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Wayfinding at night: a review of research and best practice

Posted by on November 8th, 2017 · Cities, Data, Public space, Sydney, Transport

By Aida Afrooz, City Futures Research Centre.

Finding your way through a city, especially at night, can be daunting. Across the world many governments have sought to facilitate ‘wayfinding’, by making cities more legible and pedestrian friendly.

To inform its understanding of wayfinding, the City of Sydney recently engaged a team of researchers from City Futures Research Centre (Aida Afrooz, Parisa Kalali, Simone Zarpelon Leao, and Chris Pettit) to review the research on best practices in night-time wayfinding. In our ‘Wayfinding at Night’ report we:

  • Outline the common wayfinding practices based on national and international practices;
  • Highlight the new and emerging technologies in wayfinding; and
  • Identify wayfinding strategies and components which could enable different users to navigate through the built environment more effectively at night.

The report is a comprehensive review of comparable national and international wayfinding practices, with 54 practices and plans reviewed and 24 comparable cases to City of Sydney described, across five contextual urban elements: namely, streets, intersections, parks and waterfronts, squares and landmarks. A wide variety of wayfinding components are considered to enable wayfinding systems to be inclusive and meet the needs of different types of users, including residents, visitors, commuters and users with disabilities.

Although daytime navigation tools are usually used by wayfinders at night, there are many other reasons why people get lost at night-time specifically. Applying smart technologies can be a potential solution for overcoming wayfinding difficulties. In this regard, the report offers a synthesis of an ample variety of strategies with a specific focus on smart lighting system and emerging technology. Such technologies also have benefits in addressing safety concerns which are more prevalent at night-time.

From our review of the wayfinding research, we found that there is a lack of a comprehensive framework to integrate performance metrics to benchmark wayfinding systems for the built environment, with the existing studies that include performance metrics very limited in scope and applying to small samples. Some reasons for this gap can be attributed to the fact that most wayfinding projects focus on specific wayfinding approaches, particularly signage design, rather than considering the integration and interplay of varied aspects of wayfinding, such as the interaction between people and the built environment. Most strategies only consider one of these categories; either the design of the built environment or the target users.

We also found that it is not possible to set out a hierarchy of applied strategies as recommended by existing research and practice. For example, we cannot determine that the strategies being implemented in London outweigh those in Toronto or vice versa. This is because of a missing connection between wayfinding studies in a broader context. In our report sought to partially overcome this limitation by setting out a matrix to assist readers to select the most suitable strategies for the purpose of their projects based on a limited set of criteria, rather than rating the applied strategies. Finally, we recommended a benchmark for evaluating wayfinding practices.


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