In the 1970s, almost 30 percent of Americans reported that they frequently spent time with neighbors, with just 20 percent saying they spent none. Today, those numbers are reversed, according to a 2015 report from City Observatory, with time spent with neighbors at an all-time low. As Marc Dunkelman, author of the 2014 book The Vanishing Neighbor, has put it, neighbors in the early-to-mid 20th century “depended on one another much more.”
We lose something vital by shrinking our network of strong social ties. On an individual level, having a support network that can be activated in times of hardship is critical to well-being, reducing the severe health risks associated with loneliness and social isolation. On a broader level, a strong community can inspire civic engagement, generate a vibrant public realm, and promote the local innovation that helps a city adapt with the times.
Several trends have converged to make strangers out of neighbors, but our physical environments play a big role. The rise of sprawling, single-family developments in the 20th century increased the amount of time people spend commuting alone in their cars and decreased their access to shared public space. This distance makes it hard to experience the repeated, unplanned interactions that sociologists consider key to forming adult friendships—those sidewalk connections long celebrated by urbanists.
One way to improve social cohesion is strong urban design that creates access to public space and public transit, walkable streets, and dense, mixed-use development. But fully reshaping our urban environments can take a long time. So a small team of us at Sidewalk began to explore more nimble ways of inspiring social encounters using location-based digital tools. We wanted to see if we could use technology to better activate our public realm, make these shared spaces more useful to local residents, and create neighborhoods in more than just name.
That led us to design an app called Park Time.
Park Time: A Prototype
We decided to anchor our exploration around a particular group of city residents who might most benefit from this kind of technology: parents.
Growing cities have struggled to keep families in the urban core given the scarcity of affordable, family-sized housing; the quality of education; and the lack of safe streets and play spaces. (Some cities, such as Toronto and Vancouver, have gone so far as to implement kid-friendly planning guidelines to keep families downtown.) For parents who raise their families in the city, the prospect of a dependable community—a group of friends to rely on, a group of potential babysitters to call on—is a true lifeline.
The exploration began by talking to a group of eight families in the Chicago area. They were all members of the same school group, but most didn’t know each other well. They told us they spent a lot of time taking their kids to the park, but that they rarely got to know the other parents they saw there or see the same families with any frequency. Most also said they were not on a level of friendship to reach out to the others before going to the park. This situation seemed like a great opportunity to increase casual interactions and potentially strengthen friendships, so we prototyped a mobile app called Park Time to help do just that.
The Park Time prototype notified parents when another participating family entered one of four nearby parks. Parents at home with a child might get the message and be inclined to head over to the park, or those parents at a nearby park could change plans to align with the other families. The idea was to encourage in-person connections without having to form a plan before leaving the house—a light, passive, digital nudge creating the chance to socialize.
A primary concern was to provide an experience that enhanced personal interaction without violating privacy or feeling creepy. We worried that the inconvenience of asking users to check-in every time they entered a park, a la Foursquare, would discourage them from using the tool. At the same time, we didn’t want Park Time to constantly track users via GPS, like some apps do. We also know that GPS doesn’t always work well in situations that require hyper-local locations, such as inside a building or within a small playground.
So we placed small bluetooth beacons at the four park entrances. These precise, low-energy devices were scanned for by the smartphones of our participants—they had no effect on anyone else’s—triggering a location-based alert. In other words, when a Park Time participant entered a park and came into contact with the beacon signal, only then did the app share their location with other families in the pilot group. The app also notified the participant that their location had been shared.
Two Key Takeaways
After five weeks, we conducted follow-up interviews with the participants and reached two clear conclusions.
The tool did encourage social connections—but not for everyone. The goal of Park Time was to give parents real-time information that might inspire them to go see a friend or acquaintance at the park more frequently than usual, thereby deepening their relationship. For several participants, the tool worked just as hoped. Parents with more flexible lifestyles actively ran the app to help them determine which parks to attend and when. So did parents with an expressed interest in expanding their friend groups—in particular, first-time parents and those new to the neighborhood.
One participating mother of a 4-year-old called the tool a “decision helper.” She said: “I didn’t have to fight with my son, because I could tell him that one of his friends was at a particular park.” Another parent noted: “This is perfect for my friend who just moved to Chicago from Brooklyn.”
Others found the prototype less useful. Parents with more stable friend groups, or who had more regimented schedules, did not act on Park Time’s alerts nearly as much. In the words of one such mother: “By the time I got an alert, my day was set and I was already out the door.” For these “planners,” the spontaneous nature of Park Time was less valuable. They expressed an interest in having the ability to plan park meetups in advance through the app, which was not the goal of our prototype—but something we may explore in future iterations.
Parents did not find the tool intrusive. This welcome takeaway spoke to our focus on privacy during prototype development. The use of beacons rather than traditional GPS or other trackers provided effective yet privacy-conscious location-based services to participants. And thanks to the low-cost nature of the hardware, the exploration could easily be replicated or scaled up.
Beyond the technology itself, two other aspects of the exploration allayed privacy concerns: the public nature of the parks and the trust parents had in their fellow participants from the same school group. Should we explore Park Time with larger groups in the future, this ability to choose or know other participants, and thus maintain trust, will be vital.
In future iterations of Park Time, we expect to give users greater flexibility, including in the areas of opting in or out of certain parks or times of days. We’d also like to extend the concept of hyper-local, privacy-sensitive technology beyond parents and parks and into other population groups and aspects of the public realm. Some promising ideas include a neighborhood community of people who work from home and would enjoy a co-working space, those in a running group or looking for a pick-up hockey game, or people who might enjoy a regular meet-up at a local bar or restaurant.
We know that digital tools can pull us apart as much as they can bring us together, and we also know that no technology can substitute for well-designed urban environments. But when thoughtfully developed, inexpensive and accessible digital tools can help us reconnect with others—and hopefully make our downtown neighborhoods feel more like urban villages.
The authors wish to recognize the other members of the Park Time team: Jack Amadeo, Chris Anderson, Gustavo Resendiz, Jesse Shapins, Nikki Sylianteng, and Dan Vanderkam.