Over the course of the last two class meetings, my students presented their term projects. As is typically the case, I had tasked them with conducting “advanced” people watching – a la William Whyte – within an urban plaza or park in the New York City region. The students’ selections ranged from nationally well-known public spaces, such as Bryant Park (a popular choice) and Prospect Park, to lesser known neighborhood and regional parks like Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick and Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn Heights. The aim of the project was to glean a better understanding of the multiple values of urban design – use, exchange, image, social, cultural, and environmental – through observations of the interactions between people and the surrounding built environment. Students conducted direct and participant observation, spending on average between 6-8 hours total across 2-3 site visits, noting the design of the site (lighting, seating, trees, the connection to the surrounding neighborhood, etc.), the most popular activities (reading, sitting, people-watching, eating, playing sports, etc.), and the most common types of people present (locals or tourists; children, teenagers, adults or seniors; singles, couples, families or groups; etc.).
Despite having assigned this project in one form or another in my classes for over five years, I’m always a bit nervous about how they will turn out in the end. To date, I have been pleasantly surprised – and in particular, this being my third semester at an engineeringschool, I am beyond delighted. Hearing students note the lack of “accessibility” between the Grand Army Plaza and the entrance to Prospect Park; the need for more “organic” seating in Union Square Park; the negative impact of bad lighting and loud noise on the foot traffic on the North side of Cadman Plaza; and the decreased sense of safety likely linked to the fence around Maria Hernandez park is not only personally rewarding, but also professionally encouraging. While the advanced people watching skills these students have now garnered are far from rocket science (and way less technically complicated that the complex formulas they are learning in their core engineering courses), they are an essential skill set for any urban design stakeholder to posses.
Analyzing the built environment and behavior in a purposeful way allows us to understand why a place is and is not working by noting not only the behaviors that are occurring, but those that are not, as well as recording who is present and who is not. For example, as one student noted, she had expected to see a number of older adults using Cadman Plaza as many lived in the surrounding neighborhood, but that was not the case. I urged her to think about what supportive urban design features (built environment, programming or maintenance) might be missing that might be discouraging seniors from using the park. Ensuring the adequacy of the connectivity between the neighborhood, providing appropriate shade and seating, maintaining the paths and sidewalks or providing appropriate programming may help older adults feel more comfortable visiting the park – and thus raise its “use” value.
The types of observational clues the students gathered provide critical insights as to how to enhance the value of urban design…and yet those clues are mostly waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately, all too often, urban design professionals – planners, architects, engineers, etc. – do not incorporate these simple evaluations as part of their typical practices, policies, or procedures. Consequently, we have a number of public parks and plazas with yet untapped potential waiting to be adopted by neighboring residents and visitors alike as their new urban haven or favorite city destination! But today, I am encouraged by the fact that there are sixteen new advanced people watchers in New York City, eager to discover those clues – or at the very least aware of their value…and in the meantime, I encourage you all to go seek out those not-so-hidden hints – about how to enhance our public spaces – that are just waiting to be uncovered!
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