Walkability and Wayfinding

Like Two Peas in a Pod

Wayfinding, in the way it allows the city to be read, also provides the city with a pulse: that beating, rhythmically bizarre movement of people supported by signage, symbols, postings and much more.

In fact, good wayfinding is that crucial “microcosm” part of navigating the city’s multi-modal transportation system, the benefits of which cannot be ignored as cities move towards supporting healthy and active lifestyles. But how do we make the connection from smart navigation to healthy people?

Walking, that simple bipedal activity we all engage in daily, has been shown to have immense health benefits – from mediating weight gain to improving moods. The Stoics of Greece were walking thinkers, as were the existentialist philosophers of Paris. Walking is meditative, life-giving and relationship-enhancing. In general, when we think about how cities can support this simplest of physical activities, the ability to navigate the built environment becomes a decisive factor for the modern pedestrian.

Wayfinding doesn’t limit itself to those on foot, but can also support navigation for those on bikes or in wheelchairs. This very intelligible graphic representation of the city turns complex mazes of sidewalks and streets into a traversable urban jungle. It doesn’t aim to reduce the pedestrians’ experience of the city, but instead complements it by reducing possible confusion, guiding tourists and residents alike. What is noted as a statistically significant 5- or 10-minute walk in academic studies becomes a celebration of urban life rather than an onerous duty to personal health and wellbeing.

Walking is meditative, life-giving and relationship-enhancing

While traditional signage in cities caters to drivers – traffic lights, right of way, parking privileges – wayfinding signs reflect the legibility of a city for pedestrians and cyclists. This prioritization in signage supports this shift from the automobile-driven city to the pedestrian-oriented city. Furthermore, it is an invitation for city exploration on foot rather than from the comfortable disengagement of the car. As part of the many ways in which cities can encourage travel by foot or bike, wayfinding signage allows pedestrians to make mental maps and visualize their city by connecting sidewalks and footpaths that lead them to their destinations, rather than by the automobile-oriented street signs. Part of the transformation from driving to walking is adapting the city to the comfort of the pedestrian as visual thinker and confident flâneur.

Health isn’t just a physical phenomenon, it is also socially created and fostered, especially in large cities where social isolation can become a mental health issue. In a study conducted by the Vancouver Foundation, 72% of the 3,841 respondents from Metro Vancouver showed low levels of engagement with civic activities and their neighbourhoods. Community building and appreciation of the social assets of a neighbourhood are a wide open vector for addressing this urban challenge. This is an opportunity for wayfinding to evolve as an endeavor that supports mobility as a way to foster relationships and social health.

In this sense, wayfinding isn’t just a well-designed map, it’s a practice that encourages a culture of active urban mobility. As cities begin to accommodate the increasing demands for multi-modal transportation, wayfinding not only encourages pedestrians to walk but also promotes the creation of cities that support walking. This means laying the groundwork for more progressive transportation policies, better integration of big data, and more than just the cursory nod to health and wellbeing.

 

This guest blog post was written by Aateka Shashank, Health Geographer at Simon Fraser University specialising in urban walkability.

For more information on her work, click here.