NYC Beaches Wayfinding and Signage

Hitting the Beach

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Pentagram builds a stronger-than-ever identity for New York City’s public beaches.

Design intervention in the wake of a natural disaster can be a tricky proposition. Emotions run high. Resources are scarce. Environmental restoration seems insurmountable. Efforts to rebuild, though admirable, can be fragmented, unorganized, and politically charged. It’s hard to know where to start.

Such was the challenge posed by Hurricane Sandy after it ripped across the Eastern Seaboard in late October 2012, resulting in hundreds of fatalities and $68 billion in damages. The destruction was particularly pronounced in New York City. The storm crippled the city’s infrastructure where it made contact with land: more than 14 miles of beaches, as well as the boardwalks, one of New York City’s most enduring architectural symbols.

“The boardwalks were gone and everyone was depressed about it,” explains Pentagram Partner Paula Scher. Just weeks after the hurricane, she was hired by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation to create new signage and environmental graphics to help welcome New Yorkers back to their beloved beaches.

Scher’s starting point for the project? “What is left is the beach, and that is still pretty great. So we focused on the positive.”

The interventions, including new identity signage, wayfinding, and pavilion graphics, were completed in time for New Yorkers to hit the beach for the 2013 season.

Design to the rescue

Following the devastation of the storm, Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted the beach communities to know they hadn’t been forgotten. The beaches had always served as an economic engine and an entertainment zone, drawing more than 20 million visitors the previous season. Sensing the urgency to get back on track, Bloomberg made a bold promise to reopen the city’s eight public beaches by Memorial Day weekend, just seven months after the storm. It was a massive undertaking, with a much faster timeline than most capital projects, and in many ways, with much more riding on it. Before restoration work could even begin, 430 million tons of debris were cleared from the beaches, and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers placed 4.5 million cubic yards of new sand.

If restoring community pride in the city’s natural assets wasn’t enough of a challenge, Scher, in collaboration with a large team of architects and designers (including Garrison Architects on the modular lifeguard and restroom stations, Sage and Coombe Architects on the revamped pavilions, Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects on shoreline repair and access, and McLaren Engineering Group on shoreline repair and project management) had just five months from the start of the project to complete the initial implementation. The scope included 14 entrances at the Rockaways (Queens), two at Coney Island (Brooklyn), two at Brighton (Brooklyn), one at Manhattan (Brooklyn), one at Wolfe’s Pond (Staten Island), one at Cedar Grove (Staten Island), and two at Midland Beach. These represented only a portion of the total number of beach entrances under the 14-mile jurisdiction of NYC Parks.

Responding to a highly charged catastrophe marked new territory for Scher, but she and her team applied the same rigor and approach as with any other project, outlining the conditions that had to be addressed and the audience that had to be reached. In this case, a prioritized list emerged.

“Design should help repair communities by first helping to make things function, then to make the situation more pleasant for residents aesthetically and emotionally, and help set the conditions for appropriate economic and social development.”

Wayfinding for a new reality

Wayfinding became a critical component of the rebuilding strategy. With much of the boardwalks and signage washed away, the sand dunes displaced, and the rules shifting due to beach closures, beachgoers had to reorient themselves to the new coastline. Scher’s team accomplished this through three basic sign types: identification signs, marker signs, and regulation signs.

The freestanding identification signs feature post-Sandy photographs of the beach, taken at the exact location of the sign. Scher wanted to invoke a sense of place. In essence, the commissioned photographs create new memories for the next generation of beachgoers, while the signs’ blue and yellow color scheme references the salient features of the beach: sky and water.

“I thought the signs couldn’t be just street signs. They are what I call emotional signage or a systematic poster system,” says Scher. “They are a hybrid between a poster and a sign.”

Knowing feelings of nostalgia played into visitors’ associations with the beaches, Scher also designed a few identification signs with old pictures of the pier and Coney Island. But she kept historic imagery to a minimum, drawing attention to what is there now, instead of what was.

Marker signs that run along the shoreline are attached to the stanchions that used to hold up the boardwalks (and have now been repurposed as seawall supports). They’re mounted vertically on the stanchions so they are highly visible and the relationship between beach entrances and streets is evident. Wherever there is an access point—essentially a hole cut through the dunes—the truss is painted a bright yellow.

For signage, Scher specified extruded-aluminum frames and high-pressure laminate panels—materials that can withstand severe weather and wind over time (the previous signs were made of wood, and many were destroyed in the storm). Thomas Garatina, Business Development Manager for American SignCrafters, oversaw all aspects of fabrication. His team created a modular system in which all components are the same dimensions for all of the frames. The weight of the material proved challenging, requiring them to build a heavy-duty jig to stabilize it during the welding process. “Any time you apply heat to metal it wants to contract and warp,” explains Garatina. “The jig holds the material in place and prevents it from warping as sections are welded together. The heat that is generated has to be very high to weld two pieces of ¾-inch material together.”

Rail-mounted regulation signs (in addition to some freestanding versions and those mounted on lifeguard chairs) feature white type on blue background and offer a clearer, much-simplified version of their more haphazard and visually chaotic predecessors. The project gave NYC Parks and Recreation a golden opportunity to improve the consistency of the sign messaging, and also demonstrate the city’s commitment to the beaches, says Betsy Smith, Assistant Commissioner for Revenue and Marketing for NYC Parks and Recreation.

“We didn’t change the beach rules, but we consolidated them and made them more positive,” states Smith. “We had to redo all the park signage anyway. It just so happened that we had this obligation that we matched with an opportunity.”

Scher also designed environmental graphics for the elevated modular lifeguard/restroom “pods,” prefabricated structures designed by Garrison Architects. Graphics for the pods include supersized park logos and restroom icons. For the four concrete pavilions at Rockaway Beach (designed by Sage and Coombe), she used supergraphics of the street numbers and abstracted maps of the surrounding areas.

“The buildings needed a bright color palette,” says Scher. “If you did the same thing in the city, it would look goofy. But color works on the beach. It looks appropriate and strong.”

Extending a legacy

The Parks Department had already collaborated with Scher in 2011 on a cohesive program for signage, wayfinding, and environmental graphics. It involved an entirely new protocol and the implementation (still ongoing) of a modular system at approximately 3,000 properties. Smith underscores how seriously the Parks Department took signage: “Signs were not keeping up with the state of our parks. But now we have a new kind of aesthetic awareness in the messaging we transmit throughout our parks.”

They hadn’t given much thought to separating the beach signage from the rest. The hurricane, however, forced closer examination. Scher understood that the beaches provided a unique experience and branded NYC Beaches as its own entity. Although the Parks’ leaf logo remains, the color scheme (blue and yellow instead of green) and distinct fonts (Founders Grotesk and Maple) claim a new visual identity.

Scher also accounted for the interface between the users and the signage. “In parks, you want signs visible but you don’t want them loud because it is a much subtler, harmonious environment,” Scher explains. “I was doing something else with the beach signs. The scale is much bigger. I designed the signs to be read from a distance. People need to be able to see them when they are walking.”

In addition to its very pragmatic functionality, Scher’s signage program adds an element of reassurance in the aftermath of a massive community disruption. And although the effects of Hurricane Sandy will last years, maybe decades, Pentagram’s work made huge inroads into a key component in the process of restoration: communicating the resiliency and beauty of the beaches. Smith asserts, “Paula not only designed something for the emergency on hand but also for beach signage going forward.” In other words, the overwhelming message is one of optimism.

--By Jennifer M. Volland, eg magazine No. 07, 2013

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Location:  New York

Client:  NYC Parks and Recreation Department, NYC Department of Design and Construction

Budget:  Confidential

Project Area:  14 miles

Open Date:  May 2013

Design:  Pentagram

Design Team:  Paula Scher partner-in-charge and designer; Courtney Gooch, Rafael Medina, Lingxiao Tan designers

Fabrication:  American SignCrafters

Collaborators:  Garrison Architects modular lifeguard/restroom stations; Sage and Coombe Architects pavilions; Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects shoreline repair, access; LTL Architects Steeplechase Pier; McLaren Engineering Group shoreline repair, project management, structural

Photos:  Peter Mauss / Esto

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