Why we all win when visitors can find their way around

Ottawa Tourism leads the charge on new wayfinding initiative
A wayfinding sign in Boston

For visitors new to the area, navigating Ottawa-Gatineau can be a bit like stumbling through one of those autumn cornfield mazes.

It’s hardly intuitive, for example, to know that in five minutes you can walk from the National Gallery of Canada to another province for a better shot of Parliament Hill. Or that the Rideau Canal and the Rideau River are in fact two different things north of Hogs Back Park.

What Canada’s capital region needs is a better “wayfinding strategy.”

What’s wayfinding? An information signage system that guides people through a city, campus, or buildings that enhances our ability to navigate and understand our environment.

In this digital age, “signage” can include anything from conventional street signage and information kiosks, to mobile apps that further enrich user experience, allow for more engagement and enable vital data collection.A wayfinding sign in Boston

For the team at Ottawa Tourism, all the options are on the table as it works with its partners to create a single, cohesive wayfinding system that will make the region more user friendly for visitors on foot.

Canada’s capital region has no shortage of directional signage, but once out of the National Capital Commission jurisdiction, visitors have to hope there will be another wayfinding sign, somewhere. And even if there is one, they will have to re-orient themselves to a new signage system.

Between the City of Ottawa, Ville de Gatineau, local business improvement areas, the National Capital Commission, the federal government, Parks Canada and other stakeholders, Ottawa and Gatineau are awash with a hodge-podge of signage that can be confusing for visitors.

Stakeholders on both sides of the river have teamed up to find consensus around one unified approach for wayfinding.

“What we need to do is look at this in terms of how people orient themselves when they are in a new place,” said Catherine Callary, Ottawa Tourism’s Senior Director of Destination Development. “With 13 partners working together on this issue, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of a visitor who doesn’t know the city to develop a feasible and consistent system that will work for everyone.”

Toronto and Vancouver already have such a system in place. In fact, Ottawa and Gatineau are lagging many other Canadian cities, due to their multijurisdictional complexities.

Why does this matter to local business owners?

“Improving wayfinding improves the walkability of the city,” Callary said. “It creates a stronger civic space and a sense of place that encourages people to leave their cars and walk.”

And that, she adds, can rub off on residents, meaning more pedestrian traffic for local businesses. This has proven to be the case, for example, in London, England, with its Legible London wayfinding system. The benefits extend beyond curbside shops, services and restaurants. A city that is perceived as more walkable becomes more appealing as a place to live and work.

“Technology companies looking to attract and retain top talent can see benefits from improved wayfinding,” Callary said. “With initiatives like this one that are about place-making and civic spaces, the city as a whole becomes more appealing to young professionals to put down roots and build their careers here.”

Toronto wayfinding signSo, what's next?

Pedestrians polled through online and intercept surveys agreed that a unified wayfinding system would improve their experience and help guide them to particular destinations. The concept is also finding support among community stakeholders like attractions, retail, neighbourhoods, the new LRT and transit system, and other hotel and business partners.

Developing and implementing a new wayfinding system for our region is being tackled in three phases. The first phase, a feasibility study and wayfinding strategy undertaken with the guidance of a wayfinding committee and public consultation, has been completed.

This is being taken back to Ottawa Tourism’s partner organizations to garner more support and to lay the ground work for partnerships before proceeding to Phase 2 – the design and implementation of a pilot project that is expected to roll out early next year. Phase 3, full implementation, is expected to unfold over several years.

For more information on Ottawa Tourism’s Wayfinding Strategy, please visit ottawatourism.ca/wayfinding-strategy.