As we go about our lives, we often overlook the beauty and detail that surround us. From the colors and shapes of buildings to the faces and expressions of the people we encounter, there is a great deal of inspiration to be found in the city.
And what better way to capture and reflect on these moments, than through an urban visual journal?
In this article, I would like to share 10 benefits of urban journaling as well as some tips and ideas if you would like to get started. I hope to show you how powerful this simple practice can be.
So grab your sketchbook and pen… and let’s go!
What is an urban visual journal?
An urban visual journal is basically a diary in which you can document your explorations in urban environments. It is “visual” because it combines graphical elements (sketches, small icons, maps…) and text (quotes, annotations, numbers).
Anyone can start a visual journal
As long as you have a sketchbook and a pen, you can start an urban visual journal.
Whether you decide to share it with others or keep it to yourself, that’s your choice! It’s a place for you to experiment, have fun, reflect and get inspired. Keep in mind that:
- It’s not about drawing well: it’s about conveying a message efficiently.
- You don’t need to be a globe-trotter, either. Yes, it’s fun to record your travels in different cities, but you can also sketch in the places you know, close to where you live and work.
Your sketchbook, your perspective
There is no right or wrong in an urban visual journal.
It’s all about perspective: YOUR perspective. If you want, you could picture buildings and squares exactly as they are, with moulding details and top-notch perspectives.
But you could also play around and distort reality: emphasize something or make an element stand out, show a different point of view, compare built elements, tell a specific story, etc.
10 benefits of urban journaling
Keeping an urban visual journal has many benefits, whether in terms of mental health or creativity. In the following paragraphs I share 10 reasons why I think it’s interesting to keep an urban visual journal (even if you are not an urbanist).
Disclaimer: I share examples from my own visual journal, but keep in mind that it can take any form you want. It doesn’t have to be beautiful, or exhaustive, or clean, etc.
1) Document your urban explorations
The first benefit of urban journaling is that it works as an extension of your memory. I have a tendency to take way too many snaps with my smartphone (and forget them in the endless pit of photos-I-captured-but-will-never-check-again).
Keeping a visual journal is more like taking photos with a film camera. You capture fewer memories, but you put more consideration and time into it. Because of that, you may come back to your sketchbook years later, and still remember what you experienced in that specific place.
2) Improve your navigation skills
Keeping an urban visual journal (at least if you do it consistently) will help you improve your wayfinding skills. Urban environments are not always easy to navigate, especially when everything looks the same.
Paying close attention to your surroundings and mapping how different places are located in relation to each other helps you build mental maps.
3) Fine-tune your observation skills
The more you observe, the more you actually see. As you observe more, you’ll begin to notice details that you may have previously missed – just like how a chef can name the ingredients of a dish with just one bite.
4) Immerse yourself in a new culture
Journaling outside in public space is also a great way to immerse yourself in a different culture. When I moved to Copenhagen, I couldn’t help but notice what was different (or similar) to my experience in France or other places where I’ve lived.
I really enjoyed noticing the little details and habits people have and journal about that!
5) Develop your critical mind
Keeping an urban visual journal can provide a unique perspective on the environment around us, helping us see familiar places in a new light.
It can also inspire us to think more critically about the urban spaces we inhabit, and encourage us to raise questions. By capturing your experiences and observations, you can use your visual journal to explore new ideas and challenge assumptions about your surroundings.
6) Get better at sketching and telling visual stories
Just like any other skill, drawing can be improved with practice. Consistency is key, and over time you’ll gain more confidence and discover your preferred graphic style. And the best part? If you make drawing a regular habit, you’ll see your progress over time!
7) Reinforce place attachment
When you spend a significant amount of time sketching in a particular location, you develop a unique connection to it.
This is because you gain an experiential understanding of the space and your body is actively engaged in the process. This connection is referred to as “place attachment”, which can be defined as the emotional and cognitive bond you form with a particular place.
So when journaling in public spaces, you are not only creating artwork, but also cultivating a deeper relationship with the environment around you!
8) Experiment and develop your creativity
Do you remember when I said a visual journal was a space for you to experiment? Well, I really meant it.
You can start somewhere, and see where it will take you. You can use different drawing tools and see how you like them. You can go wild if you want to.
With an urban visual journal you can stretch your comfort zone, page after page (and in the end, you can observe how you evolved throughout your sketchbook!).
9) Spark conversations
When I was a master’s student in urbanism at KTH Royal University of Technology, I had the opportunity to visit Sicily to observe public life and practice urban journaling. There, we had specific journaling assignments and often spent hours sitting and drawing in public spaces.
I particularly enjoyed these moments. People (children, especially) would get curious and approach us with questions (or even requests, for example drawing a portrait of them).
It’s fascinating to me how drawing can so easily spark conversations with passersby.
10) Reduce anxiety
Last but not least, journaling is a common practice that has many mental health benefits. You can see your urban journal practice as a meditative activity, or a moment of selfcare.
Take it as an invitation to slow down and be present to what is happening in the moment!
Now, I’m curious. Is urban journaling something you would like to try?