Zoo Atlanta has an interesting history, going from blight of the city to pride of the South East in a surprisingly short amount of time. It has pushed itself forward as one of the premiere attractions in Atlanta. However, a recent visit has convinced me that now may be the perfect time to push even further.
To back up a bit, 1984 was a low point. The site had been allowed to deteriorate over time due to general neglect, and because of the deplorable living conditions for the animals, the zoo lost its accreditation and was named one of the ten worst zoos in the country. Since that time, Zoo Atlanta has made an massive turnaround, recreating itself from top to bottom, from highly trained staff and community involvement down to the physical design of the park. It became clear it was not enough to put animals on display with no concern for their emotional well-being. In 1986 the Zoo board commissioned Ursa International to design a master plan for the property with careful focus on new enclosures for the animals, ones that more nearly matched their natural habitats.
Major areas of the zoo
Asian Forest: Pandas
Ford African Rain Forest: Gorillas
African Plains: Elephants
KIDZone: Petting zoo & small rides
Zoo Atlanta has won several awards for its habitats since completion in the late 1980s, and over the years has expanded beyond its original plan to include more enclosures, more pavilions and an entirely new area called KIDZone. The current layout looks like a backwards “P” with small paths and islands jutting out from its side. Before the KIDZone expansion, the backwards “P” created a loop all the way around the park.
With all this expansion under its belt, the zoo can now shift some focus back to its guests to help make the experience even more engaging. Because of the organic nature of the additions to the park, Zoo Atlanta outgrew itself and now faces issues of orientation, navigation, and future expansion, all of which, I believe, can be solved with one move.
Orientation—Upon entering the zoo and walking into “Flamingo Plaza,” a person is met with a few choices: either turn left and head into the African Plains, turn right into the KIDZone, or go straight along a central spine running up the center of the property. This is problematic as it requires people just entering the park to make major decisions about how they would like to proceed before they have a chance to orient themselves. A commonly heard phrase at Flamingo Plaza is, “Ok, come over here and look at the flamingos while mommy figures out where we need to go.” The entryway, an area of high traffic, is not the ideal stopping point for a family to try to get things moving, both for that family and others trying to get going themselves.
“Ok, come over here and look at the flamingos
while mommy figures out where we need to go.”
Following the flamingos, in many cases the first animal encounter a person has at the Zoo is with the elephants, one of Zoo Atlanta’s three “big-ticket” attractions (the other two being gorillas and pandas). Ideally it is best to hold back elements that draw large crowds, reserving them as destinations rather than entry points, allowing the anticipation to build as a guest moves through the park. Instead, a guest walks right into the sights, sounds and smells of big-ticket #1 and either spends too much time there, making things that immediately follow feel like a bit of a letdown, or moves too quickly past to see what else the zoo has to offer.
Navigation—When navigating certain areas of the park, many people tend to head in directions they shouldn’t—maintenance areas, dead ends or simply places where they have already been—causing them to have to backtrack to get on the correct path. This occurs because unclear or mismatched visual cues in the design of the park lead to incorrect interpretation. When this happens too many times, a person in the zoo will become frustrated (often with themselves) and mental fatigue will turn to physical fatigue, hurting the overall experience and reducing the likelihood of a repeat visit.
The opposite is also true. Sometimes people can miss an entire area of the zoo simply because the pathway leading towards it was not distinct enough. This is particularly problematic in the Asian Forest as winding pathways can give mixed signals. Discoverability is important, but it must always be clear that there is something to discover.
Expansion—Currently Zoo Atlanta is considering expansion, but is hemmed in on three sides by roads, making any plans for expansion very limited. The only option for extending its borders is into the adjacent Grant Park, directly out and through the current entryway. Any future expansion will likely mean a need to tear down the entrance and rebuild it elsewhere, with the same process having to be repeated in the future should the zoo need to expand again.
So how do we solve these problems? What can we do to allow Zoo Atlanta’s story to unfold along a natural progression, to ease navigation and create room for expansion? A simple change in perspective may be the answer…