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Exposing Experiences: Research based Placemaking Jenny Kempson, Research and Design Lead

BA, Psychology and Art, Depaul University MA Geography, Chicago State University, MLA, University of Washington


The collection of data, both qualitative and quantitative, is an important part of our culture and directs many outcomes, although in the design of our cities public infrastructure, it is often a piece that is underfunded and forgotten. Incorporation of real world testing, prototyping, and research into placemaking has a major impact on how we, as the public, experience place. It should also be a crucial part of the design process as it helps us to explore new ways of perceiving the world. Exposure to information informs the multiple players in the design process and directs decisions towards the best human experience. This paper presents three case study projects in which a strong qualitative research component influences design direction and ultimately peoples experience in a city. The three projects were conducted in collaboration with the City of Seattle, Gehl Architects and Sociology researchers from the University of Washington. The projects include: a prototype streetscape element that folds into a wagon for downtown Seattle called a “Traveling Street Lounge”. Working with a team of sociologists, the designers piloted this project with the public during a five week time period, collecting data to inform the next phase of design. The second project, “Activating Alleys” is a research project where 200 alleys in Seattle were analyzed for built, behavior, and biodiversity data points. This data has informed future development of alleys and assisted the city in creating new alley programming. Lastly, the project “tweethouse” a public art piece, collected data from the public through a live twitter feed, creating a space for people to interact with art along a square in the city. This data has been used by the City to promote art activating programs.


The discipline of built environments offers an exciting body of literature, research, and design work from which designers can build a foundation of knowledge about the potential of public space in the 21st Century. Researchers and practitioners, such as William Whyte, Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl, Mark Francis, and many others, have explained the ways which public space contributes to human interactions, democratic processes and societal shifts. It is my belief that space, particularly public space, can play a strong role in creating changes in human behavior. By designing for future modes of interaction, we can develop a deeper understanding of the connection between people, place and communication that leads to long term human and environmental relationships and influence change. “ By giving shape to data, we not only provide access and insight to the hidden patterns of meaning it could reveal; we also give shape to the potential for creative collaboration between individuals” (Klanten, Bourguin, Tissot & Ehmann) In a developed society, many aspects of our world are driven by the numbers. This holds true in our built environment as well; numbers such as traffic volumes, building efficiency, and pedestrian counts help to conclude definitive design decisions. The collection of data is an important part of our culture and directs many outcomes, although not necessarily in a fair account. In designing our cities, it is valuable to expose the data that we collect in order for a democratic outcome to take shape. Exposure to numbers can help to make problems surface and

demonstrate patterns of activity that should be addressed. In the built environments field, the firm Gehl Architects developed methodology for data collection, which has shaped new ways of seeing our world. Their philosophy of “life, space, buildings” is confirmed by the countless public life surveys that they have conducted across the world. In these surveys, researchers collect a variety of data how people are using public space. Exposure to information in this way informs the players of design and helps to direct decisions for a common good. Additionally, data collected across the globe in numerous ways online can be a great resource to the betterment of society and can build our collective knowledge. Data can bring awareness to society and help to change behavior. For example, exposing locations and other important information about protests and rallies has helped to bring awareness to many injustice behaviors and helped to direct change. Research helps us to explore new ways of perceiving the world. Design can help to highlight those new thoughts and ideas.

DESIGNING FOR INTERACTION As designers, the impact of research and data collection informs ourselves and enhances the experience of others. The design of cities should take a human-centered approach, as successful urban spaces often relying on people to activate them. It is important for designers to pursue how we as human users shift our behavior when connecting with the world. In this approach in designing for human interaction, designers should focus on: + Conducting research to determined needs and opportunities + Creating conceptual designs and visions + Testing those interactions - what works and doesnt work, collect data! + Developing design iterations based on the feedback, successes and failures + Evaluation by conducting research overtime to continually improve the experience and design

Conduct research on needs/wants, test ideas

Develop Design Iterations


Collect data and Test


The following case studies represent projects that follow the designing for interaction approach. They are at various stages of development, but all have a main goal of designing to enhance human interactions in a physical place and incorporate some form of data collection that contribute to design or placemaking development. Activating alleys - research to promote new programs in place. In 2008, the City of Seattle, University of Washington Green Futures Lab, Gehl Architects, and the International Sustainability Institute completed the Public Space | Public Life survey for the City of Seattle. This report identified alleys as a potential resources to utilize in creating a smaller scale pedestrian network.

built environment and urban design patterns can create new types of opportunities to arise. In the course of this research, a number of projects were reviewed around the globe and in Seattle that have become important inspiration for city activation and alley interest. Researchers also met with a number of people who were excited about the possibilities that alleys hold in developing community, reinvigorating the urban un-noticed, and engaging a variety of different artists and designers. The Seattle Alley Handbook, an illustrated guide to activating alleys for multiple uses, represents extensive research on the potential of Seattle’s alleys; develops an alley typology, presents a clear menu of design strategies and tools, and paints inspiring alley potentials that alley activists are using to transform the city’s backways into a lively, artful public realm. The project consisted of an extensive study of alley components divided into three themes -- Built, Behavior and Biodiversity -- in which built focused on the existing infrastructure, architectural details and textures; behavior consisted of collecting pedestrian use data and wayfinding, and bio-diversity reviewed water, air, soil, sun, plants and habitat founds within urban alleys. By walking over 200 alleys in nine neighborhoods of seattle and taking over 40 data points for each alley, a full review of how alleys operate and the potentials for use was documented in this handbook. With this research as a resource, the International Sustainability Institute, along with residents and business leaders surrounding an alley currently named, Nord Alley, decided to take action. Their efforts have provided many events over the years including the public showing of the world cup (to be repeated this next summer), alley parties, and art installations. Most recently, the group has formed the Seattle Alley Network project (which I am a participating board member), promoting alley activation projects throughout Seattle neighborhoods. This project demonstrates that alleys can connect people to the city infrastructure by using them as testing labs for new urban ideas, new interactions between people, new business relationships, and new types of cross disciplinary design developments. Alleys are already underutilized or used in ways that are limited. They do not have a prescriptive interaction or program associated with them, therefore they are good places to try new ideas. The research associated with the Activating Alleys Handbook helped to promote this awareness to bringing human interaction to an underutilized space in the city.

In collaboration with Gehl Architects and University of Washington, extensive work on alleys in Seattle continued. Researching alleys in the summer of 2010 resulted in the Activating Alleys: Seattle Integrated Alley Handbook. This project was an in-depth analysis of over 200 alleys in the Seattle area and a catalyst for excitement with Seattle alley activation. Through this project, researchers were able to fully engage with how the Research displayed in alley for community brainstorming

Tweethouse Installation - research to evaluate use of art and place In today’s world we are continuously updated with information about what is happening outside of our immediate surroundings. In this installation, Tweethouse, (funded by the City of Seattle Arts and Cultural Affairs and Seattle Department of Transportation), we explored the idea of digital and physical experiences combined in a commonplace outdoor feature of a physical birdhouse. Using the birdhouse as a “base” this project relays information to the public through tweets from a Twitter account. Two different types of interactions occur for two separate birdhouses - in the pink house , a person can tweet to the market mockingbird via a twitter link. The mockingbird will then respond via twitter and the response will display on the birdhouse’s LCD screen. We wanted to entice people to have a conversation with the mockingbird and follow up with quick responses.

The goal of this project was to provide an interactive experience in the environment while also collecting and communicating data about how people interact with art in the public realm. In addition to providing a fun piece in the ROW, it also was an experiment in how to evaluate people’s engagement with art in the public, both as physical and digital interactions. By collecting this data on pedestrian use of art in the public realm we hope to make a small contribution towards the recognition of public artworks as important urban features that engage people in place. The data was collected by connecting our installation to a Twitter account statistical website ( and an Arduino data collection website ( The visualizations were produced by us. The Pink House was connected to a single Twitter account: MktMockingBird, which was displayed on the front of the house to promote conversation. Tweet activity (incoming and outgoing) was highest during the early afternoon hours. Most incoming tweets came from U.S. Citizens, while 1 came from Afghanistan. example conversation: @mktmockingbird I see you! @emraene I see you too! Mockingbirds have great vision @mktmockingbird We’re going to the curiosity shop! @emraene I’ll take some curious earthworms please

For the yellow birdhouse, people can change a dial to select one of three different tweets from local twitter accounts - we gave choices between the Pike Place Market, Seattle ferry schedule and Seattle weather. We then collect real-time data on the how many tweets a day we are sending and what preference people have when requesting a tweet. This data was collected using and In addition to the twitter tweeting birdhouses, we created five other static houses that help to fill the space and draw attention to the physical installation in the site. Through this installation, we provide delightful interactive experiences in the environment while also collecting and communicating real time data about the public for the public to utilize.

The Yellow House was connected to 3 public, Seattle-related Twitter accounts, which were selectable via a small wooden dial on the house front. The idea was to provide locally relevant information to frequent users of the space: tourists and commuters. Like the Pink House, Yellow House interactions were clustered in the early afternoon hours, with occasional spikes during the middle of the night. The least active times were mid morning and late evening. The most popular Twitter account was the Pike Place Market’s feed, with nearly half of the interactions.

“Traveling Street Lounge” - research to test ideas As part of the City of Seattle’s ongoing efforts to improve Third Avenue, a conceptual vision of providing street lounges for pedestrian use. Third Avenue street lounges would offer transit riders and others a pleasant place to be on the sidewalk. They would become a unique part of the streetscape: located outside of the flow of pedestrian traffic and clearly defined. They are envisioned to be public “rooms” dedicated to comfortable, social sitting and waiting. Implemented over time through a partnership program, street lounges would have both consistent basic elements that make them functional and easily identifiable, as well as opportunities for idiosyncrasy in design and programming, contributing variety and character to Third Avenue as they accrue. Each is designed for its specific location and conditions.

The research included observing around 400 people and interviewing 50 pedestrians, with 8 voicemails left. Initial findings conclude that the pilot project was used by many people, generated excitement - such as the following voicemail transcript:

Street lounges express the value of “street life,” leveraging the critical mass of transit riders to encourage more people to spend time on the sidewalk, making Third Avenue a more comfortable, vibrant, and popular street. This concept to be implemented over many years, is going to be prototyped and tested before final design and permanent installation. The first phase of testing was conducted throught he traveling street lounge project. The “Traveling street lounge” pilot test and research study was conducted for a two month period starting October 2013. The traveling street lounge was a temporary, mobile set of street furnishings--chairs, table, umbrella, rug, and plants—that the City and their partners are using to observe how amenities for pedestrians would be used and/or might affect behavior on Third Avenue. All elements of the street lounge fit into a wagon that is brought out every morning and put away every evening. Findings will help to inform the planning and design of permanent streetscape improvements in the future. In addition, the traveling street lounge will continue the process of engaging people around a new design for Third Avenue and create instances of different activity along the streetscape. Data was collected by a team of sociology students from the University of Washington, MID Ambassadors of Downtown Seattle and the Third Avenue design team. The methodology included an observation sheet that researchers filled out at least twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, interviews with people on the street, and a phone number that people could call to leave a voicemail message.

“ I tried out the chairs at Third in front of Columbia Sportswear. In the process, I talked to three strangers who were checking the install out! I think that’s a positive outcome for this type of street installation. Also the sun came out onto 3rd just as I sat down so I was warm whilst waiting for the bus whereas the seating is out of the sun in this location. I hope more will go up. Thumbs up!” The findings also helped to determine what locations of a street lounge would be most successful, what businesses are engaged with the project to help take ownership and how over the long term having a lounge could be beneficial to people waiting for the bus. In addition, people voiced their wants and needs for the next design iteration. Some people would like to see the lounge include more programmed activities, more seating, and more landscape plantings. All of this information will inform the next design iteration for the permanent street lounge proposal.

Exposing experiences : Research Based Placemaking  

Conference paper accepted by the University of Manitoba in 2014. This paper presents three case study projects in which a strong qualitative...

Exposing experiences : Research Based Placemaking  

Conference paper accepted by the University of Manitoba in 2014. This paper presents three case study projects in which a strong qualitative...