Explore Your City Like a Geographer


The city as a cross-section

Cross-sections. What are they? In anatomy, they refer to a transverse cut through a structure or tissue. Geographers define them as a section formed by a plane cutting through an object, usually at right angles to an axis. There's Vesalius the Renaissance anatomist, Geddes the educator of urban cities, and Jackson who told us stories through a WWII-focused lens of cultural landscapes. A cross-section engages the relationship of an element's constituent whole to its individual parts. By closely examining scales, we can better dig into the nuances of the object in question... and find the mystery behind the mirage-like city.

Grady Clay's Urban Cross-Section Method

Grady Clay. American journalist and specialist of landscape architecture, Clay came of age in the open city of Atlanta, Georgia, and believed in the city. He, too, used the cross-section as a tool to learn. Treating skyscrapers as artistic expression rather sterile buildings, he transformed the perfectly efficient, well-planned space into an incorrigible swath of land with hidden histories and deeper meanings. Like an explorer of the sea, he charted and mapped out particular steps to the Urban Cross-Section with the hope of using this methodology to uncover truths, in plainclothes, across our cement cities.

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Uncovering your city like a geographer

To start, grab a map! Google a basic city map of your area and print it out. You'll need to draw a line through the city from an aerial view. Unsure how to do this? This topographic map information guide might help.

Next -- don't double back. Take one path without retracing. If you get bored in your jaunt, turn off. As Clay says, "to turn is to learn." If you turn into a gritty neighborhood and feel uneasy, trust that your vision will sharpen and heart will accelerate. You'll learn somatically.

Be sure to go through the city's civic center. Walk through the historic district. This may also be the downtown. You want to stroll through the historic area and be able to answer the question, "how was this place created?"

Visit the neighborhoods most proximate to the city's major flows of goods and services. Are there docks or shipping ports? Perhaps an old train or a pollution-ridden highway for diesels? Whatever you find, the commercial district reveals the city's emphasis on trade and regional values. After this, walk to a dilapidated or "dying" industrial area. If your town has an abandoned warehouse district or old factory mill, that is the place you'll want to include on your cross-section.

Specific enclaves

Once you finish up the "dying" part of your town, head on over to the growth areas. This should be where various firms live, where land is being developed, and where work parking takes up vast swaths of land.


It gets more interesting yet. Go to the ethnic enclaves, old and new. This includes the restaurants scenes, too. Look for Mom & Pop shops, niche bakeries, specialty cafes, or rows of industry with similar decorative styles.

Your section should also go through one of the best residential areas, where the wealthy put up elbows for space and fight over fashion. You should see lots of higher-end cars and cold-pressed juice. You might happen upon needlessly specific trash bins! Following this area, you will most likely enter the coveted "alpha street." This is a mostly representative street of the whole city. What does this town value, above all else? What would tourists, visitors, or newcomers say about the town's politics, social relationships, and taste, based on the alpha street alone?

And to end it...

Your last stops should include geographic highs and lows. After you visit the "alpha street," head over to a tall mountain or hiking area. You'll want to look down on the city you just cross-sectioned to piece it together. What does it mean to experience a city?



After this, you're finished.

Cross-sections are wild and fun -- they focus on the delicate and specific architecture of the town while zeroing in on its blaring flaws. Cross-sections show us that, years of excruciating planning aside, the city-goers burrow their own tunnels, paths, and tales into the concrete and form their own ecologies. You'll notice that certain foods are in certain areas; there are specific angles for each industrial landscape and they relate to carefully manicured space. Ask yourself: how did this place come to be?

Happy exploring!


Sydney | que Bottle Team