Find Your Way

By Randy Gaddo

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign,
Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind.
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?
—From the 1971 song, “Signs” by 5 Man Electrical Band

These lyrics from the Canadian rock band were intended as a type of protest song against “the man,” who was preventing a long-haired hippie from getting ahead in life. Today, at least for parks and rec professionals responsible for ensuring that patrons can find their facilities, or can find their way around once they arrive, signs are a good thing.

Properly placed and well-maintained signage can mean the difference between a successful facility that receives good public reviews, or one that rarely gets used and/or generates complaints and frustration; signage can even impact safety. Simply put, good signage helps people find their way safely.

Developing A Plan
“Wayfinding is a series of design elements that work in concert to help people find their way,” found on the town of Cary, N.C.’s website (www.townofcary.org). As the new millennium dawned, Cary leaders began an aggressive program of building greenways throughout the town. According to Doug McRainey, Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources (PRCR) Director, the greenways were designed as a true system that extended for miles, crossing over numerous thoroughfares.

“We needed very visible signage for passing motorists, but also as a visual marketing tool to let citizens know location and extensiveness of the greenway system,” says McRainey, of North Carolina’s seventh largest city, with a population of about 151,000.

It had been years since the town had updated its wooden signs, which were deteriorating and putting a burden on the public-works staff to maintain. “One of the main reasons the project was undertaken was to replace the old wooden signs with metal signs that would be more durable and require less maintenance,” says McRainey.

“There was interest in developing signs that would be more durable; plus, signage for the new greenways didn’t match what already existed at other facilities or parks,” he explains. “It was obvious by 2007 that we needed a unified plan that addressed all of our sign needs.”

To its credit, the city recognized this need. Many places continue year after year with a patchwork of signs but no common look or theme. Even worse, many signs become faded, deteriorated, mildewed, or vandalized, and go untended and unfixed, giving an overall impression of neglect.

To avoid this, the town developed a formal sign plan in 2007 with assistance from a consultant. The first phase would develop park, greenway, and facility signs; then, in the second phase, wayfinding signs were to be placed along the roads.

In addition to spreading out funding for the project—entirely through the general fund--there was more time to work through requirements of the NCDOT (North Carolina Department of Transportation).  “At the time we were developing the sign plan, NCDOT had begun to change its standards and allow more color and variety, which took time to get reviewed and approved,” says McRainey.

The plan didn’t happen overnight, and didn’t come to fruition without the hard work of many people in several city departments.

“Implementing the sign project was much more time-consuming than any of us had ever imagined,” McRainey declares. “Identifying signage needs, details of individual signs, locating underground utilities all takes time. For the larger vehicular wayfinding signs, the main issues were identifying locations within the public right-of-way, where these signs can fit between other existing signs, among underground utilities, overhead lines, vegetation, driveways, etc., and getting NCDOT approval.”

Once a written plan was drafted, it had to run the gauntlet of the approval process. McRainey says the initial designs were reviewed by town staff, the PRCR Advisory Board, and associated committees. The final draft was considered by the Greenway Committee and PRCR Advisory Board, and finally approved by the town council.

Then the plan was bid competitively and awarded to a sign company from Charlotte, N.C. Today, McRainey says, “It is still in the process of being implemented over time as resources permit.”

To date, about $600,000 has been allocated for replacing all of the entrance signs at existing facilities. Internal signs at the facilities are still being implemented. The plan will also be applied to any new facilities.

Thus far, the plan is working. “Given the number of signs currently installed, we’ve been very pleased with the relatively low amounts of vandalism, and the signs have been durable against general wear and tear,” McRainey states. The sign contractor is responsible for repair or replacement of signs as needed, taking that burden off the maintenance staff.

Measuring Success
Amy Mackintosh, PLA, is the Landscape Architect for Cary, under the Transportation & Facilities Department. While not present when the plan was initially developed, she now has a part to play in its implementation. Part of her task is to listen to responses from taxpayers, who funded the project.

“For the most part, they’ve been well received by the community, and we’ve been contacted by other municipalities requesting information about our sign package because they’d like to do something similar,” Macintosh says.  Imitation being the highest form of flattery, she says the department has also noticed that some municipalities in the region have installed similar sign systems.

As most public administrators have learned, it’s almost impossible to please everybody, and Mackintosh does acknowledge that a few people have been opposed because they don’t like the signs’ appearance and/or do not think the expense is justified. However, she notes that the vast majority of responses have been positive.

Quantitatively measuring the effectiveness of a sign plan is difficult and often relies on anecdotal evidence, responses on surveys, or other methods.

McRainey says that while the department doesn’t have a formal process to measure citizen response, by all accounts the signs have been well received. “In particular, citizens really like the 8-foot-tall vertical signs that mark the entrance to our greenways,” he says. “They are very visible and aesthetically pleasing.”

A Few Pointers
McRainey has a few key suggestions for anybody considering new signs.

First, it is essential to have a plan, but few communities have the time or staff to develop such a plan in-house, so expect to hire a consultant.

Next, remember that attractive, effective (and well-maintained) signs are expensive; do your homework and develop a realistic budget so municipal managers as well as elected officials are fully informed of the costs, both for purchase and installation, as well as for maintenance, repairs, or replacement.

Last, and perhaps most important, is to educate the public on the purpose, benefit, and cost of signs so they will support public expenditures for purchase and long-term maintenance.

Involving Multiple Agencies
Louisville, Ky., leaders had all of that in mind when they determined that a sign plan was needed for a key signature piece for their community—the Louisville Loop.

The Loop is a partially completed, shared-use path for pedestrians and bikers that traverses the city’s perimeter through five physiographic regions and myriad neighborhoods, cultural and historic landmarks, and ecological habitats.

“The Louisville Loop encourages wellness and connects people to their work, businesses, historical landmarks, and neighborhoods,” said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer last October when he dedicated the newest, 2.6-mile stretch of the path. “We’re excited to open this new segment and move closer to our goal of completing the 100-mile ‘wedding ring’ around the city.”

The path was conceived as far back as the 1960s (known then as the “emerald ring,” say some city sources) and was into development by the early 1980s; eventually, a municipal project called “City of Parks” was developed to create the continuous, looped path connecting to different parks and attractions. The first section is known as Riverwalk, and others followed. With the newest section dedicated last October, nearly 40 percent of the planned loop is complete, according to the city’s website (www.louisvilleky.gov).

Parts of the path run on existing or abandoned roads, sidewalks, and other path systems, while others are being created from scratch. It is a grand design that continues now and into the future through the work of several government and private agencies.

Louisville completed a Wayfinding Master Plan in 2012 for the Louisville Loop to improve access, safety, function, education, and the overall experience for the 23 miles of existing sections of the downtown and southwestern Loop. A $815,000 federal grant for the master plan and its implementation was awarded through the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The plan was wisely linked to the anti-obesity campaign and the health benefits derived by having the loop available. It was part of a larger $7.9-million Louisville Putting Prevention to Work grant through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and managed by the CDC. This type of fusion with other initiatives is often how a plan can be funded when general funds can’t fully support it.

The wayfinding and signage plan focuses on orientation and ease of use that identifies and highlights entrances to the Loop from neighborhoods, city facilities, shopping centers, and other areas. The plan also highlights and promotes connections among local communities and neighborhoods along the Loop, as well as community facilities or services.

Coordinating Efforts
Like any project of this type, the vision is what excites people and drives the funding, when long-term maintenance is often not at the forefront. To complicate this, the loop crosses many jurisdictions, which calls for excellent coordination and communication to ensure good maintenance.

Bennett Knox, Head of the Jefferson Memorial Forest and Natural Areas Division of the Louisville Metro Parks, has seen the project develop and was involved when the 2012 signage and wayfinding plan was published.

“The loop is planned and envisioned to eventually encircle the entire city, so different segments will be maintained by different groups,” he says, adding that currently there are basically three main groups involved, each responsible for a different segment of the loop.

One is an independent non-profit that has incorporated several metro-owned properties into one system, and is responsible for a 19-mile stretch under development; the agency has its own standards for signage that do conform to the loop plan, including use of the distinctive Loop logo. 

The two-mile, high-profile waterfront segment of the loop is operated by the Waterfront Development Corporation, which also has separate signage standards that also conform to the loop plan.

Metro Parks is responsible for loop signage from downtown Louisville to west Louisville, along the Ohio River and into the southwest part of the city, generally taking care of any off-road areas of the loop. The agency also has a sweeper truck that sweeps the entire loop, across all jurisdictions. The Louisville Public Works department maintains signage along off-road bike lanes. Stretches of the loop that cross over river levees are maintained by the Metropolitan Sewer District. Each agency pays for repairs, replacement, and other maintenance of signage in its area.

It’s easy to see that, with all of the agencies involved, coordinating signage maintenance could become an issue, and close coordination is needed to avoid confusion.

“We have a Maintenance and Conservation agreement between these three agencies, and hold a quarterly meeting to coordinate activities,” Knox explains. “There are also other associated agencies, such as public safety and “friends” organizations, that we invite to the meetings. Any agency or entity that has an impact on the loop is invited.”

Knox notes that, while it is difficult to quantitatively measure customer satisfaction on signage along the loop, there is a Metro Call System where residents can call in complaints. He points out that, since quarterly coordination meetings have started, the number of complaints has been reduced significantly, which is a good indicator.

“When we get a new installation, we go through sort of a shock period where people suddenly notice the signs, and we experience increased graffiti and tagging,” he says. “Our response is to get it fixed as quickly as possible, and when we do that, over time, the signs become more familiar, part of the background, and the tagging decreases.”

Knox notes that a dedicated staff that keeps an eye on things makes all the difference.

Like any other infrastructure element in a community, future maintenance of signage must be a part of the plan before the first post is put in the ground. Hope is not a plan; a real plan will ensure adequate future signage and wayfinding maintenance.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He earned his Master’s degree in Public Administration and is now a full-time photojournalist living in Bay Minette, Ala. Reach him at (678) 350-8642 or cwo4usmc@comcast.net.