Reading the city: wayfinding is about more than getting from A to B

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Bristol: legible city. Image: Chris Bahn

Wayfinding has been variously described as:

  • spatial problem-solving
  • systems that assist people to find their way from one place to another
  • a way of helping people engage seamlessly in a built environment

An effective wayfinding system consists of signs, maps and other visual clues to help guide people to their destinations. But as well as providing directions, good wayfinding systems can also promote health and wellbeing, tourism and economic development.

Way back wayfinding

The first recorded use of the term ‘wayfinding’ was by urban planner Kevin Lynch in his 1960 book ‘The Image of a City’. But wayfinding has been around as long as people have been on the move. In the ancient world, people learned to navigate by reading signs in nature, such as the sun and ocean currents. When the Romans built thousands of miles of roads, they also created stone markers to show destinations and distances. Later, the development of the motor car required street signs and road markings. More recently, wayfinding designers have been applying their skills for pedestrians and cyclists in cities, and in places with complex navigational challenges, such as airports and hospitals.

The benefits of wayfinding

Effective wayfinding systems have environmental social and economic benefits. Signage can inform pedestrians and cyclists about the availability of safe routes, and convey information about distance. Wayfinding signs can also act as visual prompts to encourage people to walk or use more sustainable forms of transport. And wayfinding signage may persuade people to explore urban areas, visit attractions and make use of local services such as shops and cinemas.

Uncovering the legible city

Beyond their directional functions, wayfinding systems can be used for creating a sense of place and showcasing an area’s unique history. In recent years, urban planners, designers and architects have been working with communities to develop Kevin Lynch’s idea of ‘the legible city’.

Bristol led the way with a network of direction signs, on-street information panels, printed walking maps and public arts projects. The project created a consistent visual identity, countering impressions of Bristol as a collection of fragmented, undefined and unmemorable places.

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Bristol: legible city. Image: Chris Bahn

Bristol’s Legible City project is now entering a new phase, including a major upgrade of on-street map units to incorporate high-quality illuminated mapping, and the integration of communication equipment into the map units to provide visitors and residents with useful data about the city’s streets and spaces.

Journey narratives

Bristol’s pioneering approach has been adopted by other cities, including London, Glasgow, Manchester, Moscow and New York, as well as smaller cities such as Inverness. Some have used wayfinding as part of a wider strategy. Vancouver, for example, is fostering a walking culture, and so its wayfinding system is geared towards ensuring people make smart transportation choices. Meanwhile, in Moscow, a wayfinding system for the city’s metro stations is part of its efforts to create a world-class transportation system.

London’s Legible City project set out not only to provide directions, but to engage with pedestrians by using storytelling as part of the design process. The project team studied how people interact with their environment, and considered their different cultural backgrounds and the kinds of information they need for navigation. The designers also identified distinct environmental and architectural features to create a wayfinding system that was unique to London, and that created ‘journey narratives’ for different types of user, from ‘strollers’ to ‘striders’.

Selective wayfinding

While wayfinding systems are gaining ground, there are some concerns about who runs them and who they are aimed at. As writer and urban historian Leo Hollis explained to The Guardian:

“If the legible city only maps shopping malls, car parks and the police station, this seriously reduces what the city has to offer. This can make parts of the city invisible to the visitor. Someone somewhere has made an arbitrary decision that tourists don’t want to go there, or that place is too dangerous so it should be avoided.”

It’s important that communities – and particular groups within the community –are considered in the process of developing wayfinding systems. In areas with an ageing population, for example, urban planners need to bear in mind the particular needs of older people when designing wayfinding systems.

Wayfinding to Playfinding

Having made its presence felt on city streets, wayfinding has also moved into airports, hospitals, schools and shopping malls. The Dongdaemun Design Plaza in the South Korean capital of Seoul, has 37 shopping malls and 35,000 shops. The wayfinding system for this complex space involves a high level of digital and smart media, with distinctive pathways for shoppers, tourists, design professionals and leisure groups.

Some designers have found inventive solutions to help people navigate interior spaces. At Tokyo’s Narita Airport, for example, the main concourses were redesigned to mimic a running track, the lanes printed with wayfinding symbols directing passengers to departure gates. The idea, celebrating the forthcoming Olympic Games, takes wayfinding into the realm of what is known as ‘playfinding’, where information and directions converge with fun and memorable experiences.

Wayfinding into the future

Increasingly, mobile applications, digital displays and other wireless technologies are being integrated into the ‘furniture’ of wayfinding systems. In some, mobile apps use QR (quick response) codes on street signs to provide more detailed historical information.

But with so many of us now using maps on smartphones to navigate cities, some are questioning the value of physical signage systems. And as Google moves into mapping the interiors of museums and other public buildings, the shift towards technology seems irresistible.

Even so, proponents of wayfinding argue that focusing on an app can rob pedestrians of the full sensory experience of walking – the sights and sounds, colours and smells of a neighbourhood, the texture of the surfaces, and how the surroundings make them feel.

So, although navigation from one location to another has never been easier, it’s worth remembering that there’s more to wayfinding than simply finding your way.


Further blog posts on urban living include:

Urban cycling innovations: smart cities get on their bikes

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Image by Poom via Creative Commons

A new OECD report has identified cycling as one of the visible signs of a successful city. Although many cities have yet to adapt their infrastructures to accommodate the growing demand for cycle routes, others are finding inventive ways to bring the bike back to town.

Copenhagen’s green wave
The Danish capital’s gold-plated credentials as a cycle-friendly metropolis are clear enough: 41% of its residents commute by bike, using over 1000km of bicycle lanes. With so many cyclists on the streets, Copenhagen has come to learn the value of keeping the traffic flowing. Which is why the city introduced “green waves”, electronic systems that coordinate traffic signals to recognise bikes instead of cars.  Cyclists travelling at a speed of 20km/h find that they hit green lights all the way into the city in the morning, and back again at the evening rush hour. But Copenhagen isn’t resting on its saddle. The city is currently testing Green Wave 2.0, which will detect bicycle users approaching an intersection. If there are five or more cyclists together, the light will stay green until they pass.

London’s cycle superhighways
When it comes to cycling, London is no Copenhagen. Car-clogged streets make cycling in the UK capital difficult and dangerous. Even so, the number of bicycle journeys in London has doubled since 2000, and a 2013 cycling census found bikes making up around a quarter of rush-hour traffic in central London. That figure seems likely to rise further with the advent of two ‘cycle superhighways’. In February, Transport for London approved mayor Boris Johnson’s proposal for the new bike routes, which will run east-west, linking Barking to Acton across central London, and north-south between King’s Cross and Elephant and Castle. Dubbed ‘Crossrail for the bike’, the routes are intended to offer riders more protection from other road users, with segregated cycle lanes, improved junctions and dedicated traffic signals.

Arlington’s equitable bike share scheme
The urban bike sharing concept had an unpromising start. When Amsterdam located 50 bikes for hire across the city in 1968, all of them were promptly stolen. But the idea was too good to die and today, from Dublin to Dubai, there are over 500 bike share schemes worldwide.  Almost all such schemes rely on credit or debit card payments, which excludes those citizens who want to hire a bike, but don’t have a credit card or bank account. Arlington County, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., is trying something different to ensure more inclusive access to bike sharing. Residents who want to use its Capital Bikeshare programme will be able to pay cash for monthly memberships by visiting one of five ‘commuter stores’. To get started, applicants need only present proof of identification and residency and $16 in cash. When a customer’s account goes below $2, they’ll receive a reminder that they need to add more money to their account.

Mexico City’s cycle Sundays
“We love coming out and seeing our beautiful city from the seat of a bicycle, without the fear of death.”

When the mayor of Mexico City introduced the “Muevete en Bici” initiative in 2007, many dismissed it as a political stunt. But now, each Sunday, tens of thousands of residents get on their bikes and take possession of car-free streets, including the capital’s central eight-lane highway. Since being branded a gimmick the scheme has endured, as the city’s environmental secretary told the Washington Post:

“It has been a success. We shattered a myth that a megalopolis like Mexico City is not capable of considering the bike as a means of transport.”

The idea has also found favour elsewhere; during a visit to Jakarta, London’s mayor praised a similar scheme, and suggested it could work in London. But Boris Johnson doesn’t have to look as far as Indonesia or Mexico for a home-grown model: in Bristol, two roads in the city centre are closed to cars on one Sunday each month, as part of Mayor George Ferguson’s Make Sunday Special initiative.

These ideas offer just a flavour of how forward-thinking cities are adapting to the needs of cyclists as part of wider sustainable development strategies.  Other examples include Holland’s solar-powered bike lane, Tokyo’s subterranean bike parks and Manchester’s cycling community initiatives, among many more.

And it’s becoming clear that local authorities don’t have to develop their own urban cycling concepts from scratch, but can, like Bristol, borrow from other cities and adapt ideas to their own circumstances. As far as urban cycling is concerned, innovating is worth imitating.

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on cycling and other transport topics, to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

 Further reading

Other resources which you may find interesting (some may only be available to Idox Information Service members):

TfL’s cycle superhighways rewrite the rules on roadspace allocation

International cycling infrastructure best practice study

Factors influencing bike share membership: an analysis of Melbourne and Brisbane

Cycling works: jobs and job creation in the cycling economy

Cycling plans, strategies and design guidelines

Grey men dreaming of vibrant cities?

Image by Neil Howard under Creative Commons

Image of MediaCity, Manchester by Neil Howard under Creative Commons

By Morwen Johnson

They control combined budgets of over £10bn, deliver 24.4% of the combined economic output of England, Scotland and Wales, and are home to over 21 million people. What are they? The Core Cities of the UK – and as pre-election lobbying ramps up a gear they are at the forefront of the devolution debate.

Last week I attended the Core Cities Devolution Summit. This event, hosted in Glasgow, marked the launch of a modern charter for local freedom. It also gave those interested in the current cities agenda a chance to hear from the city leaders on the potential benefits of reform.

I won’t summarise the charter, or the main recommendations of a new report from ResPublica which argues for the fullest possible devolution of public spending and tax raising powers to the UK’s largest cities and city regions. Instead, here are a few reflections on the day.

Bespoke devolution

The hype over Manchester’s recent devolution agreement with the Treasury shouldn’t distract from the fact that devolution is not a one-size-fits-all model. The idea isn’t to try and mimic Manchester’s journey – what’s on the cards is an approach that takes account of local circumstances.

I’m not sure that the end result of this – potentially radically different priorities in revenue generation, service delivery and spending between neighbouring metropolitan areas – is being communicated in a transparent way. Ben Page from IpsosMori shared some interesting survey results which suggest that public opinion also lags behind the political agenda:

ipsos survey 1

ipsos survey 2Leadership not bureaucracy

Mention devolution and one of the immediate responses of naysayers is to complain it’s just yet another layer of governance – more costs, more staff, more vested interests. This was raised during Q&A and the panel responded by saying that what they are proposing doesn’t require massive reorganisation – it’s about effective leadership. The same pots of money are used but funds can be accessed in different ways for different purposes.

This was only half-convincing. Repeated reference to place-based decision-making (breaking down functional /organisational silos to ensure services are focused on outcomes and those residents with complex needs) didn’t really explain how you build the trust and political capacity that’s needed to roll out transformation across multiple agencies/workforces at the same speed and scale.

Equalities

Presenting a different perspective on the day was Professor Lesley Sawers, who highlighted the risks of unintended consequences from devolution in terms of social justice and inequalities. She argued that so far localism has led to an approach to investment that has not been particularly effective in tackling equalities issues.

Cities should be great agents of social reform but the rhetoric around growth has a tendency to focus on infrastructure and macroeconomics – ignoring social challenges such as skills, poverty and under-achievement. And it may seem an easy point to score, but running an event with only 3 female speakers out of 25, didn’t really send a great message to observers. Don’t even mention the lack of ethnic diversity on the platform.

What now?

The devolution agenda may be the ‘only show in town’ but whether the core cities can take advantage of this to benefit and engage their own populations remains to be seen.


The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on governance and city regions. Members receive regular briefings as well as access to our Ask a Researcher enquiry service.