What is a Landmark and What Really Are the World's Most Significant Landmarks?

March 27, 2002

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Landmarks are key components of the way we organize our knowledge of global, regional, and local environments. Our knowledge of the world is usually described as our "cognitive map." This does not mean that a cognitive map is like a cartographic map - although there is no clear evidence that such a relationship does or does not exist. The term "cognitive map" is either used metaphorically to describe our internal spatial/geographic knowledge, or is used as a hypothetical construct to provide a functional concept related to the mental storage of spatial/geographic information. Although we may not know how information is encoded and stored in the brain, we do believe that the mind can create images (such as maps) in working memory to help recognize objects/features/places, as a way to help recognize such things or as a way to assist problem-solving (e.g. finding the nearest supermarket).This brings us back to landmarks.

Landmarks are used in a variety of ways including: use as organizing features to "anchor" segments of space; use as location identifiers, as to help decide what part of a city or region one is in; and use as choice points, or places where changes in direction are needed when following a route. In the latter cases, on-route landmarks may actually be choice points or may "prime" a decision - such as "turn left after the church." In an off-route situation, a landmark may provide information about relative location, distance, and direction - as in "if you can see the tower on your left, you've made a wrong turn and have gone too far."

In general, landmark status is defined by some combination of features including: dominance of visible, natural, or built form such as the Eiffel Tower or Niagara Falls; outstanding color, shape, extent, such as the Kremlin; functional significance as with the Golden Gate Bridge; symbolic significant as with the Blarney Stone in Ireland; or historical significant such as the place where the Battle of Gettysburg was fought. Sometimes natural features (e.g. mountains, volcanoes, deep canyons, waterfalls, or reefs) attract enough attention to label phenomena as a landmark.(Note that natural features need not be restricted to a single point in space, as with the Great Barrier Reef).Sometimes it is a part of the built environment that catches attention - such as the Kremlin, Notre Dame Cathedral, or the Sydney Opera House. And sometimes it is a feature of the cognitive environment that produces landmark status, as with an image of "the beaches of South Africa or the perceived ruggedness or grandeur of the Himalayas.

Note that we do not necessarily have to have visited a location or place to acknowledge its landmark status. We may have seen representations of it on TV, in videos or movies, in newspapers or magazines, in photos or slides, or heard about it on radio, or read about it in books, or simply heard many people mention it in conversation. Whatever the source, we acknowledge special status to phenomena. Some of these are personal, where knowledge is necessary for everyday life but shared by few others (e.g. your personal home or favorite fishing spot).These we refer to as "idiosyncratic." Others are known in common among large numbers of people. These are "common" or "communal" landmarks and facilitate communication and exchange of interpretable information - such as "let's meet in the park area next to The Mission Building."

All this is fine when concerned only with a local area (a town or city), but what happens when we change scale and look at national or global landmarks? Are there a select number that are acknowledged by members of all cultures? Societies? Economies? Nations?

About a decade ago, I sent a proposal to the National Geographic Society Research Division to obtain funds to find out what were the world's most frequently designated landmarks. I proposed finding this out, photographing them, and writing an article for National Geographic. Needless to say, my proposal was turned down, partly because my "survey design was not a worldwide random sample of all people and cultures" (a ridiculous criticism that I defy anyone to implement) and partly because everyone "knew" what they were. At that time I had asked a class of 40 US college students to list the 10 most recognized landmarks in the world and got 87 different landmarks mentioned - none of them by more than 9 people. This week (March, 2002) I asked another US undergraduate college class of 35 (the same scheduled class) to repeat the experiment. This time I received 67 different landmark designations with only three places receiving 10 or more votes. There was only a small overlap between the dominant features mentioned by males as opposed to females. There was zero coincidence between the top rated landmarks by US and foreign-born respondents.


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