Reading #1: The Social Life of Urban Spaces, William H. Whyte
The Social Life of Urban Spaces by William H. Whyte explores the findings of The Street Life Project, a three-year study that looked at the usability of New York City public spaces such as city parks, plazas, sidewalks and playgrounds. Whyte wanted to pin point the reasons why some public spaces attracted more people than others. Through observation and reviewing time-lapse videos, researchers were able to see which places around New York City were utilized more often, during which part of the day they were used more and, most importantly, how they were being used and what was being done in them. Researchers mapped out behaviors such as male vs. female behavior, where people congregated in groups and where they decided to sit.
The most important, and possibly the most obvious, result of the research concluded public spaces that were utilized more frequently were the ones with ample seating. The research went on to investigate what kind of seating the public preferred. Benches, although architecturally beautiful, were the least popular because they did not have backrests. Also the depth of the seating played a large role in the comfort of the sitter. Deeper sitting areas encouraged more people to sit, either next to each other or back to back. The study also concluded that women preferred to sit in inconspicuous areas of plazas while men liked to sit near the entrance and be “gate keepers.” Men also congregated in groups to watch women walk by, especially if they were “construction workers on their lunch break.”
Areas of “triangulation” seemed to be welcoming spots for passer-bys who were looking for a place to rest. These areas are defined by “external stimulus that provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to each other as though they were not. An example for that would be street performers or food trucks. These kinds of areas gather people and force them to exchange glances and strike a conversation.
Parks were a large interest as well in The Street Life Project study. Bryant Park was exemplified as a danger zone that “has become the territory of dope dealers and muggers.” Although outdated, this observation illustrates that shut off or gated areas like Bryant Park have less popularity due to the fact that the participant is secluded from passer-bys, “you can’t see in, you can’t see out.” Sunken plazas had a similar effect on the public; they were not used and seemed unsafe.
The research methods for this study focus on the sociological and psychological aspects of human behavior when they are in public. Before beginning to design a public space, it is important to understand why people choose to gather in some places and not others. How does their environment control their comfort level? Through focused studies of chair heights, locations and reasons for why someone would want to go to a public space, the architect can truly understand his/her audience and be able to empathize with their needs. Although dated, this article was helpful in clarifying considerations that should go into performing research on public spaces and the human psyche behind the decision making process of being part of a particular public space.
Reading #2: Cultural Probes by Bill Gaver, Tony Dunne and Elena Pacenti
A two-year study was performed by the European Union to look at interaction techniques between the elderly and their hometowns in order to increase their presence in their communities. Cultural probes such as maps, postcards and photo cameras were used to entice responses about the subjects’ personal views, opinions, likes and dislikes. Through their responses using the probes, researchers were able to establish a personal relationship with their subjects and to collect more personal and accurate data.
By using every day items that emotionally connect to the subjects, the researchers created an environment that did not feel intimidating or uncomfortable. Unlike questionnaires or surveys, using cultural probes excited the elderly and motivated them to be more honest, open and share more than what was asked of them. This type of research also stripped any stereotypes of the elderly as people who are “needy “ or “nice.” Going past these self-imposed research roadblocks became crucial in “opening new opportunities for design.”
I believe that this study was extremely interesting and very effective. The open, free communication flow between the subject and the researcher, which is extremely difficult to attain, was essential in gathering precise and bias-free data. Not only did the researchers understand what was important to the elderly and where they were coming from, they were also able to understand why they felt a certain way. Because this study was performed across three different countries, it was important to recognize cultural differences and how design could be properly applied to individual life styles and cultures. It would be a mistake to generalize and create “one size fits all” design. Furthermore, this article showed the importance of sociological research in the design field. This research clearly states that design should complement the subject’s life style. Thus, design’s role becomes that of a mediator between the environment and the user.