Open Space Signage in a Pandemic and Beyond

Open Space Signage in a Pandemic and Beyond
From Parks to Parklets to Public Price
By Cheri Devlin, Altitude Design Office

Read Time: 4 Minutes

In this year of pandemic, designers have learned the importance of creating signage and wayfinding systems which are adaptable, durable, and easy to maintain over time. Altitude Design Office suggests seven ways designers can be more flexible when reacting to unforeseen events.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused people to use public spaces in new and different ways. To maximize access to fresh air and space for social distancing, many activities have moved outdoors, and the public realm is now accommodating more of the private realm. As many of these changes will remain in place through the foreseeable future, signage, wayfinding and placemaking need to evolve to accommodate the new ways that people are both using and navigating through our cities and neighborhoods.

Throughout the spring and summer, communities of all sizes have converted their sidewalks, parking areas, streets, and public parks into places for dining, fitness, recreation and relaxation. Initiatives that allow and promote these types of activities throughout the public realm have been swiftly enacted in many cities and neighborhoods, especially those with pedestrian-friendly districts. In warmer climates, some schools have reopened with outdoor classrooms, adapting both campuses and curriculums to foster outdoor learning. During a recent Los Angeles AIA “Designing for the Future” webinar, panelists and participants shared designs and ideas for covered, open-air classroom facilities that take advantage of the region’s year-round warm weather.

As people reap the health and well-being benefits of being outdoors, neighborhoods and their sense of community can be strengthened by more lively and energized outdoor spaces. Hopefully, many of these practices will continue for the long term. LA’s Al Fresco outdoor dining program—currently confirmed through the end of 2020—is being considered to continue permanently.

Signage and Wayfinding Systems to Evolve with Our New Routines

To enhance usability of these new types of outdoor spaces, signage and wayfinding systems can help to improve and cultivate their identity and spirit. Done correctly, improved connectivity, accessibility and overall experience can result, fostering a community’s brand and bringing an authentic sense of place and a welcoming environment for all.

In Altitude’s own neighborhood of Santa Monica, the Wilmont Walk Loop illustrates the way signage can achieve all of this and reinforce a city’s brand as a people-centered, healthy and active community. As enhanced mobility and reduced traffic congestion are among the City of Santa Monica’s five strategic goals, the GoSaMo initiative was implemented “to educate, equip, and excite people about making the most of the new mobility opportunities the city has to offer.” The city collaborated with health advocacy organization Adopt-A-Walk to create the Wilmont Walk Loop as one component of this initiative with the goal of motivating local residents, especially seniors, to stay mobile and active. The one-mile neighborhood walking trail combines clear signage and wayfinding tools—maps, mile markers and directional arrows—with inspirational quotes that tie into the community’s culture of sunshine and surf.

Designing Connections into Our Communities

As designers, we have an obligation to help our clients—our communities—establish and achieve similar goals. The combination of the Wilmont Walk Loop’s beach-centric colors, clean design and fun/inspiring content with simple, economical and permanent materials has brought a sense of pride and connection to the surrounding neighborhood. This is at the core of the human experience, so designers need to be inspired to help people feel this connection to places, to a shared purpose, and to others around them.

Public-private partnerships are a great place to start. The government entities responsible for parks and other public spaces can engage business owners to find out what solutions help and streamline rather than hinder business operations. This is especially critical during exceptional situations like our current pandemic where flexibility and agility are key to adaptability. Over the last few months, design firms have been working closely with cities, local businesses and stakeholders to create places where businesses can move their operations outdoors and attract both existing and new customers.

The engagement of local residents and artists through community groups and public outreach programs can bring a sense of pride and ownership to these new types of places. The necessary but not always attractive infrastructure involved—such as concrete k-rail barriers—should offer a blank canvas for local artists, showcasing the community’s brand and culture while at the same highlighting and reinforcing businesses’ brands and offerings. Asking which stories the locals want to tell, or what places they want to show off—and how—goes a long way toward making community members feel valued and increases engagement and stewardship in the finished product, as well.

Building in Flexibility for the Future

If we’ve learned anything this year, it is an appreciation for flexibility and an openness in reacting to new, often unforeseen circumstances. Similarly, our signage and wayfinding systems must also be adaptable, durable, and easy to maintain over time. A flexible “kit-of-parts” consisting of varying scaled elements related through their design features has always been a key component in any signage system. Now, more than ever, this approach can be successful with the following seven considerations:

  1. Consider multiple types of movement and uses, such as pedestrians, bikes and scooters and how they will both intersect and interact with outdoor businesses and activities.
  2. Consider how to integrate multiple types of messaging. There is an entirely new layer of health and safety information that needs to be conveyed throughout our public spaces and successfully combined with more traditional directional messaging.
  3. Get creative when implementing parklets and sidewalk retail/restaurant environments. Consider new ways to improve these spaces by integrating colors, symbols and patterns into the “walls” of the parklets themselves and bring this energy into surrounding street/sidewalk infrastructure such as light poles, paving and trash receptacles. Think beyond the seating area and consider the complete space that surrounds it to enliven the street.
  4. When implementing economical short-term solutions like concrete k-rail, bring creativity to the surfaces and engage the community to help foster a sense of place and civic pride. Paint and digitally printed adhesive vinyl can go a long way in bringing color and humanizing the hard streetscape.
  5. Integrate “breadcrumb” trails into the existing infrastructure to guide, educate, engage, and encourage health and well-being by getting (and keeping) people moving outside. Trails with demarcated stops for everything from fitness to quiet reflection can be efficiently implemented with paint, vinyl and other low-tech, economical solutions. The trail approach is also an effective way to safely separate pedestrians from cyclists and scooters through use of colors and easily recognizable symbols.
  6. Ensure visual efficiency, in both design and implementation, to ease the user experience and reduce clutter. Use symbols and pictograms and keep messages short and easy to understand.
  7. Consider temporary add-ons or extensions that have specific uses, such as layers of communication that can be added/subtracted as necessary or conveyed via digital messaging as COVID-era rules and regulations may not apply over the long term. Incorporating the infrastructure now that can accommodate future events, whether planned or not, helps to save costs down the line.


Prioritizing People

As difficult as it may seem in these unprecedented times, it’s important to remain positive, focus on what we have now and what we will have again. Encouraging people to use, enjoy and relax in their public spaces (rather than emphasizing public space restrictions and rules) can lead to increased stewardship and pride in people’s neighborhoods and parks. We also must be inclusive, and work with our clients and civic leaders to bring these design principles into both well-traveled and underserved communities. Together, we can have a long-lasting positive influence on people’s experience of the public realm.

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