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Utrecht, the first ‘legible’ Dutch city?

‘Desperately lost’
Utrecht is working hard on one of the largest urban projects in the Netherlands: the area around the new train station. Between 2009 and 2020 the the area will see the addition of music theatre Tivoli/Vredenburg, the excavation of the Catharijnesingel, refurbishment of the Hoog Catharijne shopping centre, a new Public Transport Terminal, both station squares repaved, a new pedestrian bridge over the train tracks, and on the forecourt of the Jaarbeurs Trade Fair: a new hotel, casino and multiplex cinema.

And it is not just the number of projects that commands respect, but the projects themselves: this is the biggest and busiest train station in the Netherlands, the most visited shopping centre, and the largest bicycle parking facility in the world.

The main disadvantage of these visionary projects is that pedestrian flows to and from the city centre have been hopelessly chaotic for years. And along these temporary routes, a potpourri of temporary signage is scattered: from Hoog Catharijne, from the NS, and from four other systems that supposedly originate from the municipality or other public authorities. It could be called a small miracle that there are still people who know how to reach their destinations on time in the centre of Utrecht.

‘The new Amsterdam: Utrecht’
Utrecht receives 4 million visitors annually, a number that will only increase. Internationally, Utrecht is increasingly recommended as a travel destination by highly regarded media outlets: Lonely Planet, CNN, The Guardian, de Süddeutsche Zeitung en de BBC. The central station area cannot be avoided by these 4 million visitors. First of all, because this area is the starting point for both visitors who come to Utrecht by public transport and for visitors arriving by car who park in one of Hoog Catharijne’s parking garages. Secondly, because the station area and the historical centre will soon be seamlessly interconnected by the canal that has been restored to its former glory, and the new layout of the Hoog Catharijne shopping centre, which will be more closely linked to its surroundings.

There will be no shortage of popular destinations in Utrecht; within the historical centre and station area combined there will be: five cinemas, six theatres, seven concert halls, eight museums, and an overabundance of shops and restaurants.

The only question is: How will 4 million visitors know where they are, where to go, what they can do and how to get back home? Because as connected as these areas and destinations are at an urban scale, they are equally fragmented at the level of urban information. At present, all parties have their own wayfinding signage. A visitor to the Jaarbeurs Trade Fair who wants to get a bite to eat in the city centre will receive information and referrals from the Jaarbeurs, the NS, Hoog Catharijne and the city of Utrecht – and all this during a ten-minute walk. How can you ensure that such a trip doesn’t become a complicated chore?

Too much, too different
Utrecht now has pedestrian signage all over the downtown area. These are the same signs that you find in other Dutch cities. And to give a bit of local colour, Dick Bruna mini-Cathedral towers sit on top of the poles, so you do not forget that you are in Utrecht.

Signs in Utrecht suffer from the same ills as signs in other cities. For example, there are many references fixed to a single, cluttered pole. Destinations are not always referred to consistently. Changes are made late and not always implemented correctly, because each pole has its own set of signs. This is why the city signage still merrily refers to the Tivoli on the Oudegracht, one-and-a-half years after the Tivoli opened on the Vredenburg.

In addition to these signs, large city maps have been placed all around Utrecht. Actually, not ‘in addition to’, because the placement of these two complimentary elements does not appear to have been coordinated at all. It is not unusual to find the city map on one side of the street, and the reference signpost on the other.

It is therefore not surprising that in the central Stadhuiskwartier you find an additional layer of information applied in the form of small, movable maps. Apparently, there is a need for improved findability for destinations at the district level.

The first legible city in the Netherlands
Utrecht’s massive urban renewal is a good opportunity to see if the provision of information can also be improved for pedestrians. Both the station area and the historical centre deserve something better than a mini-cathedral on a standard pole. And we don’t have to look very far to find that: England, a country that has traditionally valued the public domain, was the first to develop the concept of a ‘legible city’. The purpose of this wayfinding concept is to let visitors to a city more frequently opt for pedestrian traffic by offering reliable indications and thereby removing uncertainties about walking distances. The system provides answers to the three key questions that visiting pedestrians most often pose:

• Where am I?
• Where is my destination?
• What else can I do here?

The answers to these questions are given by consistent representation of the current location, references to the nearest facilities, and a clear map of the surrounding area with integrated walking distances.

This method has proven so successful that it has been adopted by cities worldwide. After the introduction of Bristol Legible City, many others followed, including Southampton Legible City, Legible London and Walk NYC.

Of course, new reference and wayfinding methods cost money. But Utrecht has shown that it is willing to invest in quality of life and sustainable access to the city. For example, bicycles can be stored for free for 24 hours in one of the many guarded bicycle parking areas in the city, where you can also borrow a baby buggy free of charge. Investment in the city’s accessibility, after all, also encourages more visitors, happier visitors and visitors who more frequently choose to walk to their destinations rather than travel by bicycle, car or bus. And the more time visitors spend walking in the city, the more they will spend.

Will Utrecht pave the way?
Foresight is required to introduce a new concept. Legible London would never have gotten off the ground without mayor Ken Livingstone, who declared that he wanted to make London walkable by 2015 – a statement he made in 2004!

For a comprehensive system, it takes time to get all parties and representatives at the table: the City of Utrecht, the NS, Hoog Catharijne, Jaarbeurs, retailers, U-OV, museums and so on. Only by working together can a system arise that all stakeholders can identify with, and – moreover – that can be used by all visitors: Dutch, foreigners, young, old, walkers and wheelchair users, etcetera.

During this chaotic period for the centre of Utrecht, it’s critical that officials avoid installing wayfinding signage that cannot later be coupled onto a citywide system.

In an ideal situation, all reference signs in the central and station area, on public roads and on private, would be identical in content and execution. But if this is not feasible, then the various referral systems should at least be uniform in terms of placement, content and terminology. Otherwise, Utrecht’s urban wayfinding will remain a web of information streams working against each other instead of reinforcing each other.

In 1965, Utrecht was the first Dutch city to ban cars from the historical centre – a measure that has ultimately improved the livability of many Dutch city centres.

It is now high time for Utrecht to again take a leadership role. This time, by being the first Dutch city to bring pedestrian wayfinding signage into the twenty-first century.

The requirement is there; the examples are there; the only thing that must follow is action.

This article first appeared in our newsletter Flows nr. 7, 2016

Photo Copyright: City map and additional signage at the foot of the Dom cathedral (image: Fred Inklaar)