Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Getting lost in Baltimore

In yesterday's article I maintained that Baltimore isn't very good at telling its own story. Part of it is that the city has no useful wayfinding system for its attractions and inner urban destinations. "Get lost" is the message to visitors, and given how afraid some suburbanites are of city driving, those visitors don't have to come from far away to lose their way in Baltimore.
Schaefer's old wayfinding system (Photo: Philipsen)

Former Mayor William Donald Schaefer understood the value of a good story, whether he jumped with straw hat and rubber ducky into an aquarium pool or whether he commissioned a set of inner-urban directional signs specific to Baltimore. Those signs have long faded, some lost their lettering and today they just blend into the general background clutter.

The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore understood the value of wayfinding as well when they installed the pedestrian sign system that dots downtown intersections, dividing downtown in color quadrants and pointing out attractions and history. But those signs don't help drivers.

One can drive for miles on one of the major arteries into the city without a single directional sign pointing out where one is going. Even Schaefer's old signs didn't create a logical sequence. A sign that pointed to the Inner Harbor and Aquarium is followed a mile later by a sign that points to Market Center and the University of Maryland.  Interstate exits may point to inner urban destinations, but once off the freeway, there is no further guidance.

One could argue that in the age of GPS and Google maps each driver gets directions from the on-board system and physical signs are superfluous. But that overlooks the power of the story and is similar to the argument that there is no need for books in the age of computer tablets or no need for theaters in the age of TV. Both proved wrong because that isn't how humans really tick.
Italian wayfinding: White is local, brown are attractions

In Europe, each country has its own national standard for directional signs with freeways, national roads and inner city destinations each having its own color. In Germany the autobahn has blue signs, the national road and inter-urban signs are yellow and inner-city signs are white. In Italy the freeways are green like in the US, the inter-city signs blue, the intra-city signs are white and tourist attractions are brown.

In the US it is left to cities and towns to design their own; some cities have done a real good job in doing it. Most have no system but feature only clutter of random signs put up over decades. Famous for bad or no signs: Our neighbor Washington DC. In spite of the millions that come to visit every year. When it comes to the motto get lost, the District gets the cake since with its many diagonal Avenues it is disorienting by nature. But that shouldn't be an excuse for Baltimore which depends on clarity and transparency much more than "Washington".

Horse-Town Lexington, KY (Photo: Philipsen)
A recent modest attempt of marking Baltimore's entry points stemming from Baltimore's previous mayor was met with the usual cynicism. Who needs that and wouldn't the money be better spent on [fill in the blank].  True, just gateway markers with out additional information is probably not as helpful as a true wayfinding system that would reminds even those who find their way with their eyes closed of what we have and who we are.

Good wayfinding signs express pride, just like a hood ornament on a car.
A high-functioning wayfinding system makes the environment “legible” and enhances the visitors’ experience as it increases their comfort, builds their confidence, and encourages them to discover unique events, attractions and destinations on their own. (ASLA blog)
Phoenix wayfinding
Letting those 30 year old Schaefer signs stand around decaying, outdated and defaced with stickers sends another message: We don't care. Sure, this isn't a matter of life and death. But it is a symbol of what this city "thinks" of itself.

Leading a city to control its own story includes branding, information and reducing anxieties. It is a tall order for a city which induces
a lot of anxieties for a lot of reasons. Why not reduce one fear, that of not being able to find your way?

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore wayfinding:lettering is lost (Photo: Philipsen)

US wayfinding outside Interstates is always cryptic

San Diego wayfinding: Baltimore was on teh right track
with blue and green

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