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.

 
 
 
 

As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.


The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.