This is Part 3 in our series on Gehl Institute’s Open Call: Proposals for Public Life. Throughout Summer 2017, we provided technical assistance to three community design organizations working in public space.
Dotte Agency, based in Wyandotte County, Kansas, collaborated with community partners to enhance public life and public health in two neighborhood parks. The sites posed interesting challenges for our methods; due to relatively low pedestrian volumes, our tools that count people moving and staying proved less relevant in evaluating short-term impact. Instead, much of the most valuable information came from intercept surveys (renamed “participant surveys” – a name we plan to adopt) and spending hours in the space speaking with those who knew it best. Also, as pictured below, Dotte Agency creatively turned the 12 Quality Criteria into an interactive magnetic board to ask park visitors what changes they wanted to see and where.
Many of our public life tools collect quantitative data – how many people are in a space, how many people feel a certain way about it, etc. The stories you can tell with this data can be powerful, but it should always be complemented with personal stories from local stakeholders. Dotte Agency pushed us to think about how new tools might capture these narratives. We’re very grateful for their feedback and to have worked together.
In the summer of 2016, a group of community partners in Wyandotte County, Kansas came together to create the ‘Healthy Community Corridor.’ This proposal was intended to improve the health of our community by enhancing its infrastructure of walkability (parks, trails, sidewalks, and bike lanes) and access to our public parks. The proposal was accepted as one of fifty city proposals for the Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge.
Dotte Agency (a community design collaboration operating out of the University of Kansas School of Architecture and Design) helped to guide the Healthy Community Corridor Collaboration in the development of a ‘Community Initiated Park Improvement’ application. The intent was to create a policy within the local Parks and Recreation Department where neighborhood groups could propose and fund the creation of new public spaces. In response to the 2017 Open Call by Gehl Institute, Dotte Agency proposed the creation of ‘Active Living Trails’ to be an initial pilot of this process within the Healthy Community Corridor.
Our goal with this project was to use Gehl Institute’s observation tools to measure whether newly installed signage and built elements would have any impact upon perceptions of access to parks. To do so, we adapted Gehl Institute’s templates in Adobe Illustrator to be more reflective of our community and park context. Some of our feedback to the Gehl Institute included making this process more accessible to community groups that may not have access to design software, and to edit the tools provided down into a more concise format.
Park observations were scheduled to take place in mid-August and mid-September of 2017. Twenty resident volunteers were recruited by our community partners to conduct the park observations on a Tuesday and a Saturday, from 8-11 AM, 1-4pm, and 6-9pm. The first week of observations served as our baseline, and the second week a month later was intended to track what changes – if any – people noticed or engaged with. What we wanted to learn was: Do improvements that encourage physical activity have any impact?
During the baseline observations, we set up at each park large magnetic boards that we had previously fabricated, and laid down 3′ x 5′ maps of the park with twelve magnetic buttons on each. This setup allowed all people visiting the park to engage with what they’d like to see improved where. For each of the twelve buttons, we summarized Gehl Institute’s 12 Quality Criteria. We received a lot of great feedback this way, and more than any quantitative data, it was the stories we heard that helped us recognize how the park is used, and how it could be improved.
After gaining approval from our Parks and Recreation and Public Works departments, we designed signage with a positive message centered around public health, with some inspiration from the Mayo Clinic. We also developed a relationship with YouthBuild KCK to develop Active Living Trail elements to go in the parks, including Seesaws, Picture Frames, and Porch/Benches.
From our observations on the diversity present in the parks, we hired one of our community mobilizers to translate the text of the signs into Spanish. We ordered 40 signs with the bilingual health messaging printed on them, as well as the 6-foot tall steel U-posts on which the signs would be mounted with carriage bolts, and the picture frame signs.
During our post-installation observations, we observed and heard firsthand how the small changes had a big impact upon individual perceptions of public space. Perhaps the best example came from a resident who had rode her bike through the trail and was surprised to see signage that encouraged her to reduce her risk for Type-2 diabetes by being more physically active. She shared that she recently had her A1C levels checked by her doctor, and that she was recommended to find a place to be more physically active. After seeing the trail’s signage, she told us that she was motivated to keep using the trail for her daily physical activity needs.
From the quantitative data collected, we learned that while almost two-thirds of the park visitors could walk to the park, half still drove there. We also learned that most of the park visitors anticipated spending an hour or more in the park, with about a third of them coming daily or several times a week. The post-intervention data suggested that more people would use the park for physical activity after seeing the new signage and elements, and that more people liked the park after the installations than before. As park safety had been shared as a concern anecdotally, the participants recorded an increase in perceptions of safety post installation. Most relevant to our primary question (“Do improvements that encourage physical activity have any impact?”), responses indicated that the new signage promoting access to health was noticed and used.
While this process was a significant step for Dotte Agency in terms of how we go about collecting empirical data for our projects, there are a few disclaimers that we would include prior to a design team using this survey tool. First and foremost, a process of improving public space should include community participation from the outset, and this tool could benefit from additional instructions for facilitating a co-determination of questions and observations prior to its utilization. As a template, this tool may find its greatest utility in how it adapts to local context, and thus it would benefit from being co-defined by the community prior to its use in any community setting.
A second key consideration comes from the panel conversation when this project was presented at Gehl Institute’s Public X Design Conference in Philadelphia on October 18-20, 2017. In that conversation with the audience, it was suggested that a protocol for how public space data is collected, disseminated, and acted upon ought to be a matter for public discussion, rather than an assumption that data collected be automatically shared with Gehl Institute or other unknown entities. The question of who better public spaces are meant for, and who is represented in the process of its improvement, touches on issues of racial and socio-economic equity that this protocol could benefit from further iterating upon. An integration of participatory methods and protocols found in other fields – at Dotte Agency, we’re growing into a framework of community-based participatory research that comes from public health – would help guide this discussion. It was acknowledged that while this type of public space research may not rise to the level of human subjects research that an Institutional Review Board in academia, for example, might find worth deliberating upon, the expectation that design professionals consider the ethics of data collection is nonetheless a good topic for further investigation.
A final consideration is that there is ample opportunity for Gehl Institute and collaborating partners to further iterate upon the tools so that they can better include community narratives. Throughout the data collection process, we were exposed to rich narratives that were not recorded as ‘observations’ in the tools provided. If framed in a creative and participatory manner, new tools could further help designers understand what features of an existing public space need addressing, and record those narratives as supporting evidence. From this perspective, we believe that opportunities to introduce storytelling into the recorded observations would be a benefit when working with community partners and city agencies that might otherwise not be swayed by purely quantitative datasets. An example from our project for what that might look like can be viewed here.
With all of that said, Gehl Institute’s public life tools nonetheless represent a convenient set of resources for community designers to integrate into their workflow as they move forward towards a practice of evidence-based design. Further refinement of these tools is possible – we’re looking at how we might adapt/reduce the tools, or something inspired by the tools, in the near future – but as our cohort’s collective projects demonstrate, the tools are more than ready to be utilized today. We at Dotte Agency are grateful for the inclusion in this Open Call process, and are eager to see where the conversation goes next from here.
Images courtesy of Matt Kleinmann/Dotte Agency: