On Social wayfinding: why, to make cities more walkable, we need to understand people’s choices

An Applied Wayfinding sign in London. Image: Getty.

Cities around the world are changing to become more “walkable”. As more and more people move to cities, the benefits of encouraging people to walk are clear. Aside from making the urban environment more pleasant, safer and less polluted, improving a city’s walkability can also ease traffic congestion and improve public health.

This is a particular challenge in cities built for cars, so there’s been lots of research to find out what sort of features make a city more attractive to pedestrians, and encourage them to walk further and more often: whether it’s the size of urban blocks, the quality of the pavement, the presence of trees or street furniture or initiatives such as car-free zones.

But while planners and researchers strive to work out what makes urban spaces enticing to pedestrians, they often overlook the fact that people’s decisions about where to walk, and when, are not only determined by the physical qualities of the environment. In fact, new research suggests that these choices are strongly influenced by other people.

Under the influence

There’s already lots of evidence that people are highly influenced by their friendship groups. As early as the 1970s, an American sociologist called Mark Granovetter suggested that the spread of rumours, adoption of new tech and job searches were all influenced by a person’s social network – especially their “weak ties” with acquaintances.

At the same time, two other American sociologists, Paul Burstein and Carl Sheingold, found that political voting patterns were also significantly influenced by a person’s social network. Even more recently, researchers discovered that you are more likely to be obese if your social network contains obese friends.

There’s clear evidence that there’s a social dimension to walking, too. For example, a child is more likely to walk to school if they have a sibling or friend to walk with. Gender, class and the distance to work all affect whether or not a person chooses to walk. And people prefer to go with friends when walking for leisure in the city.

More than that, in new research I conducted with colleagues at ETH Zurich and the University of California, we looked at how the routes people choose to take when walking can be influenced by others; we call this phenomenon “social wayfinding”.

Social wayfinding

Perhaps the clearest example of social wayfinding is when two or more people are walking together, trying to reach a destination. They might plan where to go, identify landmarks along the way, and discuss their choice of route together.

This activity becomes less social when one person leads the way, and others follow along; whether that’s a guide leading a tour, or a person leading a friend to their house. Both of these are examples of “strong” social wayfinding, because decisions about where to go are directly and intentionally influenced by other people.

Social wayfinding also happens when pedestrians take hints from others, which influences their choice of route. When a walker believes that other travellers might share the same destination – for example, when they follow fellow supporters from the train station to the football stadium for a match – he or she may simply go with the flow.

Similarly, the movement of people through a gap between two buildings might indicate a shortcut you wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. This is what we call “weak” social wayfinding.

Timing also plays a role. For example, directions or guidance can be given before a journey, or while walking (over the phone, for example). It can even be that the past movements of others leave “social trails”, which can indirectly inform pedestrians where to go – like the worn tracks across grass, which might hint at a shortcut through a park.


The social city

Of course, people navigate using many different types of social wayfinding during the course of their walk. Apps such as Google Maps or Citymapper can also be used in a social way: although they’re typically designed with a single navigator in mind, in reality it’s not unusual for two or more people to be using a device at the same time, passing it around, discussing the instructions and jointly making decisions about where to go.

To create walkable cities, of course it’s important for planners and city leaders to understand what sort of physical features encourage people to walk more. But acknowledging how social interactions influence people’s choices about when and where to walk would give leaders a much more realistic understanding of people’s behaviour – and put them in a better position to encourage walking as a means of getting around.

Understanding how other people influence wayfinding could also clear the way for many exciting technological innovations, which could make cities easier to navigate. Social trails could be mapped by digital apps or physical markers, and signage could be dynamic, possibly even functioning like an online recommendation system – for example, by flagging quieter routes during busy periods of the day. Wayfinding aids such as maps, signage and apps can be tested on groups, as well as individuals, to make them more useful in both settings.

By being more responsive to the social influences, which affect where people choose to walk, urban planners and leaders could gain valuable information about the way people use the city, and make smarter decisions about what to build, and where.

The Conversation

Ruth Dalton, Professor of Building Usability and Visualisation, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

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Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.


A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.