What we learned from testing a new public life study tool

Public life studies are a tool to capture a snapshot of park use to help guide decisions about park planning, design, and programming. They’ve been used in cities across the world, including New York, San Francisco, Copenhagen, and, more recently, here in Toronto. Much like we count cyclists to help understand if a new bike lane is being used or we count cars to understand traffic patterns to help with congestion.

Public life studies can help answer questions related to how places are being used or to evaluate a new design, amenity, or activity. Is a new set of exercise equipment being used? Are there enough places to sit down? Should we build a new playground for older children or younger? To do a public life study, surveyors observe the park and count what people are doing (standing, sitting, playing, etc.) and their approximate age and gender, which helps answer these types of questions.

Park People has been involved in several public life studies in Toronto. In our most recent public life study, conducted in early fall in collaboration with the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee, we wanted to evaluate the impact of the community café and programming in R.V. Burgess Park that is led by TPWC. These activities recently received funding from our Public Space Incubator program.

This public life study used the same methodology we have used in the past, but tested a new app developed in partnership with Sidewalk Labs and Gehl Institute to help make carrying out public life studies easier (read our previous blog here). The app doesn’t automate the process of doing a public life study, but provides people conducting the surveys—in this case youth and women recruited by TPWC from the local neighbourhood and trained by us—with a better tool to conduct them.

In addition to observations about park activity, Park People worked with TPWC to create a paper-based survey, where surveyors asked more qualitative questions to people about what programming they liked and whether they had visited the café.

Public life studies are a lot of work. The use of the app didn’t change the nature of data collected (which is part of a standard called the Public Life Data Protocol developed by the non-profit Gehl Institute and its partners), but it did make it much easier to carry out the study. The seemingly simple act of replacing paper-based methods (think sheets of paper on a clipboard) with being able to input data digitally made it easier to train surveyors and was huge in saving time, effort, and increased efficiency in analyzing the data.

For example, transcribing the data from paper alone can take hours and brings with it the opportunity for error. For this study, the data was saved automatically. We also didn’t have to print dozens (and sometimes hundreds, depending on the study size) of sheets of paper.

Ultimately, however, the most important tool in a public life study is people’s own local knowledge and observations—and this cannot be replaced by any digital tool.

At the end of the study, Park People conducted a data workshop with the surveyors to help analyze what we had collectively learned. This was a chance to dig into some excel tables and pick out patterns or numbers that jumped out to us. It was also critical because the surveyors brought with them personal knowledge of the park, and a nuanced sense of what they saw as people moved through the park. This helped add a richness to what numbers alone cannot tell you.

For example, when we noticed a small spike in the number of adult women in the park on the day when TPWC hosted a community-marketplace and other programming, the surveyors highlighted that the increase in women was likely because many of the market vendors are women and their products (such as clothing) are targeted towards other women.

Public life studies can be a great way to help improve places for people by understanding how they’re used by people. Our hope is that not only TPWC, but other community groups will be able to carry out public life studies using this new tool so they can understand the impact of the work they’re doing and communicate it to the city, potential funders, and the community.

“This study is very important for the work of TPWC,” Sabina Ali, founder of the group, says. “Our vision is around placemaking and improving the lives of the people in our immigrant neighbourhood. The public life study helped us to measure the impact of our improved park space and our programming—including the community market, park cafe, art activities, performances—and also how people are using this space on Friday nights when the market takes place. TPWC is very thankful to Park People and Sidewalk Labs in helping us study public life and measure the impact of our work in RV Burgess.”

“This information will help us in filling the gaps and in improving our programming. We hope this information will also be helpful to the City of Toronto’s Parks department, which is now in the process of redesigning RV Burgess Park. For example, where do we need more seating in the park? Close to the market. What do we do in the space that is underused. Put in fitness equipment.”

“When different community groups around the city carry out public life study using this app, it will help us understand how our parks are performing and the comparison will help us in developing better programming and utilization of the park space.” Sabina says the plan is to make the data they collected open so others can learn from it—so stay tuned.

Here’s a few highlights from the study:

Programming gets more people out to the park—a lot more people. On the Friday programming day, the park saw a 365% increase in people over the average number of people using the park across the three other non-programming days.

The number of people who spoke with a stranger increased by 62% on the day with programming, making a social park even more social. Across all days, socializing was the top activity in the park, but on the Friday market and programming day socializing took on a different role with more people speaking with someone new.

Women make up the majority of park users, and programming boosts this even higher. On the Friday market and programming day, the number of women in the park increased by 11% compared to the average across the three other non-programming days. This increase is likely due to the Friday market drawing more women aged 25 to 64 to the park.

Programming brings more people out with friends and family members. On the day with programming, 62.5% said they came with friends, other family members, and colleagues, while only 12% said the same on days without programming.

Working to make studying public life easier: a pilot project in R.V. Burgess Park

We measure a lot of things in our city, from building applications to travel patterns to recycling rates. Tracking these helps us plan better neighbourhoods, transit, and waste systems. But what we don’t often measure is what people are doing in public spaces—the public life of a public space. Without this information, it’s hard to understand how to improve public space and whether designs and programming are successful.

Understanding the success of an intervention in public space is critical for a program we launched earlier this year at Park People: the Public Space Incubator.

We launched the PSI with the aim of testing new ways of inhabiting and enlivening public spaces in Toronto. Through this incubator, we are funding five different projects in the city that each propose a new and unique way of bringing people together in public space. Since the projects are testing new ideas, a big part of the incubator is understanding how something worked—or didn’t—and being able to refine and make changes. Essentially, these are public space experiments that we want to learn from.

That’s why we’re excited to be working with Sidewalk Labs and Gehl Institute as part of the Public Space Incubator on the creation and testing of an app that can make studying public life easier. To test a first iteration of the app, we’ve partnered with the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee—one of the recipients of a Public Space Incubator grant this year for their community-run park cafe in R.V. Burgess Park—to help them and us understand the impact of their work.

This public life study app project follows on the footsteps of a recent and growing use of public life studies in Toronto to measure what people are doing in the city’s parks, including being formally a part of the City’s park revitalization design process. The City of Toronto did its first public life study of 15 downtown public spaces in 2016 as part of its TOcore project—a study that Park People helped the City of Toronto organize and manage along with Gehl Studio and Public Work, and one that the City hopes to use as a baseline from which to measure public life in downtown in the future. We’re also currently working with the City on a public life study of the King Street Transit Pilot to determine how the new public spaces are being used as part of the pilot.

As you can imagine, public life studies require a lot of preparation and work. You have to frame the goals of your study (What are we trying to find out?), organize and manage the study (Who is going to carry out the study, how, and when?), and analyze and communicate the results (What does this tell us and how can we use that information?). The complexity of carrying out a study represents a barrier for many, even though many community groups and municipal governments want to understand their public spaces better.

The Public Life Data Protocol created by the Gehl Institute helps this by standardizing the way public life data is collected and organized to lower the barrier for communities to carry out public life studies and ensure we’re all speaking the same language. The design of the app, which is based on the protocol, hopes to take this even further by making it easier to set up and carry out a public life study through a digital tool. It still requires people power to go out to the park and do the study, but it will make it much easier to organize: instead of printing hundreds of study sheets that then need to be transcribed, participants record data directly on the app.

The focus of this first early test of the app in R.V. Burgess Park will help us learn about how to improve the app in the future. It will also help generate important data to understand how the interventions of the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee, including those funded by the Public Space Incubator, are working. This includes the cafe itself, new cafe seating, and food-based programming.

We have developed project goals and methods with Sabina Ali from the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee and will be training local youth and other residents recruited by Sabina to carry out a public life study to understand the impact of the cafe, its seating, and programming in the park.

Specifically, participants will be marking the who, what, and where of people in the park. Are they sitting? Playing? Eating? What’s the percentage of people that are over 65? Or younger than 12? The data will help us and the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee understand the impact of the project and how their programming could be improved in the future to serve the community, and the intent is to make the data open and accessible in the future. Sidewalk Labs will make the source code for the data collection app open-source so that anyone can use and build upon our efforts.

This is just the start. Ultimately, our hope is that the app helps demystify the public life study process and allow organizations like local community groups and municipalities to more easily carry out these studies, learn from them, and share the results so that everyone can benefit from quality data about public life.

photo by Sabina Ali

Stay in the loop about Park People opportunities, programs & events

Subscribe to our newsletter!