Posted by: Karen Quinn Fung | March 16, 2011

Neighbourhood wayfinding kiosks: getting to the essence of a street?

One recent evening, strolling down Main Street, I came across one of the wayfinding kiosks that had been installed on the street for the Olympics.

Information Pole at Main and Broadway

Wayfinding Kiosk at Main and Broadway. Photo: author.

And here’s a picture of the backside from a wayfinding kiosk at another location, if you’re curious what’s on the back…

Long over due Rapid Transit, bike path & Trout Lake City of Vancouver  at Commercial and 13th - Sign - 031320113825

Wayfinding Kiosk at Commercial and 13th. Photo: Roland Tanglao.

We first mentioned these kiosks last when they first went up just prior to the Games – and remarked on the fact that they were long-overdue in the City. And yes, despite what follows, we’re still glad they’re here.

But upon scrutinizing what’s actually displayed, I found myself grimacing a little. The middle panel with the copious amounts of text under the headline “Mount Pleasant” is a listing of all the businesses in the area, sorted by category (such as “Restaurants”), along with their address and phone number. The aesthetic and presentation of the directory is clearly reminiscent of that used on signs in malls.

I sent and commented on the above photo to Twitter, and received a couple of replies questioning my discontent:

@counti8 I wish Edmonton had something to list. I think the Vancouver street maps are great if you’re visiting. Take note #yeg #yegcc less than a minute ago by

@counti8 Better than a mall, but not as easy for the mall-habituated to understand — hence the wayfinding infrastructure? less than a minute ago by

Both valid points, certainly, which encouraged me to revisit why the retail-heavy content felt inappropriate and out of place for me. To expand upon my initial ideas, which I tweeted to Seth from Edmonton, I believe it is because my feeling about neighbourhoods is profoundly different than the one I have for malls.

Whether it’s Main Street or Hunt’s Point in The Bronx, neighbourhoods are, first and foremost, venues of daily life. Their features reflect the sum total of life having unfolded, and continuing to unfold, over time and space. Buildings get old, are vacated, renovated, rejuvenated, modified and, sadly for this and other older districts, burned down; new buildings find their legs in the spaces between older ones. Malls are in many ways the antithesis of this; they are ahistorical in their presentation, focused on birthing the buying moment, unless nostalgia is part of the sell. They reflect the desire to produce a highly controlled and curated environment, which keeps at bay the difficulties associated with weather, multiple modes of traffic, the ravages of time and the challenge of competing interests in limited spaces. They seldom seem to age well, propped up by the building equivalents of Botox.

Wayfinding is undoubtedly an important contribution to the pedestrian experience, for it guides us by helping us form expectations of said experience. We might say a city or neighbourhood is “legible” or” understandable” through the way it is laid out, which helps someone traveling on foot to understand where you are and where you want to go. Malls are laid out and designed with anchor tenants (such as department stores or supermarkets) at the ends of its corridors and certain arrangements to maximize retail frontage values, as well as to expose foot traffic as much as possible to all the stores in between. The mall directory helps you navigate what is typically a non-linear layout. They make sense when you consider that distinguishing landmarks might be restricted to store signage features, or that layout of a mall happens over multiple floors, which can only be accessed by elevators and escalators located in specific spots. Its legibility is certainly challenging to a first-time or infrequent visitor.

Main Street is comparably simpler and easier to understand — it’s a linear corridor in a grid with evenly spaced-out regular intersections.  For this reason, the store-directory-as-wayfinding-kiosk almost seems like a bit of overkill.  Designed in this fashion, it strikes me that the sign tries hard but ultimately missed the mark; the authors haven’t created a kiosk that gives pride of place to the sort of stuff that would help a visitor discover the essence of the place… just a sector-specific portion of it.  Getting to the essence, i think, is the sort of thing that would come with asking a broader question like: what is interesting about this neighbourhood? Not: where can I buy shoes? While retail information has it’s use, a good info post would ideally give you access to details on a range of items: local pointsof interest, bathrooms, community policing, pay phones, maybe a 24 hour eatery… and the sorts of other features that make the neighbourhood different from a trip to Pacific Centre.

Now, to be fair, the kiosk does retain perhaps the most important elements from its use as Olympic wayfinding, such as important transit routes and connections, and it does feature a smaller section on ‘Neighbourhood Destinations’ (out of frame further down on the second picture above). In the Main Street case, it lists landmarks and notable spots like Queen Elizabeth Park and Heritage Hall.

Fundamentally, there is a line to walk between promoting the businesses to make the street and the  neighbourhood welcoming and accessible, and providing actual utility to newcomers through the features of the sign. Given that the local Business Improvement Association sponsors the sign, I understand the push. They’re fulfilling their mandate by promoting the shops and businesses along this corridor, supporting the local economy and so forth.  All good things.  So the issue to me is more about balance in content.  Personally, I think show-casing a complete range of community amenities would probably support the local economy more in the long run.  (And in the grand scheme of things, this sign is still a step-down in my mind, from the corporate logos gracing the wayfinding signage in the Olympic Village).

No doubt, translating this notion of balance into the design and presentation of the information, while remaining equitable to all businesses, is a formidable challenge.  The presence of these information kiosks is good, but the content elements shows signs of needing a bit of a re-think.

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Responses

  1. I think the problem is that the answer to “what is interesting about this neighbourhood?” is different for every person – so what would go on the sign? Who gets to decide what is interesting? The BIA? The City? Random Joe Schmoe on the street?

    It’s almost like what is needed is a white-board section where people can add their own comments/suggestions…. but would that end up as anything other than a graffiti-filled disaster?

    • Hi Lisa,

      Funny you should mention the blackboard idea — I did see one installed at a streetcar stop in Toronto, and I think they do add a nice read-write element to the space. See this photo I took of it here.

      Who gets to decide what is interesting?

      Great question. One I don’t have an answer to, and it’s intriguing to consider what kinds of processes we might undergo to decide that, because there are as many right answers as there are visitors and residents. So I think the focus, where the sign is concerned, is whether we care more about answering that question without stepping on any toes, or making a kiosk that’s easier to navigate. (But given Jason’s comment below, I concede that it is helpful to someone, even in its current form.)

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts,

      Karen

  2. These signs are a godsend. Main St is full of tchotchke shops, all alike, and I can rarely remember the exact name of the store I’m looking for, let alone whether it’s north or south of my current location.

    All your suggestions for improvements are good ones; maybe the BIA could work with the local community association to come up with some local colour.

    This has got me thinking, what other mall features could we bring into the real world?

    – clean, safe public washrooms
    – designated spaces for gathering/loitering/eating
    – seating for people who need a little rest
    – store fronts close to the sidewalk instead of behind parking lots
    – information kiosks
    – car-free

    • Jason,

      Thanks so much for weighing in.

      I think your comment really serves to highlight a point a made early on in my post, which is that I’m probably poorly neurocognitively equipped to understand what the experience of this street — or for that matter, almost any linear corridor in Vancouver that’s been there since 1989 — is like for someone who hasn’t grown up in them. I’m guessing you came here seeing me expressing incredulity to Roland that people are getting value out of this sign, particularly the directory, in its current state, so I have to ask — has the value of it for you increased particularly since it was updated from before, when it didn’t have the business listing?

      Let me respond a bit to some of your suggestions:

      – clean safe public washroom – I did a paper for a design class when I was in university investigating the logistics issues of more public washrooms, and we found that it was associated mostly having to do with funding for regular maintenance, and the fact that they are required by law primarily for food establishments and that there is really nothing in there about either having them be open or accessible 24/7 (after all, a lot of life happens outside business hours). Perhaps I’ll blow the (virtual) dust off that report. I’m purely guessing here, that washrooms in malls are maintained by mall management companies who are likely collecting something akin to strata fees to fund their maintenance.

      Perhaps this is the missing funding model that could keep real, public washrooms open in some of these corridors, and something that the BIAs are uniquely positioned to make real. Instead of seeing handwritten “no public washroom” signs in store windows, we could see, “Washroom over there,” directing them to a jointly-maintained and supported public facility. This is a thought-provoking one though, and given the detail I had in our report, a great idea for a next post. 😉

      – designated spaces for gathering/loitering/eating / seating — I don’t see that as particularly lacking right now. If there were food carts on Main St., there would need to be some slightly larger spots needed. As far as I know, most food establishments on Main right now have (mostly indoor, and sometimes outdoor) seating. Are those not well designated enough?

      Main St. has also got a pretty sweet selection of benches. I know because my partner sits at one to wait for me to arrive off the bus when we go for Singaporean once a week. Could you elaborate on the kind of designation that makes you feel more comfortable, at ease or informed? Or are you referring strictly to having their presence indicated on the signage? My sense is that the City’s already put the bar pretty high in this respect, and that they are well-spaced and well-distributed enough so that you’re never more than ~1.5 min walk away enough from the bench — though it could always be improved. Seniors, I bet, would be a great group of people to ask about this, because they probably need and are more aware of the sitting spot in ways I haven’t needed (yet).

      – store fronts close to the sidewalk instead of behind parking lots — there I agree with you completely; as do many scholars of walkability.

      – car-free — no argument from me there; though I will nuance it by saying that watching people embark and disembark from transit is a people-watching joy of the street commonly lacking in malls (see above re: venue for daily life). I also feel it would only be fair to concede a point I’ve read in David Owen’s “Green Metropolis”, which is that goods movement activity, currently represented primarily by trucking, actually does have an important contribution to walkability too, because it is the fact that trucks bring goods to places close to walking distance of people’s residents that enables compact development at all. For the noise and air pollution reasons I’m finding myself ever-more enthused about electric trucks and human-propelled goods movement services. Vancouver’s already considered fortunate in this regard with backlanes/laneways — another great topic! — compared to places without them where I’ve heard things can get a little dicey.

      Finally, this one is hard to let get away:

      Main St is full of tchotchke shops, all alike, and I can rarely remember the exact name of the store I’m looking for, let alone whether it’s north or south of my current location.

      I just had a walk today with a friend who moved (back) in my neighbourhood, and we remarked about how given enough exposure, even residential buildings become identifiable as landmarks. I take a different route back to my house through the residential streets almost every time I make the walking trip, and because I take the bus, I walk those streets a lot. You could blindfold me, spin me around and drop me in the middle of the residential streets west of Main between Broadway and King Edward and I’d still be able to pinpoint exactly where I am, because I’ve walked and biked and slogged and skipped down them, on the roadway or on the sideway, in sun, rain, snow, hail, under umbrellas, soaked to the skin, earphones in and out. (Perhaps I should try marketing this as a stupid human trick.)

      I’m not saying as a boast, but to help you understand where I’m coming from when I say that the characterization of them as being all alike is completely contrary to my actual experience — because if you told me what they sell and what’s around it, I could probably tell you the shop you’re looking for, and likely so could my neighbours.

      I think getting it wrong is part of the fun of building the mental model of the street, because I still get it wrong sometimes too. Malls are not generally allowed to become the “venue for daily living” in quite the same way, and the exception to this statement is when they are allowed to be repurposed as walkthrough spaces; I think the underground cities back east in Montreal and Toronto take on that kind of character. (Eaton Centre kept me warm on many a nighttime walk home from Queen Street.)

      Finally, a book I’m reading for a class talks about how we often create commodities out of things because it’s easier to deal with things than it is with people. Perhaps the kiosk’s true information value actually lies in getting people who are looking for something to visibly identify themselves somehow. By being somewhat ineffective at answering absolutely every question anyone could have, it could also been as giving people who know the place, like myself, the opportunity to be helpful and inclusive to newcomers by striking up the conversation of what it is they are looking for, paving the way for the magic of social interaction. Assuming, of course, that the newcomers want to and are open to interacting with locals. And even I am guilty of not living up to this when I travel at times. (See above re: Hunt’s Point.) Perhaps, in a nod to the tweet response I sent to Seth, this is really about de-mystifying or democratizing the knowledge accrued from storytelling and residency, and that’s the root source of my discomfort with the signs.

      Jason, you may win the award for making me post the longest comment to this blog ever. Congratulations! 😉

      Karen

  3. @LB – I actually think the idea of “what we want on our signs” would be a great community initiative. In Mt. Pleasant, where Karen took her picture, this might actually be a great outcome from all the Community Planning work that’s taken place over the last few years. They’ve got lots of asset mapping work to draw on. And in any case, it would be a pretty neat exercise for neighbourhoods to identify the sorts of things they’re most proud of.

    @ Jason & KQF – I actually like the question about what it is that we can learn from malls. Not because I’m any great fan of malls, but because they have, through the course of their evolution, made a conscious series of planning and architectural decisions to take aspects of the Main St experience (I mean Main Street in a general sense, not Vancouver’s specifically) and build them into their design. In some places – lots of suburbs actually – this has helped them to supplant more conventional forms of gathering space. Whether or not this is a good thing is another question all together, but perhaps there’s something that we can glean from their design intent and execution.

    I’ve asked myself similar questions when I look at places like Intrawest’s Whistler village. Disneyesque and sanitized to be sure… but they (Intraswest) have done a very capable job of designing their village around gathering spaces and connections and other sorts of amenities. There’s stuff to be learned from this as well.

    (Of course, both Whistler and malls riff off of design considerations that long predate them… and these earlier approaches also emerge in the approach of New Urbanism and other schools of thought…but that’s a whole other story.)

  4. Having had a chance to see some of the kiosks Downtown, Gastown and at Cambie and Broadway, I do have to admit the design really varies greatly between them all and that some of the feature I mention (such as block numbers on the map or locations of public washrooms) are indeed available on some of them. So it could be that each of the BIAs differ in the amount of information they have to present in the finite space, and vary in being able to do so in an effective design.

    Also, David Owen recently commented that he feels that, outside of the fact that you have to drive to them, everything about malls is done pretty well as a pedestrian experience. I’d hold to my assertion that they have some pretty strong value assumptions at their core, but his comment did make me re-think some of the sentiments I expressed in both the post and my comment.


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