Open Space Signage in a Pandemic and Beyond: From Parks to Parklets to Public Pride

News & Insights

By Cheri Devlin, Assoc. AIA

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Cities, neighborhoods and communities of all sizes rely on systems of wayfinding and navigation to help residents and visitors understand where they’re going, how to get there, what to do and its qualities that help to make it special and unique. The sense of place and connection that these visual clues create throughout the public realm is equally important. With ease of knowing where one is going comes a sense of comfort, familiarity and belonging.

In recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused people to use public spaces in new and different ways. To maximize access to fresh air and space for social distancing, many activities have moved outdoors, and the public realm is now accommodating more of the private realm. As many of these changes will remain in place through the foreseeable future, signage, wayfinding and placemaking features need to evolve to accommodate the new ways that people are both using and navigating through our cities and neighborhoods.


Expanding the Use of Outdoor Public Spaces

Throughout the spring and summer, communities of all sizes have needed to convert their sidewalks, parking areas, streets, and public parks into places for dining, fitness, recreation and relaxation. Initiatives that allow and promote these types of activities throughout the public realm have been swiftly enacted in many cities and neighborhoods, especially those with pedestrian-friendly districts. And as autumn approaches, some schools are reopening with outdoor classrooms, adapting both campuses and curricula to foster outdoor learning. New York City’s mayor recently declared streets and parks as appropriate venues for outdoor learning, and during a recent Los Angeles AIA “Designing for the Future” webinar, panelists and participants shared designs and ideas for covered, open-air classroom facilities that take advantage of the region’s year-round warm weather.


As people reap the health and well-being benefits of being outdoors, neighborhoods and their sense of community can be strengthened by more lively and energized outdoor spaces. Hopefully, many of these practices will continue for the long term. To encourage its residents and visitors to be outdoors, Seattle’s Stay Healthy Streets initiative will be permanently closing 23 miles of streets, folding them into the city’s already extensive park system, and restricting their use to bikes and pedestrians. LA’s Al Fresco outdoor dining program – currently confirmed through the end of 2020 – is being considered to continue permanently.

Signage and Wayfinding Systems to Evolve With Our New Routines

To enhance usability of these new types of outdoor spaces, signage and wayfinding systems can help to improve and cultivate their identity and spirit. Done correctly, improved connectivity, accessibility and overall experience can result, fostering a community’s brand, and bringing an authentic sense of place and welcoming environment for all.

In Altitude’s own neighborhood of Santa Monica, the Wilmont Walk Loop illustrates the way signage can achieve all of this and reinforce a city’s brand as a people-centered, healthy and active community. As enhanced mobility and reduced traffic congestion are among the City of Santa Monica’s five strategic goals, the GoSaMo initiative was implemented “to educate, equip, and excite people about making the most of the new mobility opportunities the city has to offer.” The city collaborated with health advocacy organization Adopt-A-Walk to create the Wilmont Walk Loop as one component of this initiative with the goal of motivating local residents, especially seniors, to stay mobile and active. The one-mile neighborhood walking trail combines clear signage and wayfinding tools – maps, mile markers and directional arrows – with inspirational quotes that tie into the community’s culture of sunshine and surf.


Designing Connections into Our Communities

As designers, we have an obligation to help our clients–our communities–establish and achieve similar goals. The combination of the Wilmont Walk Loop’s beach-centric colors, clean design and fun/inspiring content with simple, economical and permanent materials has brought a sense of pride and connection to the surrounding neighborhood. This is at the core of the human experience, so designers need to be inspired to help people feel this connection to places, to a shared purpose, and to others around them.

Public-private partnerships are a great place to start. The government entities responsible for parks and other public spaces can engage business owners to find out what solutions help and streamline rather than hinder business operations. This is especially critical during exceptional situations like our current pandemic where flexibility and agility are key to adaptability. Over the last few months, design firms have been working closely with cities, local businesses and stakeholders to create places where businesses can move their operations outdoors and attract both existing and new customers.


The engagement of local residents and artists through community groups and public outreach programs can bring a sense of pride and ownership to these new types of places. The necessary but not always attractive infrastructure involved such as concrete K-rail barriers should offer a blank canvas for local artists, showcasing the community’s identity and culture while at the same time highlighting and reinforcing a business’s brand and offerings. Asking what stories the locals want to tell, or what places they want to show off–and how–goes a long way toward making community members feel valued, and increases engagement and stewardship in the finished product, as well.

Building in Flexibility for the Future

If we’ve learned anything this year, it is an appreciation for flexibility and an openness in reacting to new, often unforeseen circumstances. Similarly, our signage and wayfinding systems must also be adaptable, durable, and easy to maintain over time. A flexible “kit-of-parts” consisting of varying scaled elements related through their design features has always been a key component in any signage system. Now, more than ever, this approach can be successful with the following seven considerations:


Prioritizing People

As difficult as it may seem in these unprecedented times, it’s important to remain positive, focus on what we have now and what will have again. Encouraging people to use, enjoy and relax in their public spaces rather than emphasizing public space restrictions and rules can lead to increased stewardship and pride in people’s neighborhoods and parks. We also must be inclusive, and work with our clients and civic leaders to bring these design principles into both well-traveled and under-served communities. Together, we can have a long-lasting positive influence on people’s experience of the public realm.


Cheri Devlin is a Senior Project Director with Altitude Design Office based out of Santa Monica, CA. With nearly 30 years of experience, Cheri has led complex signage and graphics programs for public and private places, including District NoHo, City of Hope, the City of Santa Monica, the City of West Hollywood and Union Station.