Friday, March 17, 2017

The Importance of Assessing Public Spaces Downtown

LOA has worked with many clients to analyze their retail markets and develop retail retention and business attraction strategies. Our approach, developed over nearly twenty years of field work, has always acknowledged that communities - particularly underserved urban communities - cannot and should not be understood by market data alone. The syndicated data that is available is often inaccurate and misleads retailers or investors who use it to believe there is limited opportunity for new business. To combat that perception we developed a more holistic approach to inquiry covering four main areas of:
  1. Physical Environment
  2. Business Environment
  3. Administrative Capacity
  4. Market and Demographic Data (Residents, Workers and Visitors)

We call this the “Commercial DNA” approach because it helps us understand the fundamental and distinctive qualities and characteristics of each commercial district - much like our DNA is what makes each of us unique.

Each time we start a project, the first step we often take in our analysis is to conduct a thorough site visit of the commercial district. Rain or shine, snow or sleet, we head out to do an assessment of the physical environment. There are a number of things that we take note of on our site visits. This includes the accessibility of the commercial corridor to residents and visitors, and the conditions of streets, sidewalks, storefronts, buildings and finally, public spaces.

Public spaces in commercial districts can be some of the greatest assets in terms of driving and retaining foot traffic downtown. When it’s warm and nice outside, people are automatically drawn to being outdoors and if a public space offers them the opportunity to sit and enjoy the beautiful weather and atmosphere downtown, then they’re likely to stay outdoors a little longer.

In addition, when these spaces are located adjacent to or across from businesses, then a spillover effect might result in increased foot traffic and visibility for these neighboring businesses. A preliminary economic impact study of small, local businesses surrounding Sunset Triangle in Silverlake, Los Angeles, showed that “In general, responses indicated high levels of business confidence” following the installation of the public space. This was based on responses to a longitudinal survey that asked merchants about anticipated changes to revenue, debt, profit, number of employees and number of customers for the year subsequent to the public space installation. In fact, the majority of businesses within the two-block catchment area anticipated an increase of the size of their customer base; an increase in revenue; and an increase in profits.

Sunset Triangle Plaza Economic Impact Study (Source: People St)

In another example, the non-profit organization Great Streets SF conducted a study in 2010 of the Divisadero Street Parklet, located in front of the Mojo Bicycle Café in San Francisco, and found that the number of pedestrians increased by 13 percent, particularly on weekday evenings. The study also found that many businesses adjacent to the parklet experienced revenue increases after the installation of the public space, and in a few cases, created jobs as a result of increased demand. Great Streets SF however used a different method to come to the same conclusions as Sunset Triangle Plaza. Instead, direct observations were used to count pedestrians and stationary activities before combining the findings with pedestrian and business perception survey results.

Divisadero Street Parklet (Source: Flicker, Photo: Great Streets SF)

Urban designers and planners all over the country have increasingly been using William H Whyte’s revered method of direct observation to understand human behaviors in different urban settings. This methodology was made popular by his work titled “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” and continues to be adapted by organizations around the world. While it was originally created to study social behaviors, Great Streets SF and plenty of other organizations concerned with economic development are using this method to understand the relationships between public space activities and downtown business vitality.

So how do you start assessing public spaces in your commercial districts?
The process of direct observation often starts with a simple matrix like the one below created by Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LA DOT) for its People St program. The matrix allows observers to systematically note down each type of public space user (male or female, young or old), the activities they partake in (eating, drinking, shopping, vending, sleeping, sitting, using a mobile phone), and group sizes. These variables of course can be adjusted depending on the priorities of the study.

Interpreting the observations
The tricky part of this analysis is showing how public space impacts local businesses. The pedestrian counts and business perception survey data can point to overall visitation rates to the public space and its adjacent businesses. But what happens when you start visualizing this data on a map to show even more detail of where people are sitting and standing within the public space and for how long. This analysis then starts to become interesting for adjacent businesses fronting a public plaza or parklet as they are able to capitalize on signage placements, product placements and even outdoor seating for food and drinking services to capitalize on existing behavioral patterns in their districts.

On top of filling in the matrix shown above, I’ve also found it useful to print a simple base map of your public space and its immediate surroundings so that each observer is also able to spontaneously sketch patterns of movements and static positions observed within the public space. When everyone’s sketches are compiled and overlaid, these maps might bring to light common findings on areas conducive to various types of activities including vending, movement, rest, or even performance.

In 2015, as part of a public space study conducted for an international planning class in Tokyo, Japan, with Professor Jonathan Martin of Pratt Institute, I used a similar matrix to the one produced by LA DOT to conduct my own direct observations of a public space.

The Ookayama Station Roundabout, as I called it, was a public space used by various age groups. This was largely due to its unique location next to Tokyu Hospital, a large chain supermarket, and one of the most respected colleges in the country, Tokyo Institute of Technology. Users were moving quickly through the public space to get from the metro station to the various anchors and retail offerings on adjacent alleys, or roji as it’s known in Japanese. Despite the great number of users, pedestrians and cyclists were able to harmoniously share the sidewalks and station plaza and it appeared to be a thriving public space that interacted well with neighboring businesses.

Other than diverse patterns of movement, a large portion of users were also observed to be static and resting in the plaza under the shade of trees that were furnished with benches.  The comfortable and inclusively-designed benches that were low in height accommodated the elderly and disabled as they sat enjoying long meals purchased from nearby quick marts and limited service restaurants.

As I started sketching these observations on a map, and taking note of how long users were lingering at each spot and what they were doing while lingering, the sketches on the map began to look more and more like a type of density map that very clearly showed some user ‘hot spots’. The bigger circles on the map you see above depict popular locations within the plaza that people stood or sat in for longer periods of time (15minutes or more). These largely correlated with the locations of the trees and benches and although the smaller circles showed less time spent in the specific location, at least it indicated that users of the public space were using the location for about 5 minutes to do other activities like park their bikes or wait for crossing lights.

These visuals of user hot spots within public spaces can be especially useful to neighboring businesses that would like to understand where their customers are coming from or leaving, where store signs should be facing to capture attention of passersby, or whether public space users are already stopping along the periphery to browse storefronts of adjacent businesses. And if not, there are a myriad of actions that businesses can take to increase visibility from certain directions (e.g. blade signs) and also to bring their service and products out further into more populated sections of the public space (e.g. licensed push carts).

Cyclists and customers in private vehicles too are important to observe in this process although they are not immediate users of plazas or sidewalks; they pass through the commercial district on adjacent streets and alleys and should be remembered in the equation!

As the weather starts to warm up, grab a base map and an observation matrix and start assessing the public spaces in your commercial districts. Find out who’s already going there, what they’re doing there and if the surrounding local businesses can further leverage and improve on these existing assets.

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