What is a Legible University?

Legible Cities

In 1996, the city of Bristol (UK) embarked upon a project they called “the Legible City Initiative.” The idea of the project was to make the city as a whole more navigable, coherent and comprehensible, and to “improve people’s understanding and experience of the city through identity, information and transport projects.” The proponents argued that the problem of wayfinding in the city wasn’t just a question of more or better signage, but also of understanding how people operated in Bristol: where people were headed, where they came from, paths used more or less regularly (and why), key points of transfer and interchange, neighborhoods, dividers, borders, modes of transit, attractors and detractors, services and activities.  Some fundamental principles of the project were:

  • The most effective way to design for public places is to “think like the everyday person”: the users of a city are probably very different from those who design it.
  • Legible cities are open, easy and connected.
  • Creating legibility requires a multitude of projects and coordination between many organizations and individuals.
  • Building trust with users is of paramount importance; details matter.
  • Information should be in the right place at the right time.

Illegible Cities

As we were discussing the idea of legible cities, Bev said, “Cities are both unified and chaotic.  On my daily drive to work, I pass through many neighborhoods, completely familiar with my route through these spaces, but not necessarily at all familiar with what lies to either side of it.  As a former bicycle commuter, I experienced these spaces very differently, experiencing the houses and lateral views between them in more detail.  As a subway user in Montreal, I understood the city as a well-structured set of interconnected routes: when I began to drive a car there, I might just as well have been a newcomer, for all I understood of the traffic patterns of the city.  We understand the city based largely on our own circumlocutions of it, often with little awareness of the others going about their business, following their own courses of interaction which may or may not intersect.  Most of the time, there’s a lot of about the city you don’t know, and don’t need to know, in order to navigate.  You probably don’t know much about your city’s sewer system, for example, unless it’s backed up into your basement a couple of times.” This seemed to capture the idea very well for us.

Moreover, people’s ideas of their city may tend to stitch together diverse and separate locales – their home neighborhood, their office, their favourite bakery, the unemployment office – as though they create something coherent, a narrative of the space as they experience it. This is how people seem to ‘read’ cities.

A city is known by one name, despite all the communities, systems, circuits, and collective identities that co-exist within that space, rubbing up against each other, interdependent but often in competition with each other for scarce resources, and not necessarily aware of each other. How we find our way through these spaces, or don’t find our way, is extremely complicated, drawing on our past experience of this and other cities, representations of the city, community experiences of the city, and the design, signs and symbols of the city itself. And often, all of this spatial and social parsing takes place in a nearly automatic fashion, making it both difficult to transfer to others, and sometimes inequitable.

Illegible Universities

We both work at a university, one of us as a professor and administrator, and the other as a kind of strategic academic problem solver and stick poker.  Based on our collective experience and backgrounds, we have come to think about universities as complex systems: “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole“, characterized by interdependent structures, ill-defined boundaries, and behaviours that trigger changes to other parts of the system or loop back on themselves. They also are adaptive systems, in that the individual and collective behaviours can trigger sudden self-organization to a new and sometimes unexpected state and sets of behaviours.

Yes, that’s your department we’re talking about, and its relations with other departments, with the Faculty, with Facility Services, with the surrounding community, and so on.

There’s been very little exploration of what the behaviour of complex systems means for people on the ground at universities: for better adaptivity, management, experiences, outcomes, collaboration or sustainability.  One thing we know for sure is that complex systems are nearly always hard to read. Because they are dynamic, and the relations between elements are multiple and non-linear, identifying and addressing “the problem” in one place can have all sorts of unintended consequences as the system re-arranges itself around the so-called solution. Because elements in one part of the university are generally unaware of the university as a whole, the potential for misunderstanding and uninformed decision-making is vast, and the interactive moving parts make it enormously difficult to “read” one’s environment effectively while standing in any one location. Universities are perhaps more challenged in this respect than other organizations, owing to their more decentralized, discipline-based organizational structure, multiple mandates, and collegial modes of governance (Silver, 2003).

Enter the Legible University

Over the past few years, we have been exploring analogous complex systems, like cities, ecosystems, and economies, to see if they can help us to better understand the generally under-examined interacting systems that produce universities. Studies of cities, urban planning, and urban renewal have provided a particularly useful conceptual entrée, given their more evolved set of methodologies for examining, representing, theorizing and effecting change.

People often refer to a university as a “knowledge community”, and we began examining the parallels hinted at by that phrase. It seemed too narrow and too homogenous to capture the experience of the citizens of post-secondary institutions, with their diversity of interests, cultures, and concerns occupying a shared place, creating multiple layers of movement, friction, circulation, transaction, and capital. The self-regulating but generally unwieldy complexity of a university and its enterprises evoked the more daunting idea of the “knowledge metropolis.”

We subsequently tripped over The Legible City as we explored participatory urban renewal practices that focused on understanding the city not as it was designed, legislated into existence, or managed, but as the patterns of transactions, workarounds, decisions and conflicts produced by inhabitants as they negotiate the space.  And we began to wonder: what would it take for a university to make itself legible in a comparable way?

Like The Legible City’s instigators, we want to make the University more accessible, more open, and more coherent. In a Legible University, people have multiple ways of making sense of their surroundings and evaluating the sense others make of the same place. That means we have to study how the everyday person navigates the institutional space – and why they navigate it that way.

The resulting collection of principles, tools and methods would aim not for uniformity of activity, but for a degree of coordination that can support a diversity of activity, decision-making, and collaborative resource usage. And these tools will have to evolve as the system does, meaning that inhabitants develop a capacity for ‘institutional literacy’ and a willingness to reflect collectively on the nature and navigability of the University. We hope that this work can improve both institutional and individual practice, creating on the one hand more legible intellectual, social, and physical spaces; and on the other, citizens with a repertoire of tools for seeing and reading their environments.

Literate Universities

Our goal is not to convince you that our reading is correct. In fact, a lot of the time, the two of us don’t even read the university the same way. Our goal is to develop approaches to read the university that you may evaluate, use, adapt, or discard as you see fit to navigate your university, for your purposes. To us it’s a question of equity – because if we can’t read our own institutional spaces, there’s always going to be someone ready to read it for us, but with their own goals and interests in mind. Readings – multiple ones – give us more room to maneuver, and also a better chance of understanding each other. And we hope that’s where we’re headed.


Silver, H. 2003. Does a university have a culture? Studies in Higher Education, 28(2): 157-169.