Pointers to the future

In 1967 Milton Keynes was formally born as a ’new town’. The child of a 1960s urban design template, its grid-like structure – a radical departure for a UK city – was focused around a very particular aspect of modern life: the motor car. As Tim Fendley, chief executive of Applied Information Group, puts it, the city was ’built on the 1950s American idea that you should be able to get your car as close as possible to the door of wherever you are going’. How times change.

Near Abu Dhabi, another planned city is starting to take shape. Developed by renewable energy conglomerate Masdar, the 6km2 Masdar City has ambitions to be one of the most sustainable cities in the world and an epicentre for energy innovation and clean technology.

A project of this scale has many aspects, but one area that will influence the way the city takes shape is its wayfinding scheme. Unlike when Milton Keynes was planned, today’s urban planning is framed by climate change, renewed ideas of localism and carbon-neutral living. For citizens this means, among other things, more walking and cycling and less driving.

Bristol-based wayfinding consultancy City ID is working with London and Dubai branding consultancy Endpoint on wayfinding aspects of the Masdar City project. These groups are, in turn, working with Foster & Partners on Masdar City’s evolving masterplan. ’Unlike most other projects, Masdar is being created on a blank piece of paper, which means we can really shape the city from a wayfinding and user experience,’ says Mike Rawlinson, director of City ID.

Wayfinding is concerned with how people ’read’ a city, with how they interpret its scale and layout, the character and composition of its different regions and the accessibility of its amenities. Rawlinson describes wayfinding as the psychological or metaphysical aspects of a place. Fendley says that just as architectural planning is concerned with the spaces between buildings, wayfinding is concerned with the space between the ears.

This thinking – and perhaps the term ’wayfinding’ itself – has its origins in the work of American urban planner Kevin Lynch, who published the influential book The Image of the City in 1960. Lynch’s message is that if people understand a place well, they will feel comfortable moving around it and will make the best use of it. ’Wayfinding design expertise is extremely valuable at the masterplanning stage,’ says Fendley. ’An awareness of the psychological aspects of architecture is growing. People are already thinking about it more in relation to building interiors, and it will start to play a bigger role in city planning.’

It is widely agreed that sustainable futures will come through shifts in outlook and behaviour as much as developments in technology. Masdar hopes to represent both: ’As a company, Masdar is a laboratory looking at what’s possible in terms of sustainable and clean technology; the city is to be the physical, living embodiment of that,’ says Rawlinson.

So what might wayfinding design’s role be in achieving this? Wayfinding is not just about signs, but about considering the whole infrastructure and layout, including transport systems, the climate, areas of shade and light, lines of sight and vistas. AIG’s Legible London scheme promotes awareness of walking routes, and, in particular, the idea of a five-minute walk radius, a ’scale and principle that is valuable for community neighbourhoods’, says Fendley.

Rawlinson also believes that walking will be crucial to the ambitions for Masdar: ’I think the whole environmental credibility of the project hangs on the development of a walking culture. We’re talking about promoting and encouraging new types of lifestyles,’ he says.

If Masdar City is successful in a region that has some of the highest CO2 emissions in the world, it could become an exportable commodity – a blueprint for future cities based on low-energy dwelling and the life à pied.

This article was written for Design Week, 27 January 2011.

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