Cities are a complex entity covering large areas. As they are built based on demands for space and accessibility, even areas deemed suburban will have a noticeable vertical dimension which must also be considered. The immediate result of this is of course that pedestrian views are restricted – in fact in many cases a view does not extend far beyond an individual entity’s personal space at all. Most distant features are obscured when looking at ground level, and the upper levels of buildings can only be seen if they happen to arise beyond the more immediate skyline. This means that information on the environment is very restricted when travelling, reducing visibility to the road directly ahead, views down intersecting routes and views of distant tall features which may be natural or man made.
Navigating in such circumstances can be tricky. Laying out a fixed route between origin and destination (and then successfully following that route) becomes more complicated when it is based almost purely on secondary points of reference. However a sensible and coherent system of urban signage, which makes points of reference clear and provides necessary information on both mass and individual transport networks available, can in theory remove the need to see what is normally obscured in an urban landscape setting.
In practice, however, urban visitors often do not have a well-planned route which they can follow. Verbal descriptions or rough sketches of directions are not adequate for travel planning, and thus the more dynamic art of wayfinding comes into play. Wayfinding does not require fixed routes or specific choice points but can be influenced by a variety of strategies including well-designed urban signage solutions.
In a varying, three-dimensional city environment, navigation is utilised by public mass transport and selected business traffic (for example postal delivery). When using public transport, however, travellers tend to leave most of the navigation to the provider of the transit system, meaning that between the pickup and dropoff points the city effectively becomes a “black hole” which would in retrospect be entirely impervious to attempts to navigate later on foot unless there is a comprehensive signage solution in place.
Urban wayfinding, then, occurs as individuals attempt to make their way through city structure, usually on foot. This can be a challenging activity both mentally and physically, as the destination is rarely visible from the point of origin, high buildings restrict the availability of viewing points and many idiosyncratic factors such as roadworks, security measures and one-way streets add to the challenge of getting anywhere at all. Generally this only occurs when people move off the “beaten track” to seek out new locations or services, or seek alternative routes when the primary and familiar commute is shut down or diverted for some reason.
Most people will engage in a form of wayfinding known as questing, which means seeking out particular new destinations based on symbols on a map or verbal directions. The problem with this is that it relies on an unbroken series of easy-to-find landmarks which are simple to identify correctly, as many buildings and areas are very similar in appearance and the proper names of streets are rarely very memorable. This is where the techniques of urban signage to assist the wayfinding process come in, and a whole new set of challenges emerge for the urban planner in terms of creating well designed, resilient and tamper-proof signs which will assist travellers in locating their destination in the often-daunting urban landscape.