Plazas and Cultural Probes

1. “The Social Life of Urban Spaces” William Whyte

William Whyte writes about the importance and interaction public spaces in New York City. Collecting data from time lapsed cameras, he compares various plazas around the city, and denotes the flow of people as well as the usability of the space. In the first chapter he investigates social space by finding the areas in which people like to congregate. He finds that when people are engaged in conversation, they tend to stand in the middle of pedestrian traffic flow. He also finds that women prefer to sit in protected areas, while men like to sit in the outer areas, looking over the street, as if they were guarding. People tend to gather around landmarks or light posts, normally around delineated areas. Rarely do people feel comfortable in the middle of a vast open area, Whyte makes the assumption that this is part of our primal instinct of survival. In chapter 2, his study begins to take shape by analyzing the most important factors that make a plaza more useful. The first assumption was the position of the sun around the plaza. They found that though this did have a huge impact on the usability of the space, throughout all plazas there were even sunny and shady areas. The second factor was the availability of open space. In their results they found no commonality between the popularity of the spaces and the availability of open space. Sitting space was the only obvious correlation between availability and popularity. Whyte explores more factors such as size of ledges and plaza visibility that make a public space more fruitful. Chapter 5 explains the importance that social interaction plays in these public areas. Whyte talks about interaction of people amongst themselves in response to an outside event or object. He calls this method triangulation. An example is two people that begin to talk about a specific happening, may that be a performer in the plaza, or a monumental object such as a large sculpture. This spark that ignites the commonality effect on strangers is special, and not easily achievable in a large city, where most people are rather fast paced and focused on their personal goals. “The Social Life of Urban Spaces” makes an interesting survey of the life and usability of public spaces. It investigates people’s true ideal public space.

2.“Cultural Probes” Bill Gaver, Tony Dunne, & Elena Pacenti

This essay explains Graver, Dunne, and Panceti’s novel approach to researching through the tools of design and tangeability. These designers had the task to interact and investigate elderly groups in order to design a better atmosphere for them. Supported by the EU, this experiment took place in 13 European countries. The main goal was to attain an honest and personal perspective of these elderly people’s lives. The design team decided to go to each of these homes to present the project to the elderly in person. Showing the material in person, is the first and most important aspect of making the initial personal connection. Once the designers talked and explained the purpose of their visit, they presented their audience with a packet of materials, the “Cultural Probes”. The design of this packet is simple to allow the user to feel comfortable in participating. It’s simple hand-made aesthetic gives a tremendous advantage to the designers, since now the instructions that accompany every artifact have a subtle pre-embedded journalistic appearance. This experiment’s success comes from the variety of tasks distributed in the packet. These designers made many astute decisions in preparing the packet, but their readings of the results were the most impressive. They realized that if a group of elderly did not respond to their tasks that they must be more or less satisfied with where they are. Conversely, if they were avid at responding, they needed more stimulation, and community involvement. “Cultural Probes” is a fascinating experiment that teaches us about preparing field research material and also about reading the details of results.

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