Rethinking public spaces with wayfinding after coronavirus

As coronavirus restrictions ease, cities and councils will need to rebuild trust in public spaces quickly – and information design is a vital piece of the puzzle.

Bustling shared public spaces are part of what makes city living so vibrant. They’re also vital to our health and wellness given our inbuilt desire for human connection. But the coronavirus has triggered a newfound fear of crowds and the public spaces that attract them.

Cities must move quickly to rebuild trust in public spaces. The design of high streets, stadiums, parks, public squares and plazas, cycleways and walkways may need to be reconsidered. And when this happens, wayfinding and information design will come into play.

Moving beyond the coronavirus recovery phase to rethink public spaces

It’s remarkable to see how quickly councils, governments and citizens have responded to the coronavirus lockdown with signage, markers, laneways and other temporary solutions to de-densify public spaces.

One of the biggest challenges facing urban planners is people’s reluctance to return to crowded public transport systems, which means cities are under pressure to provide more cycleways and walkways.

The City of Sydney and Transport for NSW have fast-tracked the installation of three new cycleways. New Zealand is funding wider walkways and pop-up cycleways, making ‘tactical urbanism‘ part of official government policy. In London, the ‘Streetspace’ initiative is creating car-free zones, new cycle lanes and wider pavements – a sign of things to come as “cities are repurposed for people” (not cars). London mayor Sadiq Khan predicts cycling could increase 10-fold and walking five-fold post-lockdown.

Another issue facing public spaces is their benches, handrails, buttons, gates and water fountains. We never gave them a second thought a few months ago. Now, touching them is a contagion risk, which is why Transport for NSW was quick to install automatic pedestrian signal crossings and signs that read ‘Do not push this button’.

We’ve seen lots of tactical innovations over the past few months, from temporary wayfinding to robot dogs patrolling parks in Singapore. But what does the future hold?

Making public spaces safer through wayfinding after COVID

Wayfinding will play an important role in reconfiguring city streetscapes and directing people to new routes. As streets are converted into cycleways and car-free zones, these changes will also need to be clearly branded and communicated.

Cities of the future will work more like an ‘accordion’ with areas that can expand and contract as needed. There will be implications for wayfinding designers, too, because resilient cities will need more agile wayfinding systems. As ARUP’s Bruce Chong says, “In a crisis, knowledge is everything”. Resilient cities will use ‘big data’ to understand population flow. Google already uses anonymized data to show crowd volumes. In future, digital wayfinding platforms may have a role to play in collecting real-time data about how people move within cities.

We need to act quickly to retrofit public spaces and rebuild trust, while acknowledging that some public spaces have improved since the lockdown began. How much nicer is Centennial Park now that it’s car-free? Should neighbours have the right to close their streets to cars to create more outdoor space for residents? Why is so much public space devoted to cars and car parks, anyway?

We’re about to embark on a fundamental reimagining of public spaces and how people move and interact within them. We have a window of time to make things better – and we’re excited to be part of that future.

If you’d like to discuss ways to improve the safety of public spaces through wayfinding and information design, we’d love to help. Drop us a note at [email protected]