Why we count

Individuals often understand what it means to be neighborly, to feel welcomed, and to have fun in public space, yet these are the very metrics that have eluded decision-makers, who tend to look at return on investment, or only have data about other things – property lots, vehicles, or the number of people living in a certain area. As a result we get new so-called walkable downtowns where blank walls, 900 feet blocks, and 4 lane streets are the norm, because that’s how the data with the conventional formulas say we will get the most out of our resources. Time and again, these spaces have proven to not be the ones that people flock to, so what kind of counting leads to social connections and attracts a diverse group of people?

In early 2016, we released the Public Life Diversity Toolkit which contained indicators and metrics that make visible the characteristics that speak to the heart, not just the wallet, and that trace social connections, not just the dollars. Over the past nine months the Toolkit has been tested with the aim of looking at the impact of design and programming on the diversity of public life in public space in various settings. In Lexington, a void of visible public life in some areas of the city resulted in design and programming to catalyze public life and create demand. In other places, like Hayes Valley in San Francisco, the toolkit helped us learn from the abundance of public life, such as who is using this space and for what purpose. Maybe other areas can learn from what we found.

Additionally, in cities across the country, a DIY ethos has taken hold, where regular citizens can instigate an experiment that changes the direction of the city (see HERE and HERE). More and more public agencies are also looking for pilot projects which they can test, measure, and evaluate before moving onto more costly solutions.

Perhaps most importantly, why we count in this new way is because for decades, certain peoples have been erased from the public sphere, whether through outright colonization, redlining neighborhoods, policing techniques, and even spikes on benches. It is more important than ever to open people’s eyes to the people who use space, to legitimize their use, to demonstrate the value in the ways people use it, and to ensure that those spaces assert the public interest in the name of the entire public. As awareness about social justice continues to grow, metrics become a way of porting value into the things that have often historically been overlooked or censured. And these metrics can be used immediately.

By measuring public life – how people interact in space – those who are shaping the way cities are made can create spaces that are more inclusive, healthy, and thriving. We think everyone counts in this work, and thus more people need to be counting to reveal the vital importance of people in public space and make the case that public life is for everyone, and is possible in every community.