In early 2017, Gehl Institute invited community design organizations to apply to its Open Call program: Proposals for Public Life. The program was designed to offer trainings on how to use our public life tools, and provided up to $10,000 to execute and evaluate a public space project.
Why Open Call?
The Open Call was driven by our desire to share, test, and improve our public life tools. This suite of tools is the result of decades of research by Jan Gehl and Gehl, the practice, in cities across the world. We wanted to know: which methods would prove most useful? What aspects of the trainings needed improvement? How could the tools be made more effective for designers and their community partners?
Importantly, we wanted to ensure that the tools could be used and adapted by others, thereby spreading the empowerment that comes with a better understanding of the spaces that surround us. We sought critical feedback to determine if the tools could be helpful to the widest swathe of users. Working with the Open Call teams also enabled us to develop open source templates (available here) that enable more people to start collecting public life data.
The Activate! Chicago team, consisting of Latent Design and Archeworks, sought to enhance an underused memorial plaza through low-cost interventions; the Neighborhood Design Center wanted to better understand social mixing among different groups at the Ynot Lot–a privately-owned vacant lot that hosts cultural programming throughout the spring, summer, and fall; and Dotte Agency hoped to improve perceptions of access to health in two neighborhood parks with trail cleanups, new signage, and built elements.
Open Call provided the teams with approaches to collecting public life data and crafting compelling stories about their impact.
First, we presented on our approach to public life studies and offered team members trainings on how to customize and use the tools. Next, the teams sharpened their research questions and planned out their interventions.
Each team then conducted its own “public space-public life” surveys, both before and after the interventions.  This process involved counting people moving through or past their project site; mapping how people spent time there; and surveying visitors about their gender, race, income, opinions of the space, and more. After the teams collected their data, we looked at the results together and workshopped how to tell persuasive stories. At the end of the process, representatives from each team presented at Public x Design, our annual conference on inclusive public life in Philadelphia.
You can read the results of each project, in the words of the participating teams, here:
- Activate! Chicago at Perez Plaza
- Dotte Agency at Parkwood Park and Heathwood Park
- The Neighborhood Design Center at the Ynot Lot
One of the most challenging elements of the Open Call was collaborating with teams whose project sites varied considerably. We found that some tools worked better than others across contexts. In Baltimore and Chicago, counting people moving demonstrated the “stickiness” of both project sites when activated with cultural programming. For example, at the Ynot Lot, 50% of people who walked past the space during an event stopped to spend some time there.
Such quantitative counts were less useful in demonstrating impact at the low-density parks studied by Dotte Agency. Overall, the sample size was too small to result in trustworthy conclusions. But other types of data proved more compelling: before its intervention, Dotte Agency created an interactive magnetic board based on our Quality Criteria, asking parkgoers about what changes they wanted to see and where. These conversations then shaped the design and placement of Dotte Agency’s targeted improvements, built in collaboration with YouthBuild KCK.
Over the course of the Open Call project, we thought a lot about what our methods offer to community design organizations. These groups are often experts at telling stories using “small data”: amplifying community voices with testimonials, photographs, and other qualitative material that captures the complexity of the issue at hand. A number of our public life tools can fit into this process, as demonstrated by Dotte Agency’s imaginative use of the Quality Criteria. Also, because any public life survey requires spending multiple hours in a space observing and interacting with people and the environment, it can lead to all sorts of discoveries — many of which cannot be adequately represented with numbers or statistics.
But public life data that is composed of numbers and statistics, and might take the form of graphs, charts, maps, and other forms of visualization, can also help us understand what is happening in a space. For example, over 40% of surveyed attendees at the activated Ynot Lot had an annual household income below $10,000. Among other things, this signals to organizers that keeping the event free is crucial for serving its public. Additionally, quantitative data is often effective in persuading people who allocate resources (city staff, foundations, etc.) on the impact of a project. When the Activate! Chicago team installed low-cost cardboard stools at Perez Plaza, the number of people spending time there during performances jumped from 21 to 111. This data makes a compelling case that further investments in seating could have a dramatic impact on the public life of the plaza.
Another important conversation that took place throughout the Open Call focused the ethics of data collection. A general consensus was that communities should be involved in the survey process from the start: playing a role in what questions are asked, what activities are measured, who participates as a survey volunteer, and more. Based on this feedback, Gehl Institute is in the process of collaboratively developing a public life research code of ethics, as well as making our tool templates more easily editable and accessible.
Overall, the Open Call was an invaluable experience for us, and we’re thrilled that the design teams have expressed their intention to continue using (and adapting) public life tools for their projects. A tremendous thank you to all who participated!
 In the case of the Neighborhood Design Center, this meant conducting surveys while the Ynot Lot was activated and while it was inactive. It recorded data on July 15 and August 12 (active) and on August 5 (inactive).