Signs of the times: clutter, culture, and corridors

By Antonia Medina Abell, Urban Designer

Design Guidelines are typically crafted by municipalities and consultants to introduce a sense of order and a common language of design to otherwise chaotic urban spaces. They can address a multitude of issues and scales, ranging from the massing of a buildings to the spacing of fenestration.

While not mandatory, guidelines reflect a desired image (which in New England can be very specific, typically based on colonial history) and the requirements to achieve it. This projected image can sometimes be in tension with on-the-ground conditions: as many American cities go through rapid population changes, storefronts and their symbolic language evolve and reflect the multicultural characteristics of the area. How can we, as planners and designers, craft not just a desired image for a city but a process that is sensitive to cultural values, aesthetics, and the individual needs of each type of business?

The City of Revere, MA (population 62,186) has almost double the amount of non-white population than the rest of the state (37.6% in Revere vs 20.2 in MA in 2022), of which almost 20,000 are born in Latin America. The Broadway Commercial corridor expresses the diversity found in Revere: the smaller scale of many buildings makes the area especially favorable for small, family-owned businesses, which can be restaurants (with cuisines from all around the world), small grocery stores, and industrial or auto related uses like a taxi cab dispatch and auto repair.

Latino businesses in Broadway (which are typically food-related) can be identified not only by their use of Spanish words: they also incorporate culturally significant motifs like the Peruvian Tumi or the almost ubiquitous llama, prominently display pictures of their menu on their facades, sometimes include a graphic list (flags) of the nationalities they cater to (read: snacks, spices and specialty produce) and are generally more inclined to accumulation in their storefronts, which is sometimes perceived as “clutter” by their neighbors. They prefer bright colors and high contrast for their logos and window displays. During our visit, we were able to compare these practices with our own preconceptions as designers: while we all agreed about certain themes (maintenance, branding and identity, use of natural materials and so on) our willingness to call something “minimal”, “layered” or “just enough” was as varied as our own personal experiences. The Broadway Corridor certainly had a lot going on, and more importantly, a critical mass to foster a vibrant environment. The guidelines needed to reflect that rather than curtail the business’s autonomy.

Manuel and Blanca, owners of B+M Grill on Broadway

As we were having these internal conversations, I flew back to Santiago de Chile around Thanksgiving. I took this opportunity to collect photographs and examples (good and bad) of storefronts, signage, sandwich boards, brightly colored buildings, and rooftop signs to share with the team.  I also compiled an image library of Latin American vernacular architecture (like the works of Lina Bo Bardi, the tiled boulevards of Burle Marx, the Andean interpretations of Freddy Mamani and the colorful houses of Barragán) and indigenous/artisanal textile traditions (including the Mexican tenango, the Guatemalan huipil, the Chilean horsehair folk crafts (crin) and various patterns and color treatments). The goal was to bring forward well-documented and internationally regarded examples of cultural attitudes that were colorful, high-contrast and busy, much like the Broadway storefronts, so the team could have a better understanding of where some of these practices were coming from. At the same time, we looked at historical photographs of Revere, and found a vintage repository of signage that was once considered “traditional”: rooftop signs, neon, oversized logos, hand-painted letters.   

But background research is no replacement for one-on-one interactions. If the guidelines were to be effective, they would need to serve the municipality’s goals and understand how businesses operated and their constraints. Moreover, the City had recovery funds available for façade improvements that each business could apply for. The design process needed to take both goals into account.

The community engagement strategy worked on multiple levels. The city hosted a Public Meeting and a webinar (in English with Spanish translation). We also conducted on-site interviews with a varied group of businesses (2 offices, 3 restaurants, 3 auto, 2 bodegas, 1 industrial) and designed the guidelines based on these conversations. 

What we learned: 

  • There was initial confusion about the level of detail we were providing (Were we designing each storefront? Giving tips and recommendations? Would we do Construction Documents?;
  • There needed to be a record of the themes and ideas discussed;
  • Current signage ordinances prohibited certain recommendations that we considered desirable, like blade or rooftop signs;
  • Some businesses would need significant investment, but others could benefit from a few simple moves and  paint.

As we wrote the guidelines, we collected precedent images based on what we had learned: minimalist and maximalist displays, colorful and pared back buildings, large graphics and paint details, product displays and eye-catching graphics. We also designed a set of eleven brochures, one for each business owner that we interviewed: a set of elevations with callouts for the ideas discussed, a few precedent images tailored to each case and a small text that highlighted the general strategy. We wanted to capture a visual record of the themes discussed while providing them with a list of items to focus on for their grant applications.

As for the general Design Guidelines, we decided to make them as portable and user-friendly as possible: a foldable poster with diagrams, precedent images and a list of elements that are encouraged or discouraged for nine categories: brand identity, color, materials, transparency, lighting, outdoor space, signage, architecture, and utilities. While the guidelines are a tool that the city provides to building  owners or tenants to start the conversation around signage and design features, they  also serve another goal: by researching a diverse set of precedent images and testing preconceptions around what is “good” and “beautiful”, they  expand the idea of what is desirable when creating a character rooted in the culture of  place.   

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