Geumho-dong in Seoul is a neighborhood which was built with housing as a top priority—to its detriment. Over 90 percent of the homes built in this neighborhood have no parking spots, or even streets appropriate for vehicular traffic.
The residents of this neighborhood have to maneuver through a maze-like series of winding narrow streets, alleys, stairs and ramps to get in and out of the neighborhood. There are no streets where you can see more than 50 meters in any straight line of sight. With three to five story buildings on either side of these narrow passages—barely wide enough for two people to pass shoulder-to-shoulder—a web of electrical wiring overhead and a continuous peripheral view of visual pollution, wayfinding has always been seen as a luxury that could never be afforded to this labyrinth of a neighborhood in central Seoul.
While the lack of wayfinding has mostly been a nuisance for visitors to the area and door-to-door delivery services, in recent years it has become evident that wayfinding has become a matter of life and death for its residents. With an aging population, medical emergencies have become much more commonplace. First responders have been unable to quickly respond to emergencies due to the maze-like structure of the neighborhood. Until now, there has never been a suitable wayfinding solution for this neighborhood, so city planners looked to YiEUM Partners to design a unique and effective solution that could potentially save lives while enhancing the quality of life in the area through wayfinding.
The first step in coming to a solution was an intense study of the neighborhood—and accurate mapping of all paths in and out of the area. There weren’t any maps available for use because road maps revealed only the roadways used for vehicular traffic, while most residents use “non-existing” alleys and stairwells to get in and out of their homes. The design team thoroughly mapped out the area, noting which areas were stairs, ramps and pedestrian-only alleys in addition to all vehicle access points.
They then held a series of workshops with residents, fire fighters, EMTs and police to learn more about the neighborhood and its challenges. The YiEUM team was surprised to learn that even residents of the area could not find their house on a map, while fire fighters, EMTs and police admitted how much trouble they were having responding to calls since they would have to park somewhere along the outskirts of the area, find a way into the neighborhood, then scramble between buildings trying to find address and street signs that were barely visible.
This brought the team to their first idea: to create a simple way to identify each point of entry into the neighborhood so that residents and emergency responders could use a common language to give directions. Since many points of entry were not vehicle accessible, they decided to designate each entry as a “gate” with a corresponding number. They numbered the primary gate most residents used with the number 1 and numbered each gate sequentially around the base of the hilltop neighborhood. This type of system is familiar for the residents who rely on local public transit, which uses a similar numbering scheme at all subway stations.
The biggest “aha” moment came when walking through the neighborhood with police and local residents during an on-site investigation. One of the designers noticed that as residents, police, and others in our group were trying to find their location and bearing on a map, rather than looking around at eye level for existing signage, their first instinct was to try and look above the buildings for other known points of reference such as a neighboring high rise or apartment complex. This inspired the team to create a ‘skyline wayfinding’ proposal as a solution for this neighborhood. Being located up at sky-level was the best way to avoid all the problems that made existing signage nearly invisible in this environment.
Following the completion of the project, the feedback from residents and emergency responders has been incredibly positive. Residents expressed the convenience of using the numbered gates and skyline wayfinding signage to give directions to visitors and use as meet-up points.
Perhaps the most impactful feedback came from emergency responders who’ve been able to improve response times. For all these reasons, residents of the local community have since expressed to local officials that they now feel safer in their community.
"A design can be aesthetically pleasing, yet if it fails to achieve its function well, the aesthetic quality is rendered meaningless. The supreme care and effort put into researching and consulting with the future users of this wayfinding signage system speaks to the dedication its designers had to creating something that works and brings a significant safety and quality-of-life improvement to residents, rather than merely making an attractive series of signs."
"This design solution is well-researched, considerate, and powerful. The system is well integrated into the character of the neighborhood’s architecture and brings successful accessibility and wayfinding to those in need."
Seoul Metropolitan Government: Hyo Jin Kang, Eun Sun Kwon (master planners)
YiEUM Partners, Inc.: Jangwon Ahn (principal in charge); Yeonji Lee (project manager); Yangjeong Kim, Eunji Kim, Naeun Ham (designers)