Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Vitality-Generator Many Places Short Change

It occurred to me while reflecting on some of the research I’ve been privy to over the past decade or more that there is something very inexpensive that even acclaimed communities, such as Durham NC, where I live, can do to enhance quality of life and vitality while, at the same time boosting commerce and economic development.

This ingredient costs a tiny of what mega-facilities or events cost but it can also better ensure the success of those facilities each of which cost communities tens and hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate.

It occurred to me during my just-completed 6,000-mile-plus cross-country venture with my bulldog Mugsy (our fourth in 30 months using a variety of routes) because the biggest deterrent to visitors, including nearly everyone considering relocation or business expansion as well as to and existing residents is lack of context.

Navigation systems or apps help, as do Interstate exit-logo signs, as do officially-curated websites and visitor literature such as guides and maps, but these tools need one more relatively inexpensive element in order to sufficiently lower the single biggest hurdle to increased commerce and exploration from residents and visitors alike.Wayfinding Tools - Santa Cruz

The “ease of getting around” always scores as either the first or second highest need, (in the high 70s or low 80s as a percentage of visitors and residents) and yet even savvy communities, such as Durham, with a downtown wayfinding signage system rarely rate higher than the mid 40s on surveys as delivering on “ease of getting around.”

When based on these research findings, a coherent, comprehensive, community-wide wayfinding system of roadway and pedestrian signs was proposed for Durham in the late 1990s by its community-destination marketing organization, the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau (DCVB), it seemed like only a minor annoyance when downtown advocates, seizing an opportunity to include it in a comprehensive street project there, leap-frogged the community-wide process to secure a system exclusive to only their neighborhood.

Of course, downtown was just following a path often taken by many other entities that, given the lack of or interest in a strategic approach, have instead adopted fragmented approaches to wayfinding, e.g. Durham Parks and Recreation and the central Durham Gateway Plan.

But to me, it quickly became apparent that downtown’s impatience and single-minded focus could potentially pay off by serving as a case study for a broader system for anyone unfamiliar with wayfinding or its benefits.  Unfortunately, it may have instead lulled those predisposed to “list-checking” into thinking “one and done” was sufficient.

Now it is clear to a great many people that an isolated approach wasn’t even in downtown’s best interest.  While the system limited to just that neighborhood was very well executed, it is clear now that downtown Durham would have benefited far more from a coherent, community-wide system that would have made the ease of getting both to and from downtown much easier for visitors, residents and non-residents working here from anywhere throughout the community.

In fact the only glaring weakness in this city’s downtown system (which is a good template for a future community-wide system) is that it focuses only on getting “to” and not getting “from.”  Just ask the majority of attendees at events held in the spectacular Durham Performing Arts Center or any of the cultural facilities in Durham, 60%-70% of which are visitors, especially day trippers who just as importantly need wayfinding back to the corridors that take them home.

Ask day-trip visitors in a 50-mile radius who are either visitors or among the non-residents who hold 3 out of every 5 Durham jobs and overwhelmingly they rate the ease of getting around in Durham even lower than other communities.

The process for establishing a community-wide wayfinding system has long been outlined.  Thanks to the downtown system, much of the creative work has been done.  Durham has already distilled an overarching brand signature that is adaptable to zones, districts and neighborhoods.

And thanks to counties such as Brazos, Texas; Buncombe, North Carolina; and especially Santa Cruz, California, even the cost estimates are readily available for a county this size.

Additionally, Santa Cruz provides a glimpse into what a truly strategic approach would be including the excellent graphic shown in this blog as adapted and improved from others by consultants.

As Durham’s official marketing agency, DCVB has already created many of the other pre- and post-arrival elements of an integrated wayfinding system such as a visitor center, curated guides and maps, a hand-held-friendly location-driven website which can easily added to home screens as an app and populated online maps, updated navigation databases and implemented awareness training for front desk staffs and the 1000-strong Durham Wayfinders etc.

DCVB has also mapped a process and offered to help the City and County facilitate a task force of strategic partners including the InterNeighborhood Council of Durham and the Durham Public Information & Communications Council to map out a coherent community-wide wayfinding signage system.

Even the cost of a community-wide wayfinding signage system could be covered for Durham by apportioning a fraction of the
millions of dollars in visitor-paid lodging tax revenues that flow into the City and County general funds each year until such time as the system is incrementally completed, say over half a decade.

Or the project could be self-funded by the increased commerce and related tax collections the system will facilitate from visitors and residents and non-residents who work here who will find it easier to get to and from both commercial and non-profit facilities and events without any prior knowledge of the route.  Several before and after studies show a 15%-20% increase in attendance following implementation of a comprehensive, coherent approach to wayfinding signs.

And another significant dividend from a coherent, community-wide wayfinding signage system is the improved community appearance created by reducing sign clutter through the elimination of thousands of duplicative or obsolete roadside signs, including many in disrepair.

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