We studied how we use public spaces. And the results may surprise you.

 

SDOT city planners launched a first-of-a-kind public life study to collect “people-centered data.”

 

Last summer, when our urban planners launched SDOT’s first-ever public life study (pssst: this is the first ever for any municipal transportation agency in the country!), they weren’t exactly sure what they’d find. One thing we were certain of was its value.

 

We wanted to know how ordinary people like you and I used public spaces as part of their daily life in Seattle. So naturally, curiosity led our team to survey and observe the activities at sidewalks on 108 block faces across 38 Seattle neighborhoods at different times on various days of the week to examine how the public uses public spaces.

 

We released the results of the 2018 public life study online as open data and published a cool interactive dashboard and are eager to share it with you and communities around the world that are looking to adopt the new public life protocol to inform their city planning practices.

 

The study set out to measure how people are using public spaces across the city. 

 

We’re incredibly excited about what we found but more thrilled about the super valuable “people-centered” data. This study will help us to design spaces based on observed need & to create spaces that foster more vibrancy while staying unique to a specific neighborhood’s style & flavor. And this is what we found.

 

10%

Nearly one-in-ten people on public sidewalks ended up staying for some time, for a variety of reasons like waiting for public transportation and fiddling with their mobile devices.

 

South Lake Union, Seattle | Photo by Jeanne Clark

 

56%

Fifty-six percent of people lingering on our sidewalks exhibited extroverted behaviors that included one-on-one and group conversations, as well as active engagement with the social environment, including purchasing items from street vendors or watching street musicians.

 

Pike Place Market

 

25%

Twenty-five percent were actively engaged in some type of commercial activity, such as dining at sidewalk cafés, window shopping or waiting in line at a food truck. This really shows the importance of sidewalks and public spaces that facilitate these types of neighboring businesses. #ShopLocal

 

Friends gathered

 

As for people’s posture, surveyors found that only one-in-four people who hung out on public sidewalks actually sat in seating provided either for the public or restaurant patrons.

 

61%

Sixty-one percent of observed public space users stood—whether that’s a preference or requirement given the amount of available seating provided, we aren’t sure. And 11 percent of those who decided to stay and hang out opted to either lean on nearby structures or use random objects as chairs for seating.

 

Downtown Seattle, City Hall | Photo by Jeanne Clark

 

By documenting this type of information, we can identify areas where public seating is woefully needed, and yes, we can rule out placing additional seating in places where people just aren’t down for relaxing on public seats.

 

The largest number of people in public spaces were observed in Seattle’s densest neighborhoods, engaged in a variety of activities depending on the neighborhood, day of the week, and time of day. The top five busiest neighborhoods surveyed were:

 

  1. Commercial core.
  2. Denny Triangle.
  3. Pioneer Square.
  4. Belltown.
  5. South Lake Union.

 

With an honorable mention landing with lower density neighborhood/commercial districts—including Capitol Hill, Ballard, West Seattle Junction, Alki, and Pike/Pine. Each had nearly as many people hanging out at the top five.

 

Phinney Ridge, Seattle

 

This study helps us to design spaces based on observed need & to create spaces that foster more vibrancy while staying unique to a specific neighborhood’s style & flavor.

 

This type of bespoke planning can help the City spend more wisely on neighborhood investments by allocating resources where they’re most needed. One neighborhood’s overlooked art sculpture is another one’s lounge chair. You just never know! Well, now we actually do. . .

 

 

We’ll take action on the public life data by developing action plans in small study areas.

 

We hope to build on the initial dataset each year to help create the Department’s people-centered database, capturing more neighborhoods, block faces, and times of the day. We’ll use the data to develop action plans in small study areas either at the neighborhood scale or by block face. These action plans will help us to optimize public space design, possibly leading to more seating, larger spaces to congregate, or working with an adjacent landowner to engage with the street more. We also developed a new Guide For Data Collectors – a tool that can help community advocates strengthen advocacy efforts with data.

As you can tell from this guide – data collection is a lot of work. Sidewalk Labs recently announced a new mobile app to help automate this process through public engagement. Though the app is currently in beta mode, it could one day be a data collection tool in the palm of the public’s hand.

Questions? Or interested in conducting a study in your neighborhood? For more information about this work, email SDOTpubliclife@seattle.gov.

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