The city as interface (part one)

Posted August 2, 2010 in user centred design  |  No Comments so far

In Responsive Environments: Architecture, Art and Design, writer Lucy Bullivant refers to urban environments as “interfaces in their own right”. Reading this, I found myself wondering – do modern cities function as interfaces? If so, how? And can designers of interactive systems find new inspiration by thinking of cities in this way?

“The map is not the territory”

By expressing functionality in a way that’s more suited to our needs, interfaces help us understand and act upon devices and systems that could otherwise be confusing. They’re most helpful when something’s function is not directly expressed by its form: a pencil doesn’t need an interface, but a pencil sharpener might.

From this perspective, it could be said that the Tube map of London is an interface for the city. After all, it abstracts the tangled system of London streets into a neatly organised network of straight lines, making its complexity manageable even to tourists. But this is incorrect. It’s the tube network itself – not the Tube map – that acts as an interface for London.

This is because the Tube map isn’t actually an abstraction: it might distort geography, but it represents the network’s structure faithfully. The network itself is the abstraction, the layer of navigation that helps us forget the confusing mess of streets and avenues above ground. It is interactive: we can use it. The Tube map is an ingenious visualisation of that interface, but is not an interface in itself. As Alfred Korzybski said, the map is not the territory.

So when we think of cities as interfaces, we should go beyond thinking of visualisations and maps and focus instead on how the physical make-up of the city facilitates its use.

The problems cities are required to solve

All human settlements have certain things in common. Places for people to eat and sleep, and facilities for producing food, materials and so on. Another is navigation. Even the smallest hamlet has a navigational or wayfinding role to play, acting as a landmark for passing travellers with no interest in local happenings.

These three basic roles – habitation, production and navigation – apply to almost every place that people live. But in larger settlements additional uses are encountered. A traveller passing through a town might look for medical assistance, or establishments providing food and accommodation. In a larger town, there might be thriving local industries, academic institutions, working artisans.

As settlements grow in size these roles explode in number. These in turn attract ever more visitors, many of whom establish businesses and institutions and therefore add to the range of uses on offer. After a while the vast size and complexity of the settlement begins to pose a new challenge: how can anyone possibly understand everything that’s happening?

It’s in response to this challenge of incomprehensibility that the “interface” of the city has evolved over time.

The designed environment

As cities grow, they effectively become designed environments. Rivers are submerged beneath roads, hills and valleys are smoothed over, landfill and burial sites override the natural topography. When we’re surrounded by city we’re in an environment shaped (consciously or not) by humans, an environment whose very structure has a function: to point us towards the roles, uses and amenities that the city offers.

If the city’s environment fails to do this well, the city itself is failing. Visitors looking to sell won’t locate the businesses willing to buy. People needing help won’t know where to look for it. The “functionality” of the city will go undiscovered and the city won’t be used. The goal of the urban environment is to make the city’s functionality discoverable to its users.


The structure of a city, then, has objectives in common with “conventional” interfaces – to help users locate and utilise underlying capability. In a city, this capability could be anything from acquiring a visa to buying a rare, imported album. In a computer system, it might be turning the wi-fi antenna off and on. But in cities, the number of capabilities is significantly greater. So how do cities help us make sense of them?

One way – which can also be seen in interactive interface design – is through the presence of patterns which help make cities comprehensible. As we enter an unfamiliar city from its outskirts, we will probably know without being told when we’re entering its central district. Other patterns are more specialised. Record collectors visiting unfamiliar cities will often find record shops easily, thanks to the patterns that “signpost” those sorts of areas.

Just as computer interfaces use patterns to accommodate the mental models of their users, cities use them to reward familiarity: the more cities you know, the easier it is to find your way around the ones you don’t. And there’s a functional importance too. These patterns often develop into localised “clusters” within which industries or disciplines are closely concentrated, such as the cluster of media businesses around Soho or the legal profession’s concentration around Chancery Lane.

Windows 7 control panel

Grouping related controls in Windows 7

When this happens the city isn’t just making itself easier to navigate, it’s making itself easier to operate, just as an interactive system is more usable when similar features are placed near one another. And when cities are easy to operate, all constituent parts – from local businesses to visiting strangers – feel the benefits.

So far we’ve explored how the structures of successful cities share some of the conventions of successful interfaces. But real interfaces are interactive – they aren’t just static maps and informational aids. When we do something with them, we receive feedback and response. The second part of this post will look at how the city provides feedback and how, when we  use a city, we become a part of the interface ourselves.

This is part one of a two-part post. Click here for part two of this article

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