Urban Identity and the Andes Mountains: Mapping a Cultural Geography of Bogota

Jorge Colon (MDesS)

Project Overview

The city of Bogotá has experienced several physical and cultural shifts during the 20th Century, however the presence of a cultural or perceptual relationship between the city and the Andes mountain range along its eastern edge has been constant. This unique topographic condition serves as the dominant element in defining the social geography of the city, and in the formation of its identity.

Following 50-plus years of rapid urban growth, the natural condition remains latent.  Many cities may brand themselves by associating themselves with a particular landscape or topographic formation, and some reclaim natural elements as economic catalysts to tourism.  Using Bogotá as a case study, this proposal offers the mapping and diagramming of individual narratives as a way of understanding the embedded role of the geographic element in the daily, everyday life of city.In the case of Bogotá, the Andes range has already oriented urban development, thus providing the opportunity to exploit the geographic element further as a design element.  Similar to geographic typologies such as ‘Lake-City’, ‘River-City’, or ‘Park-City’, this ‘Mountain-City’ works in concert with various formal elements in order to provide a conceptual framework for understanding our reading of cities.

Project Information

The objective of this proposal is two-fold:  to document the richness and variety of individual readings of geography; and to demonstrate the continuous exchange and interdependence between individual readings and collective re-presentations of the Mountain-City.  In seeking to provide a more authentic and intuitive way of recording the city, new diagrams will focus on issues of scale, topography, and figure/ground.  Different versions of the mountain, for example, are created by changes in the quality of local light, view, or urban space, and can reference a particular location or time of day.  One can imagine a commuter in Bogotá simply knowing their location in the city or perhaps giving directions not by a traffic sign, but by variations in the topographic provide of the mountain.


My interests in rapid urbanization, migration, and informal settlements have led me to cities such as Bogotá (and conditions such as the base of the Andes) where contradictions in ecologies, infrastructures, and policy converge.  After practicing as an architect for over a decade, I returned to graduate school in order to expand the range of my activities, and to engage these kinds of conditions.  However, while agendas many research institutions bring greater attention to these urban situations, the cultural implications of these gaps or collisions are often reduced to the metrics or statistics of distribution flows, economic shortfalls or biological consequences.  Unfortunately, social or cultural lenses seem to remain on the fringes of this scholarly work – often considered either a catalyst or by-product of decision-making, rather than a key component of an on-going design process.

While notions of ecology, urbanism, and infrastructure maintain prominent roles, more anthropological views of these conditions are similarly based on nature and landscape.  This proposal suggests that everyday readings – real and perceived – are key drivers for shaping urban regions, and offers the geographic element as a kind of landmark that orients urban development.  As a dominant component of the urban fabric, this physical element also frames individual images or mental maps of the city, making it more legible to its inhabitants.  The geographic element is present in the conscious and subconscious of the individual, operating as visual landmark or way-finding device, and as a quiet backdrop to urban life.  It is embedded in the culture of a particular place, and often imbued with symbolism and meaning.  It is long-lasting, and therefore bridges various histories of a place, thus further building a foundation for the identity of a city.

As they frame urban experiences, physical geographies can also be exploited as powerful design tools.  They lay the groundwork for developing techniques to practice everyday urban life.  They reveal interstitial spaces, links, and zones that provide unique, intuitive, and authentic experiences – alternatives to more prescribed ways of navigating the city.  Kevin Lynch’s seminal work, The Image of the City, offered the notion of imageability as criteria for measuring this understanding.  How residents define the character of their city, locate and orient themselves within the fabric of that city, and navigate through its circulation routes, all begin with a mental map of the city.  Their comprehension of neighborhood boundaries, nature, and infrastructure, all reside within this map.  Indeed, ‘knowing’ one’s city – its paths, landmarks, and shortcuts – becomes a source of pride.  It frames a cultural identity of the city, and enables residents to socially practice the city – a notion framed by Michel de Certeau as a specific mode of behavior, but addressed by Lynch thirty years earlier as a framework for both knowledge and action:

“Way-finding is the original function of the environmental image, and the basis on which its emotional associations may have been founded.  But the image is valuable not only in this immediate sense in which it acts as a map for the direction of movement… in a broader sense it can serve as a general frame of reference within which the individual can act, or to which he can attach his knowledge… it is an organizer of facts and possibilities.”

Within this environmental image, the geographic element emerges as a significant component in the image of the city.  At times, it works in concert with other elements within the urban fabric to create edge conditions that connect points and define mental boundaries and paths for circulation.  As Lynch described:  “A common gradient is that of ground slope, and one is regularly instructed to go ‘up’ or down’ a street… Perhaps one can proceed by ‘keeping the park on the left’…”

Real or imagined, residents move along the edges created by these adjacencies.  At times, the adjacency between elements is not an edge, but a zone or interstitial space.  In the case of Bogotá, this kind of space is imageable between a mass transit line, the Transmilenio and the base of the mountain range.  Residents circulate along one edge of this zone, while viewing across and up towards the other.  Wanting to move north, locals know to ‘keep the mountain to the right’.

Lynch’s work generated numerous maps, diagrams, and a new vocabulary of elements – paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks.  In turn, de Certeau shed new light on the physical representations generated in Lynch’s study.  The distinction between the ‘maps’ and the ‘tours’ informs the development of a conceptual framework, he argued, that moves away from more conventional mapping practices that present an un-attainable birds-eye view of cities.  It also implies that the true image of the city is not a singular, holistic version, but a collection of individual narratives.  It places a greater importance on the experience of the individual – on the social condition of a place that requires alternative forms of mapping and documentation.

Further, the contrast between prescribed paths or imposed visual cues versus more intuitive ways of movement or seeing presents a new reading of the city.  The negotiation of contradictions uncovers, reveals, and inevitably causes the inhabitant to consciously engage and practice the city in a meaningful way.  This proposal offers the geographic element as the foundation of this engagement.


An east-west cross-section perpendicular to the Andes Mountain range reveals a 2,600-meter change in elevation from the top of the range down westward towards Bogotá’s downtown.  This cross-section also creates an interstitial space between the geographic element and the urban fabric below.

In order to test the influence of the Andes as a geographic landmark, views long the bus stops of the Transmilenio will be collected.  The bus line, carrying over 1.3 million commuters per day runs primarily north south – seemingly parallel to the base of the mountain.  Images of the mountain range along this major circulation path will be repeatedly collected and mapped through the eyes of such urban profiles such as the Tourist, Commuter, or Resident.

As a counterpoint, the cross-section will also be traversed, providing views not of the mountain, but from the mountain, or along the mountain.  Paths emerging from the historic core and central business districts, and rising to informal settlements and residential estates can also be mapped and documented.
anticipated results or product:

Rather than the typology Mountain-City resulting simply as a by-product of pre-existing natural occurences, Bogotá offers an opportunity to engage geographic elements in deliberate and meaningful ways in order shape urban morphologies, to inform the cultural identity of a place, and to contribute to the legacy of Burnham’s lake view of Chicago, or Lynch’s maps.  Perhaps like the iconic hills of San Francisco, whose steep slopes frame views and challenge pedestrians on a daily basis, the Andes can be exploited further as a permanent fixture in the cultural identity of Bogotá.