Sustainable City, an interdisciplinary group of Cornell students, completed a new signage system for the Seneca Street Parking Garage in Ithaca Commons at the end of this summer. As one of 12 project teams under the larger Cornell University Sustainable Design umbrella, the students collaborated with the City of Ithaca to implement a clearer and more engaging signage system in the garage.
“We focus on projects that bring a renewed sense of identity and community to overlooked parts of Ithaca,” said Emily Kerstetter ’24, one of the project co-leads. “We usually get reached out to with projects from people in the city in addition to taking interest in parts of the city that we come across in our work.”
In 2018, Sirietta Simoncini, a systems engineering lecturer and the faculty sponsor for Sustainable City, was contacted by the City of Ithaca to tackle the problem of the parking garage after the city saw her students’ successful work with creating new TCAT bus stop signs.
“The city saw these bus stops all over Tompkins County and contacted me saying, ‘We’ve seen this successful signage project which your students designed and we need help with the signage interface for the garages in Ithaca, in particular the Seneca garage. We don’t know what exactly the problem is, but people are not happy, and there’s a lot of confusion,’” Simoncini said.
This semester, rather than designing, Sustainable City did empathy fieldwork. According to Simoncini, this process involves the collection of data through three main techniques — immersion, observation and interviewing. For immersion, students interacted with the current system as potential users to examine problems. Observation required that students stay in the garage and observe user behaviors. And in interviewing, students asked visitors about their experience with current garage signage. This data was converted into emotional data points so that these qualitative measurements could be described in a quantitative measure, according to Kerstetter.
“We presented our findings to the city with a problem definition,” Simoncini said. “These garages are dark and unattractive, it is difficult to remember where you parked your car and the payment interface is hard to grasp.”
At its core, the project required collaboration between designers and engineers. Simoncini explained that this cross-discipline collaboration informed the necessity of bringing together an interdisciplinary team of students.
“Engineers are thinking more about optimization, regulations, and how people move inside the garage,” Simoncini said. “Meanwhile, the designers are interested in the user experience and the whimsical part of the garage, which also isn’t just form. It’s form and function.”
The result, after many iterations, consisted of two main changes to the garage — signage and animal-and-color-based navigation.
“We had two systems. One was the physical signs at the entrance and at pay stations for cohesive payment instructions. The second part was the navigation system. Each floor is now a different color and has an animal associated with it,” Kerstetter said. “We also designed matching directories stationed at the elevators. All of these aspects were designed to help orient the user within the garage.”
The animals chosen for the various floors are species found in Ithaca and were associated to their respective floors based on their position throughout the biosphere. For example, fish and snails represent lower floors, whereas butterflies and owls mark the upper floors.
According to Kerstetter, the Cornell students created the designs and stencils for the murals, before handing them off to workers hired by the City to complete the artwork. Over the past two years, the team has communicated with the workers and done incremental checkups.
The city initially set the project budget to approximately $30,000, but it ended up being reduced to $6,500. According to Simoncini, the animal graphics on each floor were initially three-dimensional and made of plywood. To navigate the budget cut, the students decided in the end to use paint, both a cheaper and easier-to-maintain option.
In addition, the team had to work through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I joined [Sustainable City] in the middle of COVID-19, and [shutdowns] prevented us from working fully in person. Despite that, this team was one of the few times where I actually got to do things in person, such as going down to the garage together,” Kerstetter said. “But, we would still have all the big design sessions on a Zoom call. There’s just a lot of things that are better done on posterboard when brainstorming.”
Despite these difficulties — along with a constantly changing team, as new members join every semester and seniors graduate each year — the project was completed at the end of this summer. The team is now looking forward to returning to the garage in the near future to see user responses and interaction with the new system.
“Past the finish line, now that everything is installed, we want to get more feedback from how users are feeling and if there are any other things we missed on the design aspect,” said May Yuasa, another team co-lead. “Also, we want to see if the city may hope to use our signage system to replicate in other garages.”
Looking forward, Sustainable City is now tackling a new project with Cherry Street, an industrial Ithaca neighborhood with many nonprofit organizations focused on art.
“[Cherry Street] is a very engaging scene and is located along the waterfront. We call it an area that has a lot of potential, because right now, it’s not very developed,” Yuasa said. “The streets are not paved well and, despite having lots of greenery, there is not much signage or street lamps. We are trying to find a way to bring a sense of ownership and community to the residents and businesses there.”
Ultimately, the students within Sustainable City view the different aspects of the City of Ithaca with an interdisciplinary lens of problem solving. From an underdeveloped street to an inaccessible parking garage, the various facets of the city should not be treated in isolation, according to Simoncini.
“We didn’t treat the garage as something that just works. Rather, we saw the garage as a festive portal to the City of Ithaca,” Simoncini said. “For tourists and visitors, the garage is the very first impression of Ithaca. So, the garage should be the first taste of Ithaca’s whimsical nature.”
Catherine Zhu ’27 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].