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Technology Recharges Public Space


An intersection of wired and non-wired users in Bryant Park, New York | Part of a photo essay by Keith Hampton, Photo by Oren Livio

Widely read articles published recently in The New York Times Magazine and The Guardian affirmed the importance of detailed observation and measurement tools developed by PPS for analyzing public spaces and update their application to the digital age. The Guardian piece, "Cities and their psychology: how neuroscience affects urban planning," describes a set of experiments using sophisticated head-mounted displays and precise motion tracking to create 3D models of people-friendly streetscapes. The Times story, "Technology is not driving us apart," includes the counterintuitive research finding that people using cell phones are five times more likely to linger in a public space.

Both stories highlight the contemporary relevance of methodologies developed four decades ago by William "Holly" Whyte, a sociologist, journalist, and mentor of the founders of Project for Public Spaces. "Whyte's book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, and the short film based on this work, are as fresh and insightful now as the day they appeared, and are required reading and viewing for any student of urban behaviour," says Colin Ellard, the author of The Guardian article. "Fast forward a few decades, and many things have changed, but the fundamentals remain the same. If we want to know how to make a better city, the place to start is at ground level, using observation and measurement."

Enhancing the process of urban space observation that Whyte pioneered was the subject of the research featured in The Guardian. That study, led by a team at the University of Waterloo, applies recent technological advances in virtual reality simulators as well as physiological monitoring tools to precisely examine the human response to the many variables of the built environment and public space experience. "A marriage of laboratory-based virtual reality simulations with real-world observations using smartphones and physiological sensors," the study's authors argue, "could form the basis of a new and powerful discipline of experimental urban design based on sound principles of psychology and neuroscience."

The initial research findings suggest virtual models of public space were capable of accurately reproducing the same human response as their real world counterparts. Once fully developed, these models will allow planners, designers, and citizens to better understand which specific elements of an existing space elicit a pleasing response and which are problematic (consciously or unconsciously).

Above: Super-8 footage shot of the northwest corner of Bryant Park in 1980 | by Project for Public Spaces.

The Times article features the work of Rutgers University professor of sociology Keith Hampton, a leading voice in the academic debate over the impact of mobile technology and the internet on our lives. As the article explains:

Whyte, like many American urban theorists before him, wanted to combat the alienating, atomizing effects of city life. Today's atomizing forces are brand new and far less tangible: ubiquitous Internet access, constant email and social-media updates, all distracting us from our surroundings, loved ones and other people around us. But sociologists' concerns remain the same. Are we really talking to one another? Is modernity making us lonely?

A common narrative is that smartphones, iPods, laptops, and other devices increasingly isolate us from our physical surroundings and neighbors, particularly in public spaces. One aspect of the debate that Hampton felt was missing was the historical perspective—just how much human interaction in public truly existed before the age of portable electronic devices, and how much, if any, has been lost? Hampton saw his opportunity to make an empirical investigation while attending a training here at PPS that played some of Whyte and PPS's time lapse films of various public spaces in the early 1980s. He realized that by recording the same spaces from similar vantage points, he would be able to compare the behavior of today's public space users with those before the advent of portable digital communications devices.

After painstaking work (and with the enthusiastic participation of PPS), Hampton and his team came to several surprising conclusions about current behavior in public space, including:

  • There are now many more females present in public space (with a corresponding equalization of the gender ratio of public space users) compared with 30 years ago
  • Americans today spend more time together in groups
  • Mobile-phone use in public space was much lower than expected (only between 3% and 10% of users were found to be on their phones)
  • Mobile-phone use is associated with an increased likelihood to loiter in public space, and with time spent in those spaces

Keep an eye out for an upcoming post of a detailed PPS interview with Hampton in which he discusses the study and its implications for those who design or manage public space. As a quick preview, Hampton says that the most important takeaway is the importance of empirical data: "As much as we like to think that we are these neutral observers who can stand back and idealize what places must have been like before, or what they can be in the future, we really can't until we develop and take the time to do these systematic long term studies." Whyte would not disagree.