Noam Maitless at a Salon Canberra event at Dairy Road. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Cities are elaborate interwoven maps of individuals’ psychogeography. What does this mean, and how can we use it to plan better urban environments?

Last year, Bloomberg’s City Lab invited people to share hand-drawn maps of their lives under lockdown. More than 400 people from around the world answered the call with maps that chronicled the physical impact of the pandemic on their sense of space and how that intersected with economic, environmental and social sea changes. 

The maps invited us into a labyrinth of landscapes: from secret spots of solace to places now out of reach. They showed how home lives were hemmed in, relationships tested and neighbourhoods reinterpreted. Routine walks became remarkable; a simple street tree could uplift the spirits. Some maps marked memories of social contact; others showed how public and private space had mutated. A shift to the hyperlocal was contrasted with expanded horizons these atlases of personal perspective.

Noam Maitless

These maps fascinate Noam Maitless, design director with GHDWoodhead and Associate Professor in the Practice of Urban Systems at the Australian National University. I sat down recently for a discussion with Maitless to talk about Canberra, how the nation’s capital fared during the pandemic, and to explore some ideas around the “psychogeography of place”. 

Psychogeography – as the name implies – brings together psychology and geography to explore our experiences of a city. The practice of psychogeography can help us to illuminate the secret or sidelined spaces, the places that are forgotten or have fallen into disrepair. 

Psychogeography starts with the pedestrian. Will Self, who wrote the non-fiction work Psychogeography in 2007, describes the solitary walker – an all-too-familiar sight in 2020 – as “an ambulatory time traveller”. Psychogeography can, therefore, help us unravel the histories and myths of our urban landscapes.

Communities understand their neighbourhoods better than planners and policymakers because their psyches are shaped by the topography of their place.

Each of us has a “personal and special vocabulary” that we draw on to understand our surroundings, Maitless told me. But “the common narrative – the story the people who live here tell ourselves about our city – represents a false choice”. Canberra is neither a “commercial free-for-all” nor an “ossified museum-piece”. Instead, there is “territory in the middle where local intelligence can build a more diverse and inclusive narrative we can share,” Maitless said.

“We need to acknowledge that our lived experience of the city is not always in line with conventional wisdom; growth is not necessarily progress, efficiency is not synonymous with efficacy, and that value must be accounted for in more inclusive and complex ways,” Maitless said.

Infographic of a Salon Canberra event. By: Arran McKenna

Quoting Shakespeare’s Coriolanus – “What is the city but the people?” – Maitless argued that Canberra needs to fit its people not its plans. Communities understand their neighbourhoods better than planners and policymakers because their psyches are shaped by the topography of their place.

Maitless believes Canberra is at a “tipping point” in liveability. “More people need to be brought into the idea that the future of the city is theirs. We are all responsible.”

If our places shape who we are, then we have a right and a responsibility to stand up and “say yes to better”. Yes to public space and high quality public realm. Yes to light rail and environmental equity. Yes to the movement from “isolated suburban enclaves to a constellation of urban villages”.

“Saying yes to better is not tactical urbanism, light rail, smart city tech, drones to the airport, or railing against government regulations. It is about focused, collective action, alignment behind an inclusive, progressive vision, and the ability to influence the influencers who move the property market and governance in this amazing and unique city-state.”

There is an urgency to the challenge. “Before things fall back into their respective lanes, or ruts, there is still a moment to change,” Maitless said. 

So how do we use our influence to influence the influencers, not only in Canberra but in other Australian towns and cities? We can each start by making our own map of the places and spaces that matter to us. 

Map making can help us to find not only the value and meaning in place but also reconnect with our forgotten histories and the unsung heroes of our built environment and bring them back into the light.

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One reply on “Can psychogeography remap Australia’s capital?”

  1. What a wonderful statement: “Map making can help us to find not only the value and meaning in place but also reconnect with our forgotten histories and the unsung heroes of our built environment and bring them back into the light.”

    And I loved this: “We need to acknowledge that our lived experience of the city is not always in line with conventional wisdom; growth is not necessarily progress, efficiency is not synonymous with efficacy, and that value must be accounted for in more inclusive and complex ways,”

    We are all indeed responsible for ‘better’ through collective action to define value.

    As an aside, been reading ‘The Memory Code’ by Lynne Kelly – the parallels with her research into highly complex indigenous knowledge/memory (think songlines) and mapping what is important to community is amazing.

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