diamond geezer

 Friday, August 13, 2010

London's villages are hard to spot. They might once have been obvious, but centuries of urbanisation have blurred the edges of former residential nuclei, and now Walworth merges into Camberwell, Highgate merges into Hornsey and Greenford merges into Northolt. It's even more complicated in the centre of town. How far does 'Marylebone' actually stretch? Where does the West End end? What is that big area to the west of St Paul's Cathedral called?

For a lot of people, London locations are defined by their nearest station. The tube map defines where things are, even when those station names have no basis in geographic reality. "I'm in the Waterloo area." "Let's go shopping at Clapham Junction." "Yeah, we live in Bow Church". And these definitions are still a bit woolly, because it's by no means clear how far the influence of those station names spreads.

But now a new location paradigm is slipping out - firming up and redefining the way bits of the capital are named. And it looks like Boris's Cycle Hire scheme is leading the way...
I should acknowledge Londonist at this point, for a fine post yesterday pointing out how some of the new Cycle Hire stations have somewhat unexpected names. A bunch of docking stations around Old Street are apparently in "St Luke's", which is a proper old part of town, whereas further south there's a cluster in "Bank", which surely doesn't exist as a genuine placename. Then there's "West End", which is around Trafalgar Square, and "Strand", between Covent Garden and the river, and even "Southwark", which appears to be restricted to the area around the Jubilee line station. Some genuine and ancient, others tentative and artificial, but all given instant legitimacy courtesy of Barclays' two-wheeled revolution.

Thanks are also due to TfL for releasing complete public-facing data on where all the docking stations are and how many bikes/spaces they currently have. Here's the raw-ish data at Borisbikes API, and here's a site with graphs showing how bike use has fluctuated at each docking station over the last 24 hours. But this stream of information really comes into its own with Ollie's real-time map, which visualises station usage spatially and in colour. Red for full, blue for empty, which is a great way to highlight where the awkward gaps in service are. Look, someone's even knocked up a 24-hour speeded-up video showing how the centre of town is a bike cluster by day and a bike desert by night. Hurrah for public-facing open data, because amateur experts have generated far more useful services than TfL's official representation.
plaque at Lewisham stationEvery cycle docking station has a two part address (for example "New Inn Yard, Shoreditch"), the first part of which is the street (or nearby place of interest), and the second part of which is the area. It's those areas which are of interest. There's a full list of them here, so you can see they include Monument, Tower and St James's, but not Charing Cross, Oxford Street or Lambeth. Names you wouldn't normally think of using are sneaking into accepted practice, and with very precise definition. Take the three docking stations to the north of Aldwych, for example. [Kingsway, Covent Garden] [Portugal Street, Holborn] [Houghton Street, Strand] They're all within a hundred yards or so of each other, yet they're all decreed to be in separate geographic enclaves. Click around Ollie's map and you'll probably discover several other patterns, redefinitions and anomalies.

And the logic behind all this? It's the continuing rollout of the Legible London project, which began as a handful of map-packed miniliths around the Bond Street area a few years back. These smart black information boards have gradually spread around town since 2007, and have been a great way for pedestrians to work out where on earth they are and where the hell they're going. Now add cyclists to that list. All of Boris's docking stations have a Legible London map, and Legible London branding, so it's no surprise that they're using Legible London placename classification.

To aid wayfaring, Legible London has divided the centre of town up into "villages". For example, the two villages to the north of Oxford Street are Marylebone and Fitzrovia, while the two villages to the south are Mayfair and Soho. Holborn is a sprawling swathe to either side of High Holborn, while Clerkenwell curves round like a banana from almost-King's Cross to nearly-Barbican.
There must be, somewhere, a definitive Legible London map which shows precisely where one village ends and the next begins. It ought to be on the Legible London microsite, but no. There was a rough summary once, which lingers on a previous version of the site, and that's about as good as the simple stuff gets. But for anything more detailed you need to dig around a bit. There are the seeds of the 'village' idea on page 24 of the original 2006 wayfinding study (ooh that's a good read). There are some guiding principles on pages 32 and 33 of the Legible London Yellow Book (so's that). There's a lot of more recent stuff throughout TfL's Place Naming Strategy Guidance (notably page 11). And there's a bloody huge basemap on page 26 of the Legible London System Architecture guidance document (such detail). But as for the big picture, that's not really for public consumption, except in small chunks on miniliths and docking stations across the city.
The Legible London system even subdivides its "villages" down into smaller "neighbourhoods" for good measure (for example Covent Garden contains the sub-neighbourhoods of Seven Dials, Neal's Yard and Long Acre). This all helps Londoners to create their own mental maps, apparently. But it's also formalising the unplanned and crystallising the nebulous. Was it a committee, a consultation or a well-meaning administrator who defined the official boundary between King's Cross and Angel, or between Vauxhall, Oval and Kennington? Because whoever drew these accurate dividing lines on the master map has been playing God with centuries of locational evolution. And London may never be seen quite the same again.

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