program: "Psychogeography is variously defined as 'the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals' or where psychology and geography meet in assessing the emotional and behavioral impact of urban space."

Think about it this way. What kind of physical spaces do you move through as you go through your day? How many of them have been planned by you? If it's the furniture in your home, you've probably been able to decide where it went on your own. But how about the layout of your house? How about the layout of your neighborhood, or the neighborhood where you work? The public spaces in your town, or in the towns you've visited as a guest? Each of these physical layouts will influence the way you move and potentially the way you think.

Here's an example from my local area. I have a mall nearby - within walking distance of my house, if I care to take the twenty minutes required. But do I walk there? No... not unless it's Christmas season and I don't want to get involved in the traffic (in which case I have walked there on principle). The way the place has been laid out is inimical to pedestrians. It's an indoor mall surrounded on all sides by broad parking lots which add a full five minutes to the walk even when I'm going quickly. There are no pedestrian entrances to the lots, and no pedestrian walkways leading across them. You have to walk right through all the car aisles to get to the main entrances. Is it any wonder that nobody walks there?

In the typical medieval town, there was always a market square. This was a central open space where people could gather to sell their goods, and gather they did. Those squares could also potentially be a place where unhappy people could gather to protest. If there were a ruler who didn't want unrest, he might crack down on the people, but it would still be hard to get rid of that central gathering space.

One interesting example mentioned by Cory Doctorow about London was that a lot of the London buildings had been destroyed by bombing after the second world war, and the planners of the city had to rebuild them, so they were thinking about making the streets easier to navigate by straightening them and making the streets rectilinear. However, the people refused to go along with this, and insisted on moving markers and traveling the paths they remembered of the old tangled road system, and in fact in the end the old roads were restored almost precisely as they had been.

Think about the cities you know, and how different they "feel" based on the way they're laid out. I think of Kyoto, Japan, where the north-south-east-west grid layout meant I never felt entirely lost even when I didn't know where I was, and where I learned my cardinal directions in a way I never had comprehended at any previous point in my life. I compare that with Tokyo, where you have to follow directions with absolute precision because the streets are not on a grid and a single wrong turn can diverge you into a totally different neighborhood where side connecting streets are not certain to deliver you back to your previous path. I compare each of those cities, with their narrow streets and tightly packed neighborhoods, with the wide-streeted towns of California where the lack of density means it takes twice as long to get anywhere and walking to the grocery store is an impractical neighborhoods are larger and people who live near one another are less likely to encounter one another in the street unless they happen to be walking to the local school (the local school being a very interesting "meeting point" and a huge creator of solidarity across the surrounding neighborhoods).

I'm sure you can already see the worldbuilding opportunities bursting out of this topic at every seam. What are your spaces like in your world? How wide are streets? Where do people gather? How easy is it to travel using various modes of transportation? My underground city of Pelismara is five levels deep and organized on a radial system, which means that it's actually rather compact and easy to traverse, especially at the deeper levels. People who use vehicles can cross it very quickly. People who walk have to be in excellent shape (for all the stair-climbing), but can get across town in relatively short order.

The panel at the convention also talked about technology and how it influences the use of space. Surveillance was one of the major discussion points here. The sense that one is being watched and recorded in any given public area can totally change behavior... but won't always do it the same way. During the discussion we also talked about the perceived "space" of the internet, Twitterverse, etc. Clearly, as seen in many instances of unrest across the world including China, the Arab world, and other places, the texting arena, and the Twitterverse, have become hotly contested virtual spaces where people can "gather" and their governments in response try to exert control over them by controlling the "space." In a city, these real and virtual environments lie side by side, and augmented reality can potentially blur the boundaries between them so that two different people can experience the physical spaces in entirely different ways. Mind you, our own subjective judgments of spaces can already cause us to experience spaces in vastly different ways, as I have previously discussed, but the possibility of augmented reality will only magnify that effect.

This is an enormously rich opportunity for worldbuilders, as you can see. I hope this very brief and cursory introduction gives you plenty of ideas for going back and considering the links between spaces and thought in your own stories. Have fun with it!


  1. One of the most interesting college courses I took was "Geography of Disasters." It taught how people choose where to live, how those living places have pros and cons relative to the potential for natural disasters and how human behavior can create disasters. We studied storm behavior, land slides and other predictable environmental phenomena. For example why do people settle in large numbers in a predictable flood plain like the Red River Valley? It was fascinating.

  2. Wow, fascinating indeed, Autumn. Thanks for telling me about it.

  3. The area's terrain influences the routes and roads, too. If you're building on the Salt Flats of Utah, it's pretty easy to put in most any layout you wish. But, you'll still have to connect it to the outside world which probably offer access at relatively few points.

    Look at a Google road map of the Los Angeles area and you'll see quite a few blank areas. Why? Use the terrain or satellite view and you'll find hills/mountains.

    Lakes, rivers and other bodies of water offer obstacles. If you've got a nice lake, there's probably a frontage road at least running around it; the rest of the grid might be "logical."

    Old trade routes followed the contours of the land. Railroads have the constraints of low-angle slopes.

    All these fun and games!

  4. Yes, indeed! Thanks for the comment and the good observations.

  5. I hear you on US malls not being built with pedestrians in mind. When I was a child, I spent a year in the US with my parents and my mother insisted on walking to the local mall, because that's what you did in Germany. You walked to places less than approx. two kilometers away. Only that the mall had never been designed for pedestrian traffic and we had to always had to cross a sort of wilderness, often in 100 degree heat.

    I fell afoul of the same situation, also with regard to US malls, years later as a teenager. I was visiting relatives in the US who had kindly dumped me off at a suburban mall. There was another mall within sight distance, so I thought, "What the heck! I'll go there. I don't even have to call my aunt, I can get there on foot." But even though mall No. 2 was in sight distance, there were two big mall parking lots, a Target store with a big parking lot and a road between malls 1 and 2. A road that didn't have a pedestrian crossing at that. I eventually made it to mall 2, but only after clambering through hedges and nearly getting run over while crossing the road. My aunt was utterly surprised that I had walked there at all.

    As for cities with a grid layout, the idea that cities have a clearly defined grid layout does not apply to most European cities at all, which mostly have a sort of circular or starburst layout. Meanwhile, you can still tell from the street layout where the old city walls and ramparts used to be in many European cities, including my hometown, even if the city wall itself was torn down 200 years ago.

  6. Hah, you brought back memories of walking to the same mall, only from my side there was a serious uphill slant to the parking lot that made pushing a baby carriage...interesting.

    On your grid cities, Washington, D.C. is another, with the slanted streets differentiated by names and running in a starburst from the center. It's usually the difference between a grown city and a planned one. D.C. was reclaimed swampland and planned as the capitol, while most cities grew out of a trading post or central gathering area.

    In my stories, I often play with space when involving humans because of the psychological influences. I have a character raised underground, for example, who is afraid of the open sky, while her sister has spent enough time above to find the abandoned subway tunnels confining.

    Neat topic and I'm sad I missed that panel. Thank you for giving me a glimpse :).

  7. Medieval cities in Europe were often deliberately laid out to be confusing so that invaders would have difficulty getting around, which would give defenders an advantage. Once I learned that, I felt less stupid about getting lost in historic neighborhoods. I'm supposed to get lost!

  8. Cora, I love that you would walk between malls. It's a shame that the design of such places doesn't support pedestrians. I would love to hear more about your home town!

    Margaret, I agree that Washington, D.C. is an interesting example. The diagonal streets add an extra complication. It was my pleasure to talk about this topic - honestly this is only the tiniest taste, but I'm happy to do it.

    Sue, thanks for the comment! The invader-confusing factor is a great example. This is also the case not just in cities but in the architecture of some buldings - I'm thinking of the Japanese castles, like Himeiji which is one big spiral.

  9. Great post! Thank you.

    Geography influencing people and their culture makes complete sense.

    I grew up in a spoke-and-wheel town, similar to DC. For a planned city, that system is ridiculous (especially when streets change names every few intersections...who's bright idea was that?). I have no sense of direction and I am now blaming it on my hometown.

  10. Emptypen, thanks for your comment! I'm glad you found it interesting. Honestly, I never had a sense of direction (at least not cardinal direction) until I had Kyoto to teach it to me. The spoke-and-wheel design certainly has its complications!