Here we are back to Sam and his no-nonsense, telic walking style. In the first post of this series I came up with 3 questions that Sam needed answers to in his day to day life. This post will attempt to address the first:
Where am I?
Or what are those subtle or not so subtle clues in our environment that guide us and (in planning speak) what is the wayfinding system lacking?
The most basic wayfinding tools humans have used for perhaps the longest are of course celestial bodies like the sun and stars, but in a city like New York, tall buildings and so many lights often obscure these (although it does make Manhattanhenge quite lovely). Additionally they require pausing and looking up, something that only tourists and architects seem to do here. A telic walker like Sam is likely looking straight ahead and figuring out how to navigate around tourists and architects, therefore staring at the sky or trying to find shadows seems to be counter productive, since they are not directly in sight in a tall dense city. But there are lessons to be learned from these celestial wayfinding devices.
- They are not designed to be wayfinding devices (that we know of)
- They serve other purposes (light, heat, timepieces)
- They are omnipresent in our lives
- While we don’t always use them to judge where we are, we can if we know how and choose to
Perhaps these should be the guiding design principle for designing urban wayfinding devices
When you search for images of “wayfinding” on the internet you will get a lot of photos of signs with text on them. This idea that posting a sign is the way to provide wayfinding is prevalent, but doesn’t always work very well. Something else I have learned from personal experience over the years is that people rarely read signs (This is also commonly taught by usability experts like this one). I recently observed a tourist standing next to a large sign/map in Cadman Plaza asking for directions, both she and the person she was asking were oblivious to the map. That is actually quite uncommon, most of the time the tourists are crowded around a policeman or hapless park maintenance person asking for directions, yards from the posted maps (funded by the Metrotech BID) and twenty paces from the tourist center in Borough Hall.
This is not to say Cadman Plaza maps and signs are innately bad. They are quite pleasing in a Brooklyn Pride, let’s take a pause and ruminate on Brooklyn and learn a little history kind of way. And there are some that are simple enough to be truly useful (for more than just hanging shoes on).
When people do read signs, it is often out of fear or because they are now frustrated. Most obvious example: I am afraid/frustrated that I might be lost, there is no one I am comfortable asking for help, oh look a sign! Perhaps this is idealistic, but I believe that if wayfinding is done right, people should not ever get to that point of frustration, and that written words should be for other information (see Brooklyn Pride/History reference above).
There are many subtle ways the physical city actually guides us already, whether that be by following vehicular traffic direction on streets (although unless they drive, cab it often, or ride the bus, this may not be something many walkers will add to their cognitive maps), or the grid layout which helps with Lynchian legibility. Numbered streets themselves are helpful when you are in reading distance of signs (obvs, that is why it is hard to get lost in most of Manhattan!). But there are things the cityscape could do better to unobtrusively herd us along.
In ZAINESVILLE, OHIO Sam would just have to look down at the sidewalk. New Orleans, not known for being a particularly well run municipality, also embeds street names in sidewalks here and there. Street signs in NYC are for cars, that is quite clear. Oh, you are a pedestrian, perhaps a lost tourist? Well in that case New York has PLENTY of lovely signs for you… if you stay in the subway system (paid for by MTA) or the boundaries of a BID (paid for by business and property owners), but not extensively or comprehensively on actual streets. I’d argue why this is important, but Ms. Turner already did that so well.
A particular thing Sam does (and probably others as well) is that when clueless about where the nearest subway station is (usually in downtown Manhattan), he follows the subway grates in the sidewalk. This works mainly because he lives near a main subway hub and is not particular about subway lines. These grates represent an opportunity for a design fix. Why can’t the occasional grate tell you what direction it is going and maybe what train line they are for?
[Aside: For some nice suggestions on how the wayfinding system can be improved inside the subway system check this out.]
Speaking of subway stations, they are often the points of directional decision making. When one pops into the sunlight there is not much to go on. The signs that let you know which corner you are on are at the bottom of the stairs, before most people have likely reached that decision point. Even if Sam does read the interior subway exit signs [he doesn’t] he is faced with the question: if this is the northwest corner, am I facing north or west? Which means he either had to have paid attention to the theoretical southwest sign [he didn’t] or be able to recognize immediately the difference between an avenue and a cross town street [this depends on if he has had coffee yet]. This adds unnecessary cognitive energy costs to trips to unfamiliar parts of Midtown! Having on-sidewalk compasses or other indicators, maybe on the steps you are looking at as you walk up (instead of inspirational signage), might not eliminate these added brain taxes for subway riders, but they can provide an additional locational realignment to soon-to-be confused pedestrians.
To sum up there are a lot of design fixes to existing elements of the streetscape that could make knowing where you are much easier. Sidewalks, benches, buildings, tree pits, bus stops, fire hydrants or call boxes, elevated train lines, stairs, light fixtures and even buildings all present opportunities to provide clues to the pedestrian about where they are in the city. This would require designers and builders of these fixtures to not only think about the primary use of the object itself, but also how it fits into a specific place and relates to the rest of the city around it. This definitely poses some challenges both in design and in cost and maintenance, but if the objects in the streetscape know where they are, they can tell the Sam’s where they are.