An unfortunate part of living in the suburbs and only ever traveling to major points of interests in the region by auto is that you never actually learn how to navigate the region, or the areas surrounding those points of interests. What you do you learn is the location’s position to the nearest highway. The result is that you don’t know where anything is, just how to get there from one origin.

The same holds true for large cities, like Chicago, when it comes to traveling to new places – you learn how to travel to your destination, but you don’t know your destination. You won’t know what’s in between here and there, and you won’t see the changes and history that brought social groups from here to there, spatially and chronologically. 

A method to encourage visitors – this doesn’t mean tourists – to know their destination, and spread out “their feelers” to get a real understanding of a neighborhood’s substance is by pointing out significant spaces and places. This technique is popularly known as wayfinding. It can be quite simple, like adding signs that show the direction and distance to a well-defined community or major park, or it can be complex by involving residents and asking what are the important points of interest that they would like to promote.

Wayfinding signage is only one way to correct the original statement in this article: that the motor vehicle hides local values and decreases our knowledge of the space in between and around our origin and destination. We travel too fast, and we take bypassing highways. 

There are other approaches cities can take to help people slow down and experience more interesting places.

  1. Make it accessible. This doesn’t mean complying with Americans with Disabilities Act. It means increasing the options on how people can get there, or informing them of their options. This could mean identifying nearby roads suitable for bicycling, or promoting existing transit service nearby, but also making sure that locals and visitors don’t compete for auto parking space.
  2. Market the place. Use traditional marketing and advertising to tell people why they should spend a little more time exploring and getting to know the place. Perhaps your community has a bistro bustling during lunch, and a few blocks away is a farmer’s market where business has plateaued because only the locals are buying. Some low-cost graphics and a good relationship with the restaurant now has 5% of its customers venturing out to the market. 

I wrote a paper on the residential and economic dynamics between two adjacent neighborhoods in Chicago’s Lower West Side, University Village and Pilsen. University Village is a neighborhood created from scratch – designed to be “perfect” you could say. It houses a few thousand university students who come and go on different daily and weekly schedules, as well as permanent homeowners population. Sprinkle in some restaurants, local and national retail firms, and essential services like dry cleaning and hair salons along two major and intersecting bus routes and you have a “perfect” neighborhood.

University Village, because of its newness and designed quality, lacks character, history, and can seem a bit sterile. That’s where Pilsen can support the new neighborhood; Pilsen is over 100 years old, has seen major demographic, spatial, and physical changes, and heavily influenced by its majority Mexican population that it more than makes up for what University Village lacks. The problem is that neither neighborhood knows about the other aside from a bus, bike, or car ride through. There’s also a railroad viaduct separating the two. These barriers can be overcome, and each neighborhood can require the services of the other. Students usually need cheap food – you can get that in Pilsen. And long-time residents want new retail choices – University Village can provide that.

Read the entire paper, titled Economic and residential dynamics between University Village and Pilsen.