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Following The Green

Green spaces, in every country, speak the same language. Colors, in that sense, are inherently universal.

“The map, whether exact or not, must be good enough to get one home. It must be sufficiently clear and well integrated to be economical of mental effort: the map must be readable. It should be safe, with a surplus of clues so that alternative actions are possible and the risk of failure is not too high. If a blinking light is the only sign for a critical turn, a power failure may cause disaster.” - Kevin Lynch, The Image of The City

In my Urban Greening Lab course, we study Berlin’s history and use of space, along with the complex and ever-changing relationships between urban planning, ecology, and culture. We’ve recently been assigned a mapping project. After choosing locational boundaries and designating specific parameters of interest, we are to sketch out a coherent and communicative map.

Being in the city of Berlin for just over a month, it is likely that - on a good day - I’ll find my way to the nearest grocery store and successfully navigate the public transportation system. But as I sat down to begin developing my own map of just a small chunk of the cityscape, I suddenly felt lost. Where exactly was I to begin?

I thought back to my first days in Berlin, and how I began to find my way around the city. Lacking any data on my cellphone and without wanting to succumb to my Tourist status and pull out a city map, I decided to come up with a different navigation system: color.

It was simple; I followed the green. The peak of a leaf waving from beyond the built would lead me left. The sight of ivy climbing confidently around a corner took me right. Through vast parks and along unpaved paths, the color green guided me to places that even the most detailed map would have undoubtedly omitted.

I remembered these early expeditions as I began drawing my own map of Berlin; my mental Polaroid snapshots began to air out, develop rich hues, and collage themselves spatially. My amateur etches attempted to depict built spaces and dense roadways with squiggly lines and shaded rectangles; I clumsily represented the use of space using obscure symbols that ended up looking more like sad 1990s emojis. After reading Kevin Lynch’s description of the ideal map, I regretfully admitted to myself that no, the best draft of my map is not good enough to get anyone home.

Straying from the mastery of Lynch, I decided to focus on something more rudimentary: my use of color within my sketch. I reflected upon how color communicates meaning and affects one's mood.

Sure, this could mean thinking critically before using the orange pencil to indicate a private space, or using pink to outline that which is private. But I rather thought beyond the page at hand; maybe color means something more than a tick mark within my map’s legend. Perhaps seeing and feeling in color is quintessential to developing a sense of place.

Finding the green spaces provided me with familiarity and confidence as I wandered through this new city. It doesn’t take Google Translate to understand why barefoot kids are passing a soccer ball in the chartreuse grass, or why a young couple has laid down a picnic blanket beneath the grey-jade shade of a tree. Green spaces, in every country, speak the same language. Colors, in that sense, are inherently universal.

And although this scribbled assignment will be turned in to my professor on Tuesday, I will continue drafting my mental map of Berlin with open eyes and microscopic colored pencils.

Today I’ll shade the community garden green, and my favorite café light blue. The spot where I witnessed an elderly man present his lady with a single red rose? A deep maroon. The place where I felt a lightness in my heart that I’ve never before known? Solid yellow. The colors which I see and feel are beginning to paint an image of Berlin. It looks much different than the detailed, proportionate urban landscape depicted through Google Maps. But this image in my mind is different. It is a work in progress. It is irreplicable. And it is mine.


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