Two new blocks of flats on the East Dulwich Estate were completed in 2017. When residents moved in, the signs on the blocks looked like this.
The signs are a little larger than A3, with very low contrast between the brushed aluminium base and the black lettering. They are not illuminated at night.
Compare the signs on the adjacent block of flats. Both the original 1930s tile, and the more recent Southwark Council sign, use strong black and white contrast, and individual letters are two or three times as large as those on the 2017 sign.
Being able to find an address matters:
- for the emergency services
- for non-emergency but essential visits, with staff often working on very tight schedules: community nurses and midwives, ambulances taking people to hospital appointments, Dial-a-Ride drivers, carers, tradespeople carrying out repairs
- for taxis and delivery services, from post office to pizza
- for friends and relatives …
The importance of legible signage for residents’ safety was the main reason that I asked council officers to look at whether these signs were large and clear enough.
But signs speak of more than just a name.
I have no doubt that the brushed aluminium was chosen to look less ‘council estate’ than the white and turquoise Southwark sign pictured above. This follows the much vaunted aim of ‘tenure blind’ housing – that is, no one should be able to tell from the outside if a flat is owned by the council, a housing association or a private individual.
So far, so uncontroversial. But signs on blocks of flats should be as large and clear as signs on streets. When people can’t find their way, they get annoyed. At night, they can get anxious about being lost, or even about looking lost, in an unfamiliar place. Confusing layout, a lack of signs, a lack of landmarks, blocks that all look the same – these are long-standing complaints about council estates, and contribute to the cliché of ‘intimidating’ estates. Signs also tell a story about the social meaning of different types of housing. In this case, a superficial image (black on silver = classy residential) has been prioritised above legibility.
Isn’t this irrelevant now everyone uses smartphones? Have a look.
Google Maps does not give the names of the blocks of flats on the estate – they are simply shown as blank rectangles. The detail on Open Street Maps tends to be much richer:
And East Dulwich in particular has benefitted from the work of Tom Chance who labelled many of these blocks. Volunteers like Tom have made a vital, largely unsung, contribution to integrating social housing into the digital city. But neither of these online maps yet shows our two new blocks, Gatebeck and Southdown, despite them being fully occupied.
Even if the maps did show the names of all the blocks of flats, navigating by GPS/smartphone is not foolproof. Not everyone has a smartphone. Setting out from a railway station or bus stop with phone in hand is discouraged by the police. Data and charge can run out.
Nine months (and counting)
And so I asked about the signs at the East Dulwich Estate Regeneration Project Team meeting in March 2017. Council officers agreed that the signs were too small and should be replaced. I assumed that they would be. At monthly ‘project team’ meetings since then (in person or by email), I have asked about the progress in replacing them. At the end of September 2017, I was told that new signs were ‘going to be ordered’. But as I write, in January 2018, nothing’s changed.
So residents of these new blocks have now spent nine months without a legible sign showing visitors or emergency services where they live.
What the saga of the signs indicates to me is just how hard it is to get things fixed by Southwark Council – even when a repair or alteration has been agreed – when there are so many layers of outsourcing and sub-contracting. These two blocks were built for Southwark Council by Osborne, ‘one of the leading construction businesses in the UK’ with dozens of sub-contractors working under them. It’s long after the normal ‘snagging’ period. The contractors have moved off the site. As residents, we no longer have regular meetings with Osborne or with staff in the ‘direct delivery’ department of the council. Council officers still have the unenviable job of chasing contractors to finish the job properly, but seem to lack the time or will to do so.
If this repair is delayed long enough, the period of the contractor’s liability to ‘make good’ any defects will be over. In that case, either the illegible signs remain in place, causing inconvenience and potential risk to residents, or they are replaced by the council, at the taxpayers’ cost. Who benefits?