Wayfinding as a learning tool

January 01, 2001 |

How often have you walked past a building that might be hiding an intriguing background, or one that offered no clue of its noteworthy history? Signage programs initiated in two major cities-Los Angeles and Philadelphia-are aimed at providing the information that will remedy such situations.

In Los Angeles, a 4-year-old, nonprofit organization known as Angels Walk LA has installed 30 signs adjacent to historic buildings in the downtown area.

The impetus for the program was the opening of Metropolitan Transit Authority light-rail stations, says Angels Walk LA's executive director, Deanna Molloy. The Freedom Trail signage that has been in place in Boston since the 1950s showed how signs can go beyond offering only directions. "We started kicking around the idea of enhancing pedestrian connections by making them a destination in themselves," Molloy says. City agencies lent their support, and modest contributions were received from developers.

Since the signs were installed in December 1999, Angels Walk LA has been contacted by visitors from out of town who say they believe a similar project would be appropriate for their city. Molloy thinks other cities could benefit from such programs.

Angels Walk LA also has published two colorfully illustrated, 40-page guidebooks that describe points of interest along the walking routes.

Molloy is proud of Angels Walk LA's accomplishments, and the teamwork that has made them possible. "It's not easy to get things out on a city sidewalk," she notes. "Each city has a different process."

In Philadelphia, the East Market Street Association has attached descriptive signage to bus shelters adjacent to the property described. The signs provide details about historic structures such as the Reading Terminal, the Lit Brothers department store and the 1932 PSFS office building, which was recently converted into a hotel, (BD & C, October 2000). The signs were installed in the early 1990s as part of the revitalization of East Market Street.

Architectural groups have not been directly involved in either the Los Angeles or the Philadelphia programs. Craig Berger, director of projects for the Foundation for Architecture in Philadelphia, offers one possible explanation: Most of the people involved with the signage programs have a background in industrial design and are accustomed to working with small-scale detail. "Architects think in terms of hundreds of details," he says.

Education is a precursor to appreciation. Every member of the building team can contribute to an understanding of the importance of a high-quality built environment by supporting initiatives to educate the public. The programs in Los Angeles and Philadelphia serve as living examples of how this can be done.

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