Gehl Institute collaborated with the MIT Civic Data Design Lab as they designed, fabricated, and tested sensor-enabled street furniture for the collection of public life data. The results, including instructions on how to manufacture the benches, were then published in a free, downloadable report.

What is BenchMark?

Civic Data Design Lab developed the BenchMark project with Gehl Institute to see how “smart” furniture, equipped with sensors and machine learning technology, could augment urban design methodologies for measuring public life. Underlying the experiment was a desire to provide an alternative to the current model of private-sector actors shaping the augmentation of urban space with “smart” technologies. Typically, these companies do not share their methods or data with the public. In line with our mission, BenchMark provides an open source strategy through sharing data and methods for measuring public space which anyone can use.

The mobile benches and signs were designed to collect anonymous data about where a given bench is located, how close it is to other BenchMark benches, whether it is in use as a seat or something else, how many people are in the public place at any given time, and environmental conditions such as light and noise.

“Our research team sought to understand what spatial qualities promote active, social spaces,” explains Professor Sarah Williams, Director of the Civic Data Design Lab, whose work focuses on the intersection of data, policy, and the built environment. To do so, the BenchMark furniture was tested in three locations: on the MIT campus in Cambridge, MA; at the Belmont Better Block festival in Charlotte, NC; and at HUBweek in Boston, MA. The stories of these tests, including successes, failures, and lessons learned, are documented in the full report.

By designing the furniture for relatively easy fabrication, as well as detailing each of its components, the thinking behind design decisions, and the ups and downs of the multiple tests, BenchMark offers a way in for civic technologists with limited resources and a desire to do this type of data collection. The final report contains detailed analysis on the development and testing of the system for anyone to read, as well as recommendations for civic leaders on how to improve public spaces based on the visualizations and statistics generated by BenchMark’s outputs.

What’s next?

The final report functions can be a helpful resource for urban researchers who use public life metrics to enhance the quality of the public realm. A “smarter” city offers many opportunities, but its democratic potential relies on transparency and measuring the right things for the public good.

Questions about the experiments, sensor technology, and bench fabrication? Head to our Bookshelf and download the full report.  If you’re interested in testing the BenchMark in your city, we want to hear from you!

This project was made possible through the generous support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.