The building blocks of a great public space

A Sidewalk Talk Q&A with Toronto-based experts who have researched how public spaces create a sense of belonging.

Vanessa Quirk
Aug 23 · 13 min read

“I have an aversion to public spaces that are designed as museum pieces,” says Jake Tobin Garrett, the Manager of Policy and Planning at Park People, Canada’s leading charity devoted to improving public space. “You feel like you’re supposed to look but not touch.”

Having worked with community members to improve scores of public spaces, Garrett knows what makes an inviting public realm. But he and his team, folks who have dedicated their lives to the long-term success of public spaces, also wanted to understand what truly creates a sense of belonging in public space.

Enter Elle Ziegler, the Insights and Design Manager at Doblin, Deloitte’s human-centered design practice. Ziegler is adept at conducting user research — reaching out to diverse populations who, for reasons of geography, awareness, or access are typically missed in the public consultations — and translating those learnings into insights designers can use to guide their work.

Their collaboration during the spring of 2018 resulted in a report, “North of the Water” (commissioned by Sidewalk Labs), that is a valuable resource for anyone invested in designing inclusive public spaces. Indeed, it was critical to shaping Sidewalk’s public realm plan for its Toronto Tomorrow proposal — in particular the design of the three public spaces at the heart of Quayside.

In the following interview with Sidewalk Talk, Garrett and Ziegler reflect on the building blocks of great public spaces, describe the kinds of behaviors that people tend to engage in in public space, and explain why this report is only the beginning of the conversation.

What was the central aim of the study, the central research question?

Jake Garrett: We wanted to understand what is it about public space that helps people connect with it; what makes people feel comfortable engaging in their local public space in their neighborhood; and how can designers support that engagement?

Elle Ziegler: We were interested in understanding more deeply what public space even means. We expanded our definition of public space to be everything from the sidewalk you step out on to every morning you leave your house, to the coffee shop or the mall food court, that might not technically be public, but that people are using as a form of public space.

You put a lot of emphasis in the report on observing how people behave in space. Why was it so important to observe actions?

EZ: What people say versus what they do can be quite different. And if you’re making design choices based on just asking people — “hey what do you do here?” — there’s a chance you might be missing out on some important nuances. I can sit down and ask you: “what did you do yesterday, where did you go?” You might say, “Oh, I just walked from my house to the subway station.” But if I’m observing it, I see that you paused and stopped at a bench to tie up your shoe and said hello to someone. And then maybe you popped into a cafe and got coffee. And you forgot to tell us about those.

That really opens up our design lens to be a lot wider — as opposed to just designing for what people think they want and say they want.

JG: Also, often when we’re going through the process of designing a park or a public space, the first thing that people often jump to is: what are the physical amenities and features that we want in this space? People will be like, “Oh, we want a playground, we want these benches, we want a fountain.” But focusing on behavior modes allows us to take a step back and really ask: what is it that people want to do in this space and how does this fit into their daily lives? Then we can start to understand certain amenities and features that can plug into those different behaviors and motivations.

What was the methodology you used?

EZ: We used three research methods, all borrowing from sociology and ethnographic research methods.

We did remote research diaries. That was so we could understand what people are doing in daily life in public space.

We coupled that with follow-up in-person interviews, where we could observe people in their homes and just get a better understanding of who they are and dig way deeper into the things that we learned from our remote research.

And then we also ran a series of research walks. These were more conversations in physical space, where people could actually respond to different attributes of physical space.

JG: We intentionally structured those walks to go through a number of different kinds of parks or public spaces. That allows us to have really interesting and deep conversations with the participants and compare and contrast their feelings on going from one park to another. That was really helpful to be able to understand how people responded to and developed a connection with certain spaces more than others.

EZ: Also, we, the researchers who were going to be working with these people the whole way through, were the ones who conducted the initial screener phone calls. So we started building rapport with our participants pretty early on. We wanted to ensure that the participants felt like they could tell their story of their daily life out in the world. We wanted people to not have to feel like they needed to answer certain ways, perform certain ways, that there was a right or wrong answer. We did our best to have people feel comfortable with sharing their story with us.

And afterwards, before we released the report, we anonymized everything and we shared their stories with them to ensure that they felt comfortable with what we were sharing.

We also compensate people for their time. We take it very seriously. We’re asking people to do a job for us, to share their own personal expertise, and so we compensate them.

Was this a new approach for you two?

JG: It was a little bit of both new and familiar. Park people has done different walks before in public space to gather feedback about public space that might be going through a redesign or to find out what kinds of programs people want to to see in that public space. But what was new for us with this joint venture with Doblin was that we were able to combine these research walks with these other research methodologies, the interviews and the research diaries. I think it was a combination of those methodologies that allowed for a lot of rich content to show through.

EZ: I totally agree. And it was amazing to see themes emerging from all the different types of methodologies and then be able to kind of dig at them in a different way.

It sounds like you were surprised a bit by how much people got into the diaries. Is that fair to say?

EZ: Absolutely. Just how much care people took in what they shared with us, how well they were able to articulate their experiences in public space. And we heard quite a bit from the people that did the diaries that it made them look at their own neighborhoods slightly differently. They really enjoyed going out and thinking about their days differently or thinking more about their day-to-day life. And that they thought things like — “Oh, I didn’t realize how much I use that park and how much I love that park, and now I think about it when I sit on that bench and how much I enjoy that little space I have.”

JG: It was the same on the walks. When we asked them what they personally got out of the walks they said looking at the city and public space in a more intentional way. Someone even commented that it was almost a meditative exercise to walk through a neighborhood or a park slowly and really observe the things around us and how that space is making them feel.

The other thing that was really rewarding and exciting for me was to watch how people interacted and had conversations with others. So we had six to eight people on the walks and they were all from different parts of the city. Each had really different experiences in public space. And it was really interesting to see the conversation happen between people, whether they approached something in the same way or whether they disagreed about something.

Graphic displaying where the user research participants came from. (Sidewalk Labs)

One of the major aims of this study was to reach people that aren’t typically engaged in these consultation processes. Can you talk about that?

JG: So the traditional consultation process is: you have a meeting in a meeting room, it’s typically from six to eight p.m., you come and chat about what you want to see see in your park. And that is good for certain people, it’s definitely not good for people who aren’t comfortable going to rooms like that, people who might have to work at that time, people who can’t leave their kids home to come to a public meeting.

We wanted to go where people were. Go to their own neighborhoods, their own homes, invite people to experience different parts of the city through a walk, which is much more engaging than going to a meeting room. It also breaks down that barrier between someone standing at the front of a room at the mic and people in the audience. There’s a dichotomy there that isn’t really conducive to good conversation and good public engagement. Being outside in a park, you don’t have that same dichotomy. You can all be standing in a circle and having a conversation, and I think that that is a much more open and easy way for people to engage.

EZ: And one doesn’t have to replace the other. You get different information when you have someone reflect alone and then have follow-up conversations. You get different information when you’re out there in the space having group conversations than you would in a room. I think there’s richness from all of them.

How did you find participants? How did that outreach work?

JG: So we have a very strong network of people who are involved in parks, but also agencies and organizations throughout the entire city of Toronto. We put out a call through that network, asking those people to pass it along to the others. Through that method, we were able to reach a large amount of people in very different neighborhoods across the entire city.

EZ: We asked people: how active are you in public space? Are you out there organizing or are you just hanging out with your family once a week? And we erred on the side of people who use public space but don’t usually take part in public consultation.

What are behavior modes?

EZ: The behavior modes are essentially the jobs people are trying to do in public space. It’s almost like the hats people wear, or the mindset that you’re in, when you’re in public space. And that mindset may shift throughout the day, it may stay the same. The behavior modes we noted in the report were the common behaviors, mindsets, we would see in public space.

In the report you say: “Design can amplify certain behaviors or support a switch from one mode to another.” Can you give me an example of how design does that?

JG: One of the ways is seating. If we have a bench facing a view, that can support a solitary moment to yourself. But if we have seating that’s moveable or curved, that can inspire more social behavior: people coming together and organizing something in a space, taking part in a conversation.

Another example is a piece of public art. If you go to a park and you’re going there to have a solitary moment, but you encounter public art, that can shift you into more of a discovery mode. I might go to a park to read, which is something I often do, but something that switches me to a different mode would be a farmer’s market, or an event. I went there to solitarily read, but I’m switched now, because of programming or a design feature, into doing something different than I intended.

EZ: It’s important to remember that people are constantly looking for cues. We’re taught to move through the world scanning for cues that can tell us what to do, what not to do. We’re asking designers to pause and start with the behaviors they’re trying to support. Do you want to have a space that people can gather in? But then have a moment where you can catch your breath? Or take in a view? We’re asking them to lead with thinking about how these design features are going to impact people’s experience — it’s a new approach for a lot of designers.

JG: I’ll add an example from one of the walks. People described a park that we went to as a social space, even though, when we went there, there was nobody in it. And when I asked why people thought it was a social space, it was because there was seating that invited multiple people, groups of people, to face each other and chat. Even though no one was in that park people still knew it was a social space because that was the behavior it was designed and set up to support.

The report emphasizes the importance of variety. Why does providing different types of spaces, and behavior modes, matter?

JG: People responded well to parks that had a lot of distinct “rooms” that you could go in — almost like rooms in a house, where each has its own function — so, you know, playroom is here, café style place here, here’s another space for sport. They felt like they could knock out a few things in the same space.

EZ: Variety is also about a full experiential understanding of a space: the taste, smells, and sounds. If people are coming into a space with different understandings of how to use a space, different backgrounds, different expectations of space, having a lot of different variety in choice can ensure that people from different places can connect with it. Just think about a space like Kensington Market, which is the ultimate offering up of variety when it comes to multiple senses. And it’s probably one of the most vibrant places in Toronto, all season long.

“We see the following six propositions as the building
blocks of good public-space design. They are suggestions
for navigating the relevant tensions and for creating spaces
where peoples’ sense of belonging and community can
thrive.” — North of the Water (Sidewalk Labs)

I was really interested in this idea of: design a living room, not a sitting room. Were there any of the fundamental “building blocks” noted in the report that particularly resonated with you or that you think are crucial?

JG: I’m gonna to have to say the same one that you’ve said, because that’s something that in my own experience I’ve noticed. I have an aversion to public spaces that are designed as museum pieces; you feel like you’re supposed to look but not touch. It was interesting that people responded to, on the walks, the spaces that had a bit more of that lived-in quality, where you could tell that people in those communities and those neighborhoods had made those spaces their own. And the design of the space wasn’t final. It was the starting point for people to add their own bits and pieces to it.

EZ: I wouldn’t say that any one is more important than the others. But what surprised me was what inefficiencies can do for someone’s experience in public space, because they give people the opportunity to take a moment and pause. We had one person who talked about waiting for the laundry in her building, where she met the person who became one of her best friends. We often push against sitting there waiting on laundry, but are those opportunities we should be celebrating?

Everyone always assumes that the role of technology is to make things more efficient and quick. How do you think about the role of technology in public space?

JG: I think we have to be really careful about introducing tech into public spaces, because these are places where magic happens, when we put down our phones and actually meet each other face-to-face. If we’re all staring at our phones in a park, we’re not getting the benefit of the park, which is that social experience in the city.

But tech can play a supporting role in parks and public spaces by helping us manage programming and animation. One of the things that we have always worked on at Park People is the difficulty with permitting structures. They’re often very antiquated and difficult to navigate; you have to go to the city’s website if you want to plan out events in your park and navigate the process of forms and fees. So, allowing people to come and book a park or help organize an event and see what else is happening in their neighborhood and in their park would be something that technology can do really well.

We’ve talked a lot about how this guide offers designers different tools in their tool kit to help create a sense of belonging in public space. I’m curious, are there things that make a space feel exclusive, which are to be avoided?

JG: An interesting conversation happened on one of the walks about community events in parks and how they made people feel. A few people said they had difficulty feeling like they could engage in community activities that were happening in their park, because they didn’t know anyone there and weren’t sure if they could join in. It’s not about avoiding these types of events, but more about being aware that things that might seem, on their face, inclusive, can feel exclusive actually to people who may not feel comfortable participating.

People suggested features and activities that help people connect with strangers — like interactive public art, board games, and dog parks — that could act as an invitation for you to chat with someone new in a casual way. Even simple signage at an event that welcomes people to join in or explains what is happening may be helpful in these situations.

Any final words?

EZ: We don’t want people to think, okay, we’re dropping this report and we’re done. We were really excited to do this research and have it be a conversation. It gets people to raise their hands and they say, “No, no, no, I use space like this or you missed this.” We want to have those conversations. We want to invite people to start thinking about how we can be designing public space to create spaces where people feel like they belong. We hope that this is really the beginning of a dialogue.

Sidewalk Talk

Where technologists and urbanists discuss the future of cities.

Vanessa Quirk

Written by

Editorial Manager, @SidewalkLabs. Former @MetropolisMag @ArchDaily @TowCenter @CharlieRose. NYC. Traveler. Singer. Podcast addict. https://vmquirk.contently.com

Sidewalk Talk

Where technologists and urbanists discuss the future of cities.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade