For thousands of years, public spaces have been places to which we gravitate for enjoyment and solace, to take our collective temperature, celebrate, and protest.
A subway station without commuters. Parks without children playing tag. We find ourselves in The Great Empty, as New York Times Michael Kimmelman has called it, with a chance to rethink how we activate our spaces…with the public in mind.
One of the problems we at PUBLiSH observed is that the spaces we have created for the public to engage with each other – think parks, sidewalks, and amenity spaces – do not work for the public we have today. It’s not enough to just create the spaces for people to come together; people want to understand in advance the functionality and the ways they can experience a space fully with their community. We can achieve this by using social media platforms.
83% of Canadians use social media, making us one of the world's most connected online populations. Geo-located social media data such as adding location tags to Instagram posts, tweets, check-ins, and hashtags present opportunities for us to see how spaces are being used through user-generated content. These insights allow us to explore how people are interacting with specific places and why these spaces are not being used in the ways they were designed for. Social data can also allow us to discover new uses for spaces – whether positive or negative – that we may not previously have thought of. A lack of data is also data; if no one is tagging certain spaces on social media, that could indicate that few people are spending time there socially.
Ever wonder why that park space you designed is empty or why none of your homeowners are using that creative amenity space you developed? It’s because they haven’t been designed and activated correctly.
"It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people - what is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished." Said William H. Whyte, an American urbanist, sociologist, organizational analyst, journalist and people-watcher who identified the elements that create vibrant public spaces within cities.
Close your eyes and think of some urban local public park spaces. Often these spaces look neat and clean, they lack seating, and if they have seating, they lack good seating. Anyone who knows me understands I love a great entrance, and our urban spaces often lack a sense of arrival, instead, they have poor or no clear entrance and strange pathways. And a last observation is they have order and control, this kills the creation of expressive spaces that stimulates social dynamics in a neighbourhood.
For public spaces to be successful, they must be inviting and create a sense of belonging. They must feel clean, safe, comfortable, and inclusive. Everyone has the right to easily accessible public spaces. Through the use of social media, we can develop meaningful content that inform community members how best to experience these spaces. The need for connection is core to our wellbeing as humans are social creatures with an innate desire to belong to a tribe. We can show them how they can connect with others at these public spaces through social media campaigns, visual and narrative cues.
Why does this matter so much? This is where public life happens. This is where connection takes place. This is where change occurs and we combat loneliness. We can see proof of this in Blue Zones, regions of the world where people live and thrive for the longest amount of time and well into old age. Ultimately, connection is the key to human happiness and better quality of life.
On Instagram, #CentralPark in New York has 7.9 Million posts, with most images featuring people interacting with the space. On Google, Mauerpark in Berlin has received over 12,000 reviews (with a current 4.4 star rating), “Great Atmosphere and Artsi Mood” one commenter shares. On Instagram, #DavidLamPark in Vancouver showcases videos of outdoor basketball games, friends picnicking beneath cherry blossom trees, and dogs posing on the seawall. We should bridge the physical and digital world in order to invite people from all walks of life to get off their couch and get outside, and we as an industry should be committed to designing spaces that then foster connection.
Vancouver is over sterilized by regulation and bureaucracy, which makes it almost impossible for any kind of creative expression. We do not embrace creative thinking at a deep enough level. However, there are some great examples of how we have succeeded in public connectedness – Granville Island and Robson Square, despite the construction.
Cities around the globe can become healthier by investing in thoughtfully designed public spaces that support human interaction, however, it is important to ensure the story of a space is effectively shared and social media can be a valuable tool for this.
What is at the core behind our public spaces, what was the intention? Now tell that to the public in an engaging way. Tell the story of why it was created for the public, and show them how they can like our public spaces.