By: Eve Critton

You’ve heard us talk about successful public spaces – what they look like, what goes on inside of them, and how they are connected to the city fabric that surrounds them. We know some of the elements that contribute to making great spaces: accessibility, feelings of safety, robust programming, and a diversity of destinations for people to enjoy within the space, just to name a few. But how can we tell how well an individual space is performing?

Pershing Square on a Thursday during the lunch hour (left) compared to a Wednesday at the same time, during the weekly farmers market (right).

One tool at our disposal is public space observation, a practice explored by William Holly Whyte, mentor of Project for Public Spaces (PPS) and, arguably, the larger placemaking movement. He discovered that when you “look hard, with a clean, clear mind, and then look again – and believe what you see”, you can extract unparalleled knowledge about a space.

“Observation is a really important way for people to establish some objectivity about what’s happening there. We often look at public space with a lot of preconceptions about what is and is not happening there… What’s really helpful about behavior mapping, is it sets out a very common sense, simple, and objective method for looking at what’s happening in a place.”

Philip Winn, Vice President at PPS

Counting people who walk through the space or drawing out the route they take can shed light on where people are coming from and where they are going, enabling us to both improve their journey through the space and capture them for a longer period of time. Documenting where people sit and stand can help in determining which destinations within the space are popular and why. This, in turn, allows us to  improve upon those spaces and ensure a diversity of destinations for the future. Observing what people are doing when they are in the space – reading, socializing, eating, walking their dog, playing catch – can tell us how to program and design the space to fit the needs of the community that it serves.

One form of observation is creating a desire line diagram, showing how people move through the space during a given period of time.

Our team at Renew has done extensive observation work in Pershing Square to inform the design and programming vision for the future, and learn more about the life of the square and opportunities for improvement now. We recorded observations about people – how many there were, where they were, and what they were doing. Our observations were conducted at lunchtime on weekdays, and were done consistently over the course of a few weeks in the fall.

What did we find out and what does it mean? During that time, we learned a lot about who was using Pershing Square, at what times, and for what reasons. Our observations became a tool that allowed us to start to see some patterns emerge, as Philip Winn, Vice President at Project for Public Spaces and longtime advisor to PSRenew, told us it would.

Most notably, we were able to draw two overarching conclusions from our observations:

  1. On average, there are twice the number of people in the square on Wednesdays and Fridays than other weekdays.

  2. On average, there are three times the number of women in the square on Wednesdays and Fridays than other weekdays.

Average numbers of both people and women at Pershing Square are far higher during times of programming (Wednesdays and, less so, Fridays).

These findings then led us to question the difference between the space on Wednesday and Fridays, and the other days of the week that could account for the spike. Looking at the current schedule of programming for the square, each Wednesday there is a prosperous farmers market, offering both produce and prepared foods, that brings in the lunchtime crowd. Similarly but less so, on Fridays there are a few food trucks offering lunch to park-goers. These two days are a stark comparison to the other weekday lunch hours, which remain unprogrammed.  

We then sat down with Philip to better understand our observations.

“What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people,” Philip said, quoting Whyte in his public space exploration, Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. On the days when something is happening in Pershing Square, people have reason to be there and stay there for longer periods of time. Philip explained that high volumes of people in a space create a cyclical effect: people are there so more people come, and then more people are there so more people come, etc., until the space is always populous. And the way you get people to a space is by consistently and reliably giving them something to do there.

For example: food.

“Food is a really important core programming activity… it’s about basic needs: everyone needs to eat and drink. Eating and drinking are social activities, and they’re a really good fit for public space. And so the two regular days of the week when those activities are happening in PS, you have the nearby community members, office workers, and residents know that that need can be met in the square, and they are attracted to be there.”

Seems simple enough.

Pershing Square is more active on Wednesdays, during the weekly farmers market.

What was more puzzling to us, however, was the drastic spike in the number of women on days of programming. Philip explained that great public spaces are welcoming and comfortable for everyone, but specifically, that “women are the indicator species of high quality public spaces. If you make a space where women feel comfortable, you know the space is headed in the right direction.”

With all of this analysis from the observation that we conducted, we asked Philip what it means in the larger scheme of things; what can these findings teach us about the life of Pershing Square, now and in the future?

He responded that we know that Pershing Square has unimaginable potential. The solution to unlocking it is a simple one: do more of the things that are bringing more people to the square and do them every day. By concentrating on consistent, regular, daily activation, Pershing Square can become a great public space for DTLA.

“The jump in numbers that we see in this observation is only the marker of what’s possible. Because the high number that we are seeing during the farmers market and the food trucks is still way lower than the capacity of what the square could really be… What we’re seeing happening is really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the potential of what Pershing Square can offer downtown.”