Falling off the Map in Minneapolis

Wayne Hunt's "Waynefinding"

Read Time: 2 minutes

By Wayne Hunt

June 2018  “Meet me at 2nd and 3rd.”

In a confounding mess of confusing and ambiguous street naming, the terrific downtown area of Minneapolis has one of the worst street name systems of any medium size US city. Within or nearby the otherwise rational downtown, eight (!) separate intersections have similar names: 2nd Street North and 3rd Avenue North, 2nd Street South and 3rd Avenue South, 2nd Street North East and 3rd Avenue North East, and 2nd Street South East and 3rd Avenue South East. Whew! These are four different intersections just blocks apart. Four other like-sounding, different intersections are nearby: 2nd Avenue North and 3rd Street North and 2nd Avenue South and 3rd Street South. The nearly identical names are differentiated only by the generic nouns street and avenue and the often-mysterious directional adjectives, north, south, et cetera.

I took numerous walking trips around the central district on a recent four-day visit to this vibrant downtown. Even with a decent map provided by the hotel and my trusty iPhone navigation, I could not stay oriented by using street name signs. Counting up or down is futile if you’re not sure you’re going west or north. Am I on a street or an avenue? Throw in the adjacent curving Mississippi River (further breaking down north/south orientation) and a couple of streets without number names and self-guiding on foot is very challenging. The street name signs are frustrating and difficult to visually ‘sort.’ For example, at a single intersection the letter S for south appears on two signs at right angles naming the intersecting streets.

Effective urban wayfinding comes from many factors: a rational street grid, strong sight lines, major icons (church towers, for example), signage and not least, an organized, easy-to-learn street name system. Downtown Minneapolis has a few icons—US Bank Stadium and some major bridges—but most are not visible from downtown sight lines.

Ironically, the street grid is neat and scaled for pedestrians. Except for a couple overly wide streets, the city is very walkable—if you can decode the street numbers. My experience shows the annoying need to continue to reorient and validate your location and direction of travel is a barrier to the positive walking experience. At Hunt Design we call this ‘falling of the map’ — both the mental map inside your head and the one in your hands.

Minneapolis, I love your downtown; but it’s a lot of work to enjoy on foot. I wonder how it must be for visiting drivers—I can only imagine.

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