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Navigating Cities Is Just Like Finding Your Way Through a Maze

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Have you ever felt like navigating a new city is just like trying to find your way through a maze? Well it turns out, driving through an unfamiliar city isn't that much different from navigating a maze! How can that be?!

While attending the Bay Area Maker Faire last May, a customer at my booth commented that Tokyo's streets were initially designed maze-like in order to deter and confuse invaders! In medieval manuscripts, a labyrinth was oftentimes used to symbolize a city.

bay area maker faire dirt alley design

Most American city street plans are constructed as an orthogonal grid (that's just a fancy way of saying streets at right angles). It all started with Philadelphia, but when we think "orthogonal grid," I am sure many of us would think of Manhattan, which took the meaning to it's natural extreme in the name of "convenience and utility".

An orthogonal grid allows cities to be built quickly, which worked well for many early American cities including Manhattan.

Designing a maze from city streets is pretty fun when the underlying street grid is orthogonal! I consider my most successful maze designs are cities with geometric grids as you can see in the above photo of my Manhattan poster.

While our ancestors may have thought a geometric grid was efficient and utilitarian, it turns out that navigating through their repetitive layout isn't such an easy feat.

When driving through a new city looking for a destination, the orthogonal grid leaves us recognizing nothing - everything looks the "same." This isn't that much different from navigating my maze maps in which all paths look the same and dead ends abound!

As we navigate a new place, each new intersection presents limited choices on navigation, reducing the odds we will make the right turn to our destination. Studies have shown that the amount of information required to reach a destination is quite complex, although a city like Manhattan with it's regular grid is a little easier to manage than a city whose streets are more randomly arranged such as Tokyo.

Navigating through a new, unknown city is complicated, and regular geometry doesn't actually help! The next time you are lost in a new place, just remember the words of Rebecca Solnit:

"Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery." - Rebecca Solnit

About Dirt Alley Design

Dirt Alley Design was founded just off a dirt alley in San Francisco in December of 2016 by artist Michelle Chandra. Inspired by the beauty of street grids, Michelle invented maze maps in which she transforms street grids into mazes. 

My maze art isn't just decorative art for your home, it's a real puzzle maze you can solve (if you dare!) I think my maze maps are pretty cool, but don't take just my word for it! My maze maps have been featured in LaughingSquidThe Creator's Project, Untapped Cities and UpOutSF.

maze design urban planning

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