Have you ever come out of the subway to an unfamiliar neighborhood and felt totally lost, clueless about how to get where you’re going? Most of us have experienced feeling disoriented in a new place with no familiar landmarks, no hint of north or south. If we’re lucky, after asking passersby who are just as clueless as we are, we’ll find someone who can point us in the right direction. There is an easier way. It’s called Wayfinding.
Wayfinding (in our case, urban wayfinding – for pedestrians) is a system of signs, directional signposts, arrows, maps, illustrations, and sometimes embedded markers placed on sidewalks that help you find your way to a destination and also tell you where you are. If the system is well thought out, based on careful observation and responsive to people’s needs, with an attractive, uncomplicated design that’s easy to read, it can not only guide city wayfarers, but also can lend a special identity to a locale that welcomes visitors and tells them, “We’re proud of our place and want you to share it.”
In recent years, cities throughout the U.S. have developed wayfinding systems to help pedestrians navigate through them to places of interest, community facilities, cultural institutions, and other sought-out locations like city halls, post offices or police stations. The wayfinding ranks include New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Seattle, in addition to smaller cities like Austin, Texas. Philadelphia was one of the first to install a system, using color coding and illustrations to identify different districts along with maps and markers with arrows to show the way.
New York is now joining those other cities with its own wayfinding program. Given the city’s complexity, it has taken not only time, but a great deal of research, analysis, and outreach to develop a system planned to be citywide and have a uniform approach, while fitting the needs of individual neighborhoods. To gauge people’s preferences, where signage is needed, and what it should be, New York’s Department of Transportation (DOT), in charge of creating the program, has used intercept surveys, focus groups, and context workshops while also examining the wayfinding systems of other cities, including those outside the U.S., like London and Copenhagen.
The result of this investigation is a system for pedestrians geared to New York’s scale and the diverse profiles and sizes of its neighborhoods. Acrylic maps mounted on sidewalks, of different dimensions depending on their type and place (e.g. path, area, neighborhood), will show people the surrounding vicinity, where they are, and what direction they’re facing. Five-minute walks from there will be circled; included will also be the time it takes to walk to other attractions. Photos of and arrows to specific destinations will help simplify navigation.
Although the system will include sites of interest to visitors, it won’t be just for tourists, but for native New Yorkers too. A recent DOT survey revealed that 9% of New Yorkers and 27% of visitors admit to getting lost in New York City, while 13% of New Yorkers admit they’re lost in neighborhoods not their own. Addressing these different users, the way to a range of destinations, from subway connections to monuments, will be displayed.
The first phase of New York’s wayfinding program is scheduled to start in mid-May with pilot projects in Downtown Brooklyn, Chinatown (some of this in the Community Board 2 Manhattan area), Long Island City, and Midtown Manhattan (the Fashion District and 34th Street). These initial installations will be monitored while input is solicited from the surrounding communities, in order to fine-tune the program. Once any kinks are worked out, this new orientation system promises greater ease for us in finding our way around.
Shirley Secunda is an urban planner and chair of the Traffic & Transportation Committee of Community Board No. 2, Manhattan.