Teaching cities how to read, Bristol-style

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Teaching cities how to read, Bristol-style


Sometimes it seems like the only reason Korea’s cities are so crowded is because no one can find their way home. Pedestrians squint at tourists maps or gaze up at skyscrapers, brains struggling in vain to contain two opposing thoughts: “Right now I’m here. Where the heck am I?”
Finding one’s way around a Korean city is tough for both residents and visitors ― few streets have names but all are crowded, and many signs are confusing or even contradictory. Despite its modern appearance and high-technology, Korea desperately lacks urban planning.
Determined to avoid this problem, officials in charge of designing the government’s shiny new national administrative city in South Chungcheong province invited the award-winning urban designer Tim Fendley, who was already coming to Korea to attend a seminar, to give a speech at a committee meeting of the province officials. Mr. Fendley is the CEO of the London-based public design company Applied Information Group and an expert in the field of city legibility.
A “legible city” is one in which pedestrians can use signs and maps to find their way around the city with relative ease.
“Because Britain is a country where urban design is emphasized at the governmental level, [inviting a British expert] is a good way to find out how it’s done,” said Jo Sung-huan, the head of the Design Development and Education Team of Korea Institute of Design Promotion. “There have been limited efforts, such as in the Jongno-gu and Bukchon-dong areas in northern Seoul, but there hasn’t been a case yet in which the notion of urban design was implemented across an entire city.”
Mr. Fendley’s greatest success so far has been to do just that: apply a uniform system of urban design to a whole city; in his case, the English port of Bristol. The Bristol Legible City project that began in 1996 was such a success that it is being studied by the city governments of London and Milton Keynes.
Before Mr. Fendley set out to remake Bristol, the city of 390,000 was notoriously difficult to navigate. Its street signs and road maps were so misleading as to be practical jokes, and pedestrians who took what they thought were wrong turns were often shocked to find that they had arrived at their destination twice as fast.
By the mid-90s, it was clear that the local economy would continue to suffer unless the city’s signs and appearance were radically changed. The town’s major organizations ― the city council, central government agencies, development boards and commercial representatives ― responded by creating the legible city project. They then formed a team of council officers, urban planning designers, product designers, information and identity designers, public art consultants and traffic engineers to lead the city’s revamping.
The project needed to meet four goals: the city needed to be easy to walk around; the sign systems and maps needed to be appropriate for the city’s identity; the information provided must not be confusing, and all the information from street signs to web sites, regardless of the media or the viewer, had to follow a coherent system.
Aimed at helping both visitors and residents, the project went far beyond simply putting up more street signs around town. It was the opposite: 200 confusing and inaccurate signs were the first to go. These were replaced by 60 direction signs, 700 arrows and 40 streetside information stands, all using the same system of icons.
Everything was standardized: signs were written in a simple font specially designed for the city called “Bristol Transit.” Colors for routes, icons and objects were selected and standardized. The team also eschewed a logo, on the grounds that no symbol could entirely define a city.
Perhaps the most innovative change, however, was in the streetside map panels. Recognizing that most people find their way around the city by steering themselves around large buildings, the development team drew up a list of Bristol’s 150 most recognizable buildings and landmarks, then drew three-dimensional pictures of them on two-dimensional street maps. Instead of having all the maps run north-on-top, south-on-bottom, they were instead drawn to correspond to the viewer’s position ― the streets in front of you would be at the top and those behind at the bottom. Viewers no longer had to stand on their heads to figure out which way was forward.

“Every time my father would ask for directions in the car, my mother who would sit on the passenger side would try to read the map for him,” Mr. Fendley said. “But because my mother wasn’t a good map-reader ― and most of the people aren’t ― she would turn the map in every direction possible to make it more confusing. This map was designed for people like my mother.”
To make things even easier, computerized information kiosks were installed to help pedestrians.
The Royal Town Planning Institute was bowled over, awarding the project its 2002 Innovation Award for urban design. Mr. Fendley was thrust to the forefront of the urban design field, winning among other prizes the Design Business Association’s award for design effectiveness.
Korean planners are betting that they can apply the techniques used in Bristol’s mega-makeover on the peninsula as well. After giving a speech at the Committee on the Multifunctional City, Mr. Fendley went to the National Assembly to attend a seminar hosted by Representative Kim Tae-nyeun. He was far from alone: the seminar included about 400 people, from urban planners to college students.
In his presentation, Mr. Fendley quoted John Hirst, the manager of the Broadmead shopping center in Bristol. According to Mr. Fendley, Mr. Hirst said the legible city project was a significant step forward, because it gave a good impression to visitors, made customers feel more comfortable and shows everyone that “we mean business.”
“Our city is now seen as progressive,” Mr. Fendley continued, quoting Mr. Hirst. “It sets a standard for us and a benchmark for other cities.”
The Korean officials at the committee meeting on a Bristol-style revamping appeared to back the plan for cities here as well. One of the meeting attendees who came away impressed with the project was Nam Young-woo, an urban planner on the Presidential Committee on Multifunctional Administrative City Construction. Mr. Nam said Korean cities are well-structured for basic functions, “yet public design which determines the city’s accessibility and psychological comfort haven’t been emphasized,” he said.
The final decision by the Korean government to move its administrative city in Chungcheong province may depend on a court verdict which might come as soon as this Thursday ; even if the plan falls through, though, the new city under construction will stay true to Bristol’s two mantras of public design: “from the top down” and “throughout the city.”

by Kim Kyoung-mo
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