Monday, February 6, 2012

Guerrilla wayfinding and the Charlotte dilemma

I spotted this article, from Atlantic, "Guerrilla Wayfinding in Raleigh," about mysterious signs that have sprouted in downtown Raleigh, to help pedestrians, courtesy of a project calling itself WalkRaleigh. The Raleigh piece is a follow-up to this article on wayfinding in cities.

All of which brings us to three Charlotte-related thoughts.

1. Why don't we have more guerrilla urbanism here? Tom Low of Civic by Design has been trying to work on an idea for pop-up porches, which isn't a bad notion but it begs the question: If you're getting official authorization for your plans, is it truly "guerrilla"?

2. Why isn't there a WalkCharlotte project out there, like WalkRaleigh, doing similar things, such as what Charlotte Observer editorial cartoonist Kevin Siers (@KevinSiers) suggested today via Twitter: "Maybe we need urban guerrillas to post pedestrian crossing signs in Charlotte, since the city doesn't bother."

WalkRaleigh is a project of CityFabric, "Wear You Live," a clever idea and definitely place-centric. Has anything of that sort been launched in Charlotte? If so, I'd love to hear/see more about it.

3. While we're on the topic of wayfinding, what's with those supposedly helpful signs on freeways and streets heading into uptown Charlotte, dividing uptown into color-coded quadrants, N, S, E and W?

Do you know anyone who has found those N, S, E and W signs helpful?  I don't want to trash them if I'm the only one who isn't being helped. After all, I worked uptown for decades and have a pretty solid idea where things are and can ignore those signs.

The problem of finding your way around uptown is significant, I realize. Anything that helps people is a good idea, especially with the continuing problem of confusing one-way streets thank goodness the city has restored some to two-way and the existence of too many barriers between uptown and the rest of the city: I-77, I-277, the Indy Freeway, Irwin Creek, Little Sugar Creek and various railroads.

But the color-coded signs do not work for me.

Maybe it's because uptown Charlotte is not laid out according to north-south or east-west, but on the diagonal. Tryon may be named "North" and "South" but it runs northeast-southwest. Trade Street may be "East" and "West," but it runs northwest-southeast. So the only way your mental map can dovetail with an uptown map showing Tryon running vertically is if your mental map knows nothing else about any other parts of Charlotte. (I have even seen some maps that place Tryon horizontally, which is a perversion not only of the actual compass points but also of the long-established tradition in maps of north being at the top.)

The best way to find your way around uptown, as with almost any city, is to get out and walk around in it. To Walk Charlotte, if you will.  


tarhoosier said...

The color codes signs are worthless. I, too, am a long time Charlotte resident and know downtown well. The codes, colors, directions and quadrants, if that is what they refer to, are completely pointless to me. Does it refer to the commonly accepted colors for the cardinal directions? As there are none? Color of streets? Street sign color? Anything? Bueller? Bueller?

Audrey said...

I find it so wild that you posted this today. I started working on my own Ped Crossing/safety sign to put up near my home. I lobbied my City Council member to help make this particular intersection safer and NADA. In addition, an ex colleague of mine was the man hit by the dump truck a couple of weeks ago. A second man was hit the very next day in the exact same spot. I just don't understand the lack of attention and change. What else has to happen? There are many people who would like to walk more (like me), I believe, but is it safe? Wouldn't it make Charlotte MORE desirable? Kudos to WalkRaleigh.

Oh, and those parking signs are worthless. I've still yet to figure them out!

Scott said...

If you want to see "The Master of Wayfinding," check out Bob Firth and his firm Informing Design,

Good wayfinding is clear, simple and sequential, leading the user from one place to another in a similar fashion to how we use computer files. For example, start with a sign "To Downtown" (basic level), then more and more refined layers of wayfinding signs, keeping a similar standard system of color, sign-shape, font, etc.

Another great example of wayfinding is Transport for London ( - the city's transport agency. Their signs are simple, yet bold and informative, to help users navigate one of the world's largest and most complex transit systems.

Dustin Tyler Joyce said...

I'm no longer a resident of Charlotte, but I've visited a couple of times since uptown's new wayfinding system was installed. While the old wayfinding system -- in place when I lived in Charlotte -- certainly needed to be replaced, and the new wayfinding system is informative and looks nice (though the signs are a little small), the N/S/E/W division of the city is, at best, unhelpful.

At worst, it is completely devoid of character in a city already criticized for lacking it. Other cities of Charlotte's size -- Baltimore, Denver, or Seattle, for example -- continue to refer to downtown neighborhoods and districts by their historic names. It's not that Charlotte doesn't have these historic names -- the wards are the most prominent example. And newer names have emerged, such as North End (do they still use that name any more?) or the government district, and other names will continue to emerge as uptown develops.

But the planners of uptown's wayfinding system plowed over any historic references to uptown's districts or any of the city's emerging character by going with plain cardinal directions. Sort of the same way developers and parking-lot builders plowed over the historic buildings that once constituted these districts that now exist largely in name only.

It's almost a travesty.

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