Planning February 2014

Research You Can Use

Observation as a Research Method (and the Importance of Public Seating)

By Reid Ewing

This month's column is about observational methods of research, and about urban designers who have used such methods to discern what makes a street, plaza, or park lively. Back in December 2009, I wrote a column about "Top Thinkers vs. Top Academics." The top thinkers were identified by Planetizen in a poll of its members. A surprising number of the top thinkers were also great observers, and they were elegant writers to boot.

Topping the list was Jane Jacobs, the ultimate participant-observer, who analyzed the built environment from her apartment in Greenwich Village and wrote in almost poetic fashion. Also making the list were such keen observers of the urban scene as Allan Jacobs, who wrote the 1995 book Great Streets based on his direct observations of streets around the world, and Donald Appleyard, who wrote Livable Streets (1981) to define those places based on his observations of streets in San Francisco. (Appleyard's methodology was more quantitative than the others in that he actually counted things.) As these examples indicate, observational methods seem particularly well suited to urban design.

Number 9 on the top thinkers list was William H. Whyte, who used direct observational methods to determine why some plazas in New York City are pleasantly crowded, while others are nearly empty. Direct observation means studying phenomena of interest without becoming a part of them. The researcher does not attempt to manipulate the setting in any way, and no constraints are placed on the outcome of the investigation.

In the Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, published in 1980, Whyte counted the number of users of each of 16 plazas and three small parks, and then considered factors that might account for variations in occupancy. He arrived at his eventual findings through "a succession of busted hypotheses." He first considered and rejected sun as a factor in a plaza's popularity, then turned to aesthetics, then shape, then size, and found exceptions in each case that disproved his hypothesis. It finally mainly came down to comfortable places to sit. I quote, so you get a sense of his marvelous (nonacademic) writing style:

"People tend to sit most where there are places to sit. This may not strike you as an intellectual bombshell, and, now that I look back on our study, I wonder why it was not more apparent to us from the beginning. Sitting space, to be sure, is only one of the many variables, and without a control situation as a measure, one cannot be sure of cause and effect. But sitting space is most certainly prerequisite. The most attractive fountains, the most striking designs, cannot induce people to come and sit if there is no place to sit."

White's methodology probably would not pass muster in a top planning journal today. His sample of plazas was too small to permit statistical inference, and he did not use multivariate statistical methods to control for confounding variables. But it remains a compelling piece of research. It is also research that has had a practical impact, in that New York City subsequently revised its standards for plazas to require specific features such as adequate seating in order to qualify for density bonuses.

A fresh take

All this leads me to a recent study of street life in the tradition of William H. Whyte. Vikas Mehta, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida, sent me a copy of a recently published book based on his dissertation at the University of Maryland. I served on his dissertation committee, which may account for the free book. The Street: A Quintessential Social Public Space, published in 2013, required hundreds of hours of direct observation of 78 block segments on 19 blocks on three streets in the Boston area.

Mehta was interested not in pedestrians quickly passing by a given block face, with a destination elsewhere, but rather in those who were stationary for a period of time, lingering, gathering, and engaging in social behaviors on the street. He reasoned that the stationary users would be more affected by the quality of the environment than passersby would be. Walk-by observations were conducted to count street users on each block segment, more than 3,200 of whom were recorded. While all 19 blocks were concourses for pedestrians, over half of the lingering and stationary behaviors were observed on only four blocks, and 25 percent were observed on one block alone. Eight of 78 block segments accounted for 38 percent of the users.

Fifteen-minute stationary observations from discreet vantage points were also conducted to determine the duration of stays. Again, eight block segments were the ones with the greatest number of people spending the maximum amount of time on the street. Consistent with Whyte's findings, all eight had places to sit — either benches installed by a public agency or chairs provided by stores.

Five block segments had large numbers of users, but they spent very little time on the street. None of these block segments had fixed or movable seating. Mehta ultimately ran correlations between an overall index of social activity and 11 characteristics of street frontage (articulated street fronts, shade from trees and canopies, variety of businesses, etc.), and found that commercial seating had the strongest correlation to his index. He also conducted user interviews and performed multiple regression analysis on his frontage variables to determine the relative contribution of each to social activity. I cannot do justice to this full-length book in a short column, but I can say from experience that the book goes well with a glass of merlot while seated at an outdoor cafe.

Reid Ewing is a professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah and an associate editor of JAPA. He is the author of Measuring Urban Design, recently published by Island Press. More than 30 of his past columns are available at