Social Space Experiments and Interventions

Upon its founding in 2015, Gehl Institute initiated a series of experiments to explore the role of public space in encouraging and inviting social mixing, economic integration, and civic engagement.


The three interventions highlighted here took place in Lexington, KY; Charlotte, NC; and West Palm Beach and Tallahassee, FL; In each instance, Gehl Institute carried out a playful experiment or design pilot, then used public life tools to study the impact. More in-depth accounts about these projects are available in the Tools Stories section of our website.



In Lexington, Gehl Institute, Gehl, and the Lexington Downtown Development Association collaborated on SplashJAM, a temporary water park. The idea came from an observation at nearby Thoroughbred Park, where children were playing in a fountain that was not safe or sanitary. Rather than issue tickets, the city supported the creation of SplashJAM to address this latent need. The intervention included accessibility ramps, picnic tables, and beach umbrellas, as well as on-site changing rooms and restrooms. Follow-up surveys found that the water feature brought together people who would not normally spend time in the park. In fact, 80% of the surveyed visitors had never or had rarely visited the park before the pilot, with 71% of visitors now returning weekly. You can learn more about SplashJAM here.


Five Points Plaza

Five Points Plaza was a pilot project in the Historic West End of Charlotte, North Carolina. Gehl and Gehl Institute collaborated with local community partners to create a temporary public space for residents to socialize and celebrate the neighborhood’s unique history and culture. In less than a month, the vacant lot was transformed into a welcoming site for hundreds of visitors. Additionally, the plaza revealed to city agencies that certain bureaucratic hurdles prevented people from improving public spaces, even if they wanted to. You can learn more about the Five Points Plaza here.


Federal Bureau of (Public Life) Instigation

For this series of experiments in West Palm Beach and Tallahassee, we asked, “How might humor and playfulness raise awareness among city leaders about the quality of public life and public space?” And so, Gehl Institute created the Federated Bureau of (Public Life) Instigation, or (FB(pl)I), to carry out two interventions. First, we wheeled a larger-than-life megaphone into West Palm Beach’s popular Saturday Greenmarket, and encouraged locals to yell out their favorite places in the city for all to hear. Meanwhile, “Public Life Officers” in matching white hats took to the market to provide shade for visitors with oversized umbrellas, offer moveable chairs to people who looked uncomfortable standing, and otherwise try to shed light on (and poke fun at) how the built environment fell short in supporting comfortable public life. Second, along Lake Ella in Tallahassee, we hired local actors to dramatically serve a buffet brunch. This drew attention to the fact that few people spent time at the waterfront, largely because it is separated by the surrounding neighborhood by a large highway. You can learn more about the FB(pl)I interventions here.

What’s next?

We’re not planning other public space interventions at the moment, but would love to hear from you if you’re interested in collaborating.