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

On-street-signage-system2

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:

Robot cities: three urban prototypes for future living

This guest blog was written by Mateja Kovacic, Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield.

Before I started working on real-world robots, I wrote about their fictional and historical ancestors. This isn’t so far removed from what I do now. In factories, labs, and of course science fiction, imaginary robots keep fuelling our imagination about artificial humans and autonomous machines.

Real-world robots remain surprisingly dysfunctional, although they are steadily infiltrating urban areas across the globe. This fourth industrial revolution driven by robots is shaping urban spaces and urban life in response to opportunities and challenges in economic, social, political and healthcare domains. Our cities are becoming too big for humans to manage.

Good city governance enables and maintains smooth flow of things, data, and people. These include public services, traffic, and delivery services. Long queues in hospitals and banks imply poor management. Traffic congestion demonstrates that roads and traffic systems are inadequate. Goods that we increasingly order online don’t arrive fast enough. And the wi-fi often fails our 24/7 digital needs. In sum, urban life, characterised by environmental pollution, speedy life, traffic congestion, connectivity and increased consumption, needs robotic solutions – or so we are lead to believe.

In the past five years, national governments have started to see automation as the key to (better) urban futures. Many cities are becoming test beds for national and local governments for experimenting with robots in social spaces, where robots have both practical purpose (to facilitate everyday life) and a very symbolic role (to demonstrate good city governance). Whether through autonomous cars, automated pharmacists, service robots in local stores, or autonomous drones delivering Amazon parcels, cities are being automated at a steady pace.

Many large cities (Seoul, Tokyo, Shenzhen, Singapore, Dubai, London, San Francisco) serve as test beds for autonomous vehicle trials in a competitive race to develop “self-driving” cars. Automated ports and warehouses are also increasingly automated and robotised. Testing of delivery robots and drones is gathering pace beyond the warehouse gates. Automated control systems are monitoring, regulating and optimising traffic flows. Automated vertical farms are innovating production of food in “non-agricultural” urban areas around the world. New mobile health technologies carry promise of healthcare “beyond the hospital”. Social robots in many guises – from police officers to restaurant waiters – are appearing in urban public and commercial spaces.

As these examples show, urban automation is taking place in fits and starts, ignoring some areas and racing ahead in others. But as yet, no one seems to be taking account of all of these various and interconnected developments. So how are we to forecast our cities of the future? Only a broad view allows us to do this. To give a sense, here are three examples: Tokyo, Dubai and Singapore.

Tokyo

Currently preparing to host the Olympics 2020, Japan’s government also plans to use the event to showcase many new robotic technologies. Tokyo is therefore becoming an urban living lab. The institution in charge is the Robot Revolution Realisation Council, established in 2014 by the government of Japan.

Tokyo: city of the future (Image: ESB Professional/Shutterstock CC)

The main objectives of Japan’s robotisation are economic reinvigoration, cultural branding and international demonstration. In line with this, the Olympics will be used to introduce and influence global technology trajectories. In the government’s vision for the Olympics, robot taxis transport tourists across the city, smart wheelchairs greet Paralympians at the airport, ubiquitous service robots greet customers in 20-plus languages, and interactively augmented foreigners speak with the local population in Japanese.

Tokyo shows us what the process of state-controlled creation of a robotic city looks like.

Singapore

Singapore, on the other hand, is a “smart city”. Its government is experimenting with robots with a different objective: as physical extensions of existing systems to improve management and control of the city.

In Singapore, the techno-futuristic national narrative sees robots and automated systems as a “natural” extension of the existing smart urban ecosystem. This vision is unfolding through autonomous delivery robots (the Singapore Post’s delivery drone trials in partnership with AirBus helicopters) and driverless bus shuttles from Easymile, EZ10.

Meanwhile, Singapore hotels are employing state-subsidised service robots to clean rooms and deliver linen and supplies and robots for early childhood education have been piloted to understand how robots can be used in pre-schools in the future. Health and social care is one of the fastest growing industries for robots and automation in Singapore and globally.

Dubai

Dubai is another emerging prototype of a state-controlled smart city. But rather than seeing robotisation simply as a way to improve the running of systems, Dubai is intensively robotising public services with the aim of creating the “happiest city on Earth”. Urban robot experimentation in Dubai reveals that authoritarian state regimes are finding innovative ways to use robots in public services, transportation, policing and surveillance.

National governments are in competition to position themselves on the global politico-economic landscape through robotics, and they are also striving to position themselves as regional leaders. This was the thinking behind the city’s September 2017 test flight of a flying taxi developed by the German drone firm Volocopter – staged to “lead the Arab world in innovation”. Dubai’s objective is to automate 25% of its transport system by 2030.

It is currently also experimenting with Barcelona-based PAL Robotics’ humanoid police officer and Singapore-based vehicle OUTSAW. If the experiments are successful, the government has announced it will robotise 25% of the police force by 2030.

While imaginary robots are fuelling our imagination more than ever – from Ghost in the Shell to Blade Runner 2049 – real-world robots make us rethink our urban lives.

These three urban robotic living labs – Tokyo, Singapore, Dubai – help us gauge what kind of future is being created, and by whom. From hyper-robotised Tokyo to smartest Singapore and happy, crime free Dubai, these three comparisons show that, no matter what the context, robots are perceived as means to achieve global futures based on a specific national imagination. Just like the films, they demonstrate the role of the state in envisioning and creating that future.


Mateja Kovacic is Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.