Signs, Screens, and Swerving

Tourists examine a map of Manhattan. Image: Getty.

“Are better signs the secret to a successful city?” That’s the question Steven Poole poses in the Guardian’s Resilient Cities series. As he ambles toward an answer, Poole explores “Legible Cities”: the physical and digital wayfinding system first built for the city of Bristol, and then expanded and refined for Brighton and London over the last decade.

Poole calls Legible Cities a “movement” and, in fact, the system has made that rare leap from a successful project to the realm of best practice and buzzword. In 2010, I wrote about Legible City Brighton in an article for segdDESIGN under the headline “Wayfinding in Your Pocket”. I learnt that the creators of Legible Cities (City ID, Applied and others) had built the system on a pair of novel postulations that, today, we shrug off as unremarkable facts:

1. Wayfinding is not a forest of signs with arrows; it is a network of information

Nodes are places and routes are synapses. This network and its web of interrelationships can be rendered as physical signage, displayed on a screen in the palm of your hand, or whispered in your ear by Siri.

But first and foremost it is a network — structured data that convey meaning through connection. The deeper and more granular those connections are, the more helpful it becomes to the end-user – as in, “Show me all the cafés with cold-brewed coffee and WiFi within a 10-minute walk from here”.

2. By extension, the city itself is a platform: an organizing framework for the people who transverse it and the buildings and things that inhabit it.

We compose layers of information upon the city platform: transit schedules, restaurant reviews, our friends’ addresses, and secret shortcuts. The ideas behind Legible Cities underpin our evolving understanding of the city and our place in it.

In his article, Steven Poole taps into the legible city (lowercase, not Legible London’s branded system) to guide him to a new pub. In his earbud, Google interrupts his personal soundtrack to tell him to turn left or right. He successfully gets from point A to point Pub, but questions the instructive value of the experience:

“There’s no way I would find my way to that pub again without help. And I had taken no notice at all of my surroundings. It was as though I had passed frictionlessly through an opaque sonic tunnel.”

I would suggest that the “sonic tunnel” was a result of his soundtrack (self-professed: Queens of the Stone Age), not the interjected directions that guided him. Listening to step-by-step instruction is a much lighter cognitive load than squinting at maps. Aside from gentle taps on the shoulder (which may arrive soon with wearable technology), auditory cues are the most effective way to receive and respond to navigational information. Just last week, I learned a bit about the landscape and urbanscape of St. Louis by following the Google Maps voice from the art museum to an Italian deli in the Hill neighborhood.

Poole does raise provocative questions about authorship of the legible city: the power implicit in promoting neighbourhoods and points of interest in any given wayfinding system. But perhaps his most compelling passage is an ode to wandering, getting lost, and the romantic notion of the “flaneûr”.  It was surprising to learn from Poole that serendipitous city adventures were elevated to an art form by the French (mais bien sûr) as dérive (literally, “drifting”).

I call it “swerving and swooning”—navigating the city by surprising piques of interest, turning toward a faint drumbeat or a whiff of just baked bread. You never know what the city will reveal.

Leslie Wolke (@lawolke) is a wayfinding technology consultant and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog originally appeared at her website, lesliewolke.com.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.