Urban Natural Navigation

The following article was written by Tristan Gooley in October 2011 for the BBC News Online magazine. It caused quite a stir and comments were switched off after over 300 were left in less than 24 hours:

Hi, just to let you know that urban natural navigation really struck a chord – 745,000 page views, making it the day’s sixth most-read story on the entire site (beaten only by Steve Jobs, the soap star sex case and Wayne Rooney’s dad).
Thanks, Megan

Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Who has never experienced that sickening lost feeling in a town they don’t know well? If you have ever been woefully disorientated in a city, then the art of natural navigation may be just what you need. Natural navigation is the rare skill of working out which way to go without using maps, compasses, satnav or any other instruments. It relies on awareness and deduction. With a little bit of practice it is much more like good fun than hard work.

All of the following natural navigation techniques for getting your bearings work, but they do depend retaining some awareness of direction during each journey. These methods can show you which way is which, but this will only help you if you have made an attempt to remain aware of the direction you have been travelling from the start of your journey. In the simplest terms, if you know you have been walking east for ten minutes, then you will know that you are east of your starting point, all you will then need to do is work out which way is west and you will understand where you are relative to your starting point.

1. TV Satellite Dishes

TV satellite dishes really are the ‘get out of jail cards’ in a city. This is because they will point at what is known as a ‘geostationary’ satellite, that is one that stays over the same point on the Earth’s surface. In the UK there is a dominant satellite broadcaster, hence nearly all the dishes tend to point in the same direction: close to southeast.

2. Religious buildings

Most religious buildings can be used by an aware natural navigator. Christian churches are normally aligned west-east, with the altar at the eastern end (gravestones are also aligned west-east.)

To find direction from a mosque you need to go inside and look for the niche in one wall, which indicates the direction for prayer. This niche, which is known as Al Qibla, will be the direction of Mecca, wherever you are in the world.

Synagogues will normally place the Torah Ark at the eastern end.

3. Weathering

The prevailing winds carry rain and pollution with them. This then hits the buildings, leaving patterns. The wind comes from the southwest in the UK more often than from any other direction. This results in assymetrical weathering patterns on the buildings.

Try looking up, above the cleaned glass and metals of the ground floors, to the more natural stone higher up. After a while you will start to notice how the corners of the buildings all show subtly different weathering patterns. The contrast between southwest and northeast corners is the greatest, but the shifts in colours, where the rain and pollutants have left their mark, can be read on all sides with a little practice.

4. Flow of People

Pacific navigators learned to follow the birds in their search of land. They quickly realized that an individual bird can behave eccentrically, but a pair, or even better a flock, will follow a pattern.

The same is true of human beings. There is no use following an individual, you could end up anywhere! However, following a crowd in the late afternoon will take you towards a station or other transport hub. In the mornings you need to walk against the flow to find these stations.

At lunchtime in the summer, crowds move from office blocks towards the open spaces of parks and rivers.

5. Road alignment

Roads do not spring up randomly, they grow to carry traffic, of course. The bulk of traffic is either heading into or out of a town. This means that the biggest roads tend to be aligned in a certain way, depending on where you are in a city.

In the north or south of town, the major roads will tend to be aligned north/south. In the northwest or southeast, they will have a bias towards northwest/southeast.
This is the reason that road maps of big towns show a radial pattern.
It is common sense, but very few people realize this when they feel lost in a big city.
6. Clouds

One of the best ways not to lose your sense of direction, is to hold onto it. My favourite way of doing this in a city is to use some of the clues above to find direction and then to look up to the sky and note the direction that the clouds are moving. The wind that is moving these clouds will remain fairly constant, providing there is not a dramatic change in weather.

This technique really earns its keep on any underground journey, especially to a new part of town. Simply look up before you head underground, note and remember the direction the clouds are moving. Then when you emerge in a strange part of the city, look up again and you will be able to work out which way is which from the clouds overhead.

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For a complete guide to Natural Navigation read Tristan’s books.