The Future of Public Space Analytics

The AGILE Landscape Project: “Public space is an essential component of any great city. It brings people together to socialize, recreate, and work. More pointedly, it attracts people to the city, builds relationships, and spurs innovation and new ideas that fuel a city’s economic growth. How we optimize the investments made in our streetscapes, plazas, parks, and greenways is important to each individual project’s success and the city as a whole. Are the places being built fulfilling their promise? If so, could they be doing more and if not, how do they need to change?…

“Places in the Making”, a publication published in 2013 by MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, underscored this problem. They cited the lack of active metrics as a common challenge to placemaking efforts. They reported that “It is astonishing how few placemaking projects actively and honestly assess their own successes and failures.” They went on to explain the existing placemaking culture focuses on fuzzy, unmeasurable goals and that this has created “an inertia in assessment efforts”. The report stressed that this lack of assessment is detrimental to the field as a whole because valuable insights are left undiscovered and the same mistakes are made repeatedly….

“Places in the Making”, a publication published in 2013 by MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, underscored this problem. They cited the lack of active metrics as a common challenge to placemaking efforts. They reported that “It is astonishing how few placemaking projects actively and honestly assess their own successes and failures.” They went on to explain the existing placemaking culture focuses on fuzzy, unmeasurable goals and that this has created “an inertia in assessment efforts”. The report stressed that this lack of assessment is detrimental to the field as a whole because valuable insights are left undiscovered and the same mistakes are made repeatedly.

“It is astonishing how few placemaking projects actively and honestly assess their own successes and failures.” – “Places in the Making”, DUSP (2013)

Both William H. Whyte’s seminal Street Life Project and resulting book and documentary, Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980), along with Jan Gehl’s extensive public life studies and influential book Life Between Buildings (1987) serve as the foundation of the urban design profession’s knowledge base. Their observations and insights were amassed through considerable time and manpower. We are lucky to have their contribution from which to draw upon when making future decisions. Though we shouldn’t stop observing and building upon their significant contributions. We must continually add clarity and resolution particularly in the unique and specific context of each place.

social media metrics

Unfortunately, the POE and previous research are only snapshots in time. With the rise of embedded sensor infrastructure, “smart cities”, social networks, and ubiquity of smartphones that are becoming increasingly more powerful and sophisticated every year, the ability to gain real-time continuous 24/7 quantitative monitoring of public life data is now a reality. The ability to capture so much data is unprecedented and will only continue to get easier. The amount of and type of information that can and often is being collected about the world around us and ourselves is vast. When it comes to cities, transportation, parking, energy, waste collection, and water systems has attracted the most attention. In the private sector, retail analytics have been the focus.

Collecting data for data sake should not be a goal. Rather we need be knowledgeable of what is available and possible while being discerning about the data that is useful for improving the management and design of public space. By selectively incorporating sensors into the design of physical space, the data collection system can provide real-time information about the use of the space. Like website analytic systems, the network can provide useful information about the number of people using the space, how long they are using it, as well well as other meaningful measures of public life. The data gathered can be combined with a wide array of environmental data such as temperature, humidity, sun/shade patterns, rain fall, water quality, and air quality. In addition, other available data sets such as sales tax collections, building permits, real estate transactions, and programming/event schedules can be overlaid with data to make relationships between the use of the public space and its context more visible.

Array of information that can help us understand public space

While the real-time nature of the data can be used to quickly understand the immediate impact that programming and design decisions have on the space and vice versa, it can also capture data and trends over extended durations that would not otherwise be possible without considerable resources. All of this enables us to make more informed decisions rather than anecdotal observations and assumptions. With the interest of tactical urbanism and other short-term public space investments, this need for data is greater than ever. The data can be used to justify investment in long-term improvements and/or make slight adjustments in temporary spaces to increase their effectiveness….(More)”

One Response to “The Future of Public Space Analytics”

  1. Florent Peyre February 27, 2015 at 10:12 am #

    Stefan – very interesting survey. I’m curious to see what tools exists out there to facilitate data collection (in an automated / 24-7 way and not only spot counts). At Placemeter we started publishing some measurements of blocks in NY (you can also download the underlying data for free and play with it) – if you’re interested, it’s called Blocks of NY and we publish this on Medium here: https://medium.com/@BONY/

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