Direction Selection and Sign Rejection

The city's wayfinding project hits the streets

A little over a year ago, in my first Shot of Urban, I told of giving directions to drivers while standing on the corner in my pajamas waiting for my puppy to find just the right spot to make a deposit. The puppy's now a dog and has her bearings when it comes to handling business. But many drivers still seem perplexed when it comes to finding their way around downtown.

The city has since made the changes I wrote about in that column—reconfiguring several downtown streets to accommodate two-way traffic—and now drivers have the opportunity to traverse most streets cluelessly in both directions trying to locate their destinations.

When it comes to signs, you won't find another area of the city that can outdo downtown. We've got signs. Stop signs, parking signs, no parking signs, even no-parking-between-signs signs. But few of them really point to anything. And those that do aren't particularly dependable. What visitors really need isn't more signs, but just a way to find their way.

"Wayfinding isn't signage," says John Bosio, director of MERJE, a Philadelphia-based environmental graphic design firm contracted by the city to overhaul the current directional system. "Fifty percent of wayfinding is showing people how to get from A to B. But it's also about what they encounter along the way." It's not just how to get there—it also encompasses the city's image and what he calls "brand." In meetings last week with various stakeholder groups, the firm presented three preliminary design sketches of potential themes for a downtown wayfinding project.

MERJE is conducting a study to finalizing the placement of the new markings. The firm will also supply a manual to the city to specify the design of new wayfinding markings, and to outline a program for ongoing maintenance and future additions as new destinations are identified.

"All current directional signs will be removed," says Ann Wallace, the city's Cumberland Avenue Project Manager, who is managing the implementation of the planning and design process. Once funding is secured, new markings should be in place sometime after the beginning of next year.

But the existing directional signs may not be the only ones to be retired. The Downtown Design Guidelines Board, one of the groups consulted on the new wayfinding project, will examine additional recommendations on eliminating "sign litter" downtown at their monthly meeting next week.

A separate study conducted by the East Tennessee Community Design Center at the request of the Central Business Improvement District was presented to the board in March. It is supposed to dovetail with the wayfinding project. That study examines on-street parking signs and the impact of those signs on the pedestrian experience and mobility, as well as the aesthetics of the downtown streetscape.

According to the report: "Currently, the number of signs located in downtown Knoxville is not space effective. There are too many signs, and they are excessively redundant. The result is sign litter made up of signs themselves and their posts—congesting walkways and presenting mobility constraints, especially for persons with disabilities or with strollers or delivery carts who require wide, unobstructed sidewalks."

A great example of the problem can be seen along the 400 Block of Gay Street. On that one block, there are no less than 25 signs dedicated to parking regulation. Meanwhile, on Union Avenue, in the short walk along the narrow sidewalk between Market Square and Gay Street there are at least seven signs, almost all with their own post. They're mounted safely out of the way of vehicular traffic, and squarely in the way of pedestrians.

One recommendation the study suggests is "replacement of signs with curb painting and street surface striping where ever possible" to indicate such things as "police only" or loading zones. Another strategy involves streetscape elements such as pavement colors and textures to accomplish the same goal of eliminating excess signage.

I'll be glad to see some of the current signs gone and pedestrian maps changed. One map in particular, that greets visitors coming off the pedestrian bridge from the Convention Center and Worlds Fair Park, doesn't even show Market Square. According to it, Market Street proceeds straight down the middle of where the Square is located, then between the TVA towers, across Summit Hill, and through the lobby of the Crown Plaza before connecting with Vine Avenue. Even on foot, that's not quite a viable passage.

I don't mind giving directions. I like helping visitors find their way around downtown. But it does seem to irritate the line of cars backed up behind them sometimes. Maybe by spring of next year, folks will be able to find their way around downtown without my help, and just chuckle at that guy in his pajamas, picking up his dog's poop.