January 20, 2014

Public Spaces: Are we more social – or just stuck to our screens?

The most famous analysis of how people use public spaces is “The Street Life Project” – William Whyte’s observations of streets, squares and parks in New York City in the 1960s and 70s, based on thousands of hours of time-lapse filming, supplemented by Fred Kent’s work in 1975 for the Project for Public Spaces.


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From the New York Times Magazine:

Whyte believed that if we knew how, say, the placement of benches, or a plaza’s orientation to the sun, affected people’s enjoyment of a public space, then we could go beyond mere observation into the realm of smarter policy. We could make people happier. …

Today’s atomizing forces are brand new and far less tangible: ubiquitous Internet access, constant email and social-media updates, all distracting us from our surroundings, loved ones and other people around us. But sociologists’ concerns remain the same. Are we really talking to one another? Is modernity making us lonely?

Keith Hampton, a Canadian researcher in how digital technology changes our lives, “believed the footage could serve as baseline data for a comparative study. By refilming the same spots three decades later, Hampton thought he could answer major questions about our changing social lives, replacing vague theories with some hard data.”

Hampton, in particular, was curious about mobile-phone use in public. “Are we really all just walking around tapping and tweeting and texting and ignoring our fellow human beings? Was there a pre-smartphone Eden?”

After refilming the same scenes in Bryant Park and the steps of the Metropolitan Museum (and doing a tedious analysis of the results), it took only a week or two of arithmetic for Hampton to find what he was looking for.

First off, mobile-phone use, which Hampton defined to include texting and using apps, was much lower than he expected. On the steps of the Met, only 3 percent of adults captured in all the samples were on their phones. It was highest at the northwest corner of Bryant Park, where the figure was 10 percent.

More important, according to Hampton, was the fact that mobile-phone users tended to be alone, not in groups. People on the phone were not ignoring lunch partners or interrupting strolls with their lovers; rather, phone use seemed to be a way to pass the time while waiting to meet up with someone, or unwinding during a solo lunch break. …

It turns out that people like hanging out in public more than they used to, and those who most like hanging out are people using their phones. … not that many people are talking, or reading, texting or playing Candy Crush on the phone, but those who do stick around longer. …

According to Hampton, our tendency to interact with others in public has, if anything, improved since the ‘70s. The P.P.S. films showed that in 1979 about 32 percent of those visited the steps of the Met were alone; in 2010, only 24 percent were alone in the same spot.

But the most surprising result was something hardly anyone had thought about:

Today there are just a lot more women in public, proportional to men. It’s not just on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. On the steps of the Met, the proportion of women increased by 33 percent, and in Bryant Park by 18 percent. ..

Across the board, Hampton found that the story of public spaces in the last 30 years has not been aloneness, or digital distraction, but gender equity.

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