Creating a lively public space isn’t as easy as building it and waiting for the crowds to come. There’s a lot that city planners have to consider: How much space is available? What’s the target demographic? How can a public space be made energy efficient?
A group of researchers at MIT thinks that there’s an important piece of the puzzle that’s too often overlooked: the human experience. Studying how people interact with cars, buildings, and sidewalks within an urban space says a lot about its quality, says Elizabeth Christoforetti, an urban and architectural designer at MIT Media Lab.
With a $35,000 grant from the Knight Prototype Fund, she and her team areworking on a project called Placelet, which will track how pedestrians move through a particular space. They’re developing a network of sensors that will track the scale and speed of pedestrians, as well as vehicles, over long periods of time. The sensors, which they are currently testing in downtown Boston, will also track the “sensory experience” by recording the noise level and air quality of that space.
“One of the things that cities can fail at is thinking about design[from the perspective of] an airplane or a car, but not from the perspective of a pedestrian. “
The general idea is that, the more slowly people are moving through a space, the more likely it is that they’re enjoying it. “If you imagine a busy urban square, where there are large groups of people sitting down and chatting, that probably means it’s a good social experience,” Christoforetti says. “However, if you have skinny sidewalks, or people are rushing through there because maybe they’re scared about their safety, then that space probably could use some improvement.”
But without concrete data or visualizations, it can be hard for city planners to understand exactly where problems lie. Take, for example, the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall in Salem, Massachusetts, where Christoforetti was a designer for a different project. “Everyone was convinced that the pedestrian mall needed to stay pedestrian, but businesses were struggling, and there were very high rates of vacancy,” she says.
It turned out that the streets there weren’t as safe for pedestrians as the community thought. Service vehicles and trucks were making all kinds of deliveries throughout the day, and the streets lacked cross streets.* “Nobody wanted to walk into the middle of this 900-foot block with no cross streets,”* she says. All Christoforetti had at the time, though, was anecdotal evidence. “If we could’ve illustrated what was happening with data, that there aren’t a lot people but tons of cars during [certain] times, we could’ve made good decisions more quickly.” She could have, for instance, used sensors to test out different street management interventions, like one that prohibits deliveries during lunch hours.
She hopes cities will use the technology from this new project to draw out the subtle problems that cause the inefficient use of public spaces—and to test out different solutions.