Testing Public Life Tools in Translation with dérive LAB

How do we know when, where, and why to use design to solve problems in the public realm? And how can the Gehl Institute’s research tools help? Last month, Gehl Institute joined our partners at dérive LAB to unveil new Spanish-language translations of the public life tools, to see how translating is not merely changing the words but also adapting the tools to different contexts, and to help lead a place-based public life tools workshop in dérive LAB’s hometown of Querétaro, Mexico.

A key point for dérive LAB co-founders Ximena Ocampo and Pakiko Paillie was to emphasize the whys behind the design and policy projects that shape public space. Yes, they told workshop participants, there are many possible interventions you can make as a practitioner. But, before deciding on your proposal, it’s necessary to first get an informed sense of what is needed to accomplish in a place through a design, program, or other type of intervention. That’s what the tools can help you do.

Discovering those why factors is the purpose of design research. The first step is drafting research questions to guide your understanding of the existing qualities of a space. With key questions in mind, the next step is to study the space to develop knowledge about how that space is used, and how well it supports local public life. By applying the public life tools, we gain a representative snapshot of how people use public spaces, and get information that helps ensure your ideas are sensitive to the public life in that context. For example, in an underutilized playground in a dense area, you could ask: will your intervention bring more people into the park? Will this improved crosswalk between our neighborhood and school encourage more parents to feel it is safe for their children to cross the street? Will my mural project featuring local portraits increase the number of people who express feeling proud of their neighborhood? The public life tools are a simple way to measure the effects of your public space intervention, and, by answering your research questions, better understand if your project is right for the space.

We followed up with Ximena and Pakiko, to learn more about their intentions behind translating the tools, discuss other methods for evaluating public spaces, and reflect on their experience at the workshop.


Gehl Institute: What do you hope to achieve by introducing these research tools to a Latin American urbanist audience?

dérive LAB: For several years, we have had a debate about the popularization of tactical urbanism in Latin America. This methodology has inspired many people and organizations to become involved in the construction of their city. But it has also led, in some cases, to practitioners making changes simply because they can, without much information to justify the interventions or–maybe more importantly–to prove that they had a positive impact through before-and-after data.

Although there are already several organizations that apply these research methods to study public life, we are certain that spreading easy-to-use tools will help more people generate useful information related to their projects and, in turn, both professionalize certain practices in our field and raise the level of public discussion around the value of public space.

What are some key struggles you, or others you work with, face in your projects for improving public life in cities? How did these experiences shape the design of the workshop?

We think some of these struggles have to do with the situation we just described: doing for the sake of it, without having proof or justification that “better design” or an intervention is even needed in a space. This is why a very specific feature of the workshop was to postpone the drafting of specific design proposals–a request that was particularly difficult for architects and designers.

Nevertheless, it worked: there were final proposals that considered what kinds of events might bring together the different occupants of a park to meet and listen to one another’s needs, or others that involved reviewing the municipal regulations that limit the uses of public space. These are more process and policy-oriented proposals than you would generally find in a design workshop, aiming for lasting impact rather than a one-off intervention.

Our intention is for the public life tools to be open-source and easy to use, remix, and combine with other approaches for studying public space and public life. How do you see the tools evolving as more people pick them up and apply them in their projects?

Translating the tools was already a first evolution, because it involved more than simply changing the text from Spanish to English. It also required adapting concepts and questions to the Latin American context. For instance, one of the most difficult questions to translate was related to race: while in the US it is common to be asked to identify as African American, Asian, Hispanic, or White, these categories are different and more complex in the Latin American context. Therefore, to make the Spanish versions of the tools we had to consult with sociologists and psychologists and, in the end, the recommendation was better not to include the question.

Beyond that, we believe that once people start using the tools, new ideas will emerge. During the workshop, some groups added new symbols in order to map certain spaces more accurately. One group proposed an altogether new tool to measure and analyze the road safety of an intersection. We are confident in our collective intelligence, as long as we continue sharing knowledge and keep these tools open.

Have you identified any limits to this particular set of tools? What are some other methods you think they should be complemented with?

We have always believed that quantitative data has to be accompanied by stories and experience. Working directly with people who live or frequent a place can provide more information (different information) than just collecting observational data. For example, in a tianguis (open-air market) in any city of Mexico, not only is the number of people visiting important, but also how the market is organized, how many families benefit from it, how it moves around the city, and a lot of other insights that can only be obtained by talking to lots of people.

So, we are convinced that observational, quantitative data on how people move through and use public space should in most cases be complemented with more ethnographic and engagement-focused research, resulting in compelling designs and stories that stakeholders will feel identified with.

What’s next for dérive LAB?

We are very interested in the practical application of tools. We believe that field experience is the best way to develop and perfect these methodologies and we want to link the issue of public space with other fields such as mobility, inclusion, and health. We might start working on other platforms to generate and share information, lowering the barriers to entry so that more people can influence the spaces they inhabit.

Our short-term plans are to stop, rest, and plan what our next steps will be like. We really liked the experience of this collaboration, so stay tuned!

Photos by Ricardo Fernández.