Urban Planning and Design

The invisible life of urban spaces

Making the most of city parks and the public realm means learning more about how people use them.

By Rohit T. Aggarwala

People sitting on chairs in Bryant Park

Proactive efforts to identify civic problems before they arise, such as BigBelly waste receptacles that notify managers when full, represent the next step forward in public space maintenance.
(elycefeliz / Flickr)

Public spaces make urban life unique. While suburban destinations often try, they can’t recreate the vibrancy, spontaneous interaction, and diversity you find in Millennium Park, Rittenhouse Square, Grand Central Terminal, or on Piccadilly. In part, this comes from the fact that urban dwellers spend far more of their time in shared spaces than people who live in lower-density areas. So there’s no question that making these spaces work well is critical to the long-term success of cities.

It’s a problem, then, that we know much less about what goes on in the public realm than we do about most other urban systems. The tools used to study public space haven’t changed much since Holly Whyte’s pioneering use of video footage to understand parks, plazas, and sidewalks—an analysis that led directly to his 1979 plan to save Bryant Park from under-crowding. Many park managers still use basic instruments such as hand counters or infrared sensors to get a sense, however limited, of what’s happening in the spaces they’re charged with maintaining and enhancing. Even the most progressive city departments of transportation, those that promote walking and biking, know far more about vehicle flows than they do about people flows.

This lack of insight also makes it challenging for cities to use limited park funding in the most effective and efficient ways. It’s hard for managers to know about maintenance problems such as overflowing waste bins or broken benches until people complain, or to know what programming or design improvements might draw more people outdoors. The decision to expand a playground or prioritize a running path is made either on the basis of educated guesses by parks managers, or worse, by whoever yells the loudest or has the most political influence.

Cities are just starting to see the ways that digital technology and data tools can help keep their civic spaces more usable, comfortable, and equitable. These advances can shed light on some of biggest open questions the managers of our public realm face on a daily basis. At Sidewalk Labs, we think there is both a need and an opportunity, on several fronts:

Understanding usage patterns.

The most basic measure of the public realm’s performance is usage, and yet most cities rely on vague estimates to understand how many people are using their parks or walking down their sidewalks. The startup Soofa has worked with several cities, including New York, to install benches equipped with sensor technology capable of making usage counts while protecting privacy. In Oak Park, Illinois, this approach has helped park managers understand how things like holidays, weather, and temporary installations like a dog park, nighttime program, or a pop-up market impact usage. Studio Ludo is testing smart tags that can map activity patterns in Philadelphia’s Waterloo Playground, as a way to understand how park design impacts public health. A startup called Numina is working to help cities quantify how many pedestrians are walking down the street, and the paths they follow.

Tracking maintenance needs.

Maintaining a park or a public space is a difficult challenge: everything from overflowing waste bins to broken benches to weakened trees can degrade the public’s experience or, even worse, cause injury. Monitoring the condition of these assets often consumes the time and effort that could otherwise be focused on fixing the problems. Crowd-sourcing tools for reporting problems are becoming more common and have proven very helpful, but they still rely on someone being inconvenienced in the first place, and they raise issues around the equity of public space maintenance. Proactive efforts to identify civic problems before they arise, such as BigBelly waste receptacles that notify managers when full, represent the next step forward.

Monitoring outdoor conditions.

Residents, visitors, and managers all want to understand the environmental conditions in city parks and sidewalks. Increasingly, we understand the threat posed by the urban heat island effect, which makes hyperlocal temperature readings all the more important—not only for pedestrians who might choose to take the cooler route, but also for researchers studying long-term trends or designers evaluating paving materials. Low-cost sensors make it possible to conduct pervasive ground-level air-quality monitoring. They also help make it possible to track the prevalence of insect and bird life to ensure the park remains habitable to local species.

The first step toward realizing these advances is working with city officials and park managers to understand what questions could help them make their space work better. Merely instrumenting parks without a sense of the challenges facing managers won’t necessarily get them useful information. And any exploration of the public realm must put privacy concerns first. We believe that if you can explain clearly how the data is being used, and you have a credible and transparent approach to protecting sensitive information, the public will be supportive—as it was for this Transport for London subway usage pilot.

Taken together, and used well, these kinds of analytical tools will empower cities to improve their public spaces. Managers will have better insight into what people need. Maintenance teams will be able to target their efforts more precisely. Residents and visitors will have more information about what’s going on. As a result, people will be eager to spend even more time in shared spaces—making cities more pleasant, productive, and fulfilling.