Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Tag Archives: Parks

Ma’ayan Dembo: Studies on Public Spaces

In 1969, William Whyte began a massive research project alongside the New York City Planning Commission. His goal– to observe and document how people interact with themselves, each other, and space in the setting of urban areas, plazas, and parks. Called ‘The Street Life Project’, Whyte and his team of researchers took to the streets with video cameras, still cameras, and notebooks for documentation. Whyte was one of the first researchers to research pedestrian behavioral phenomena in an objective and measurable way in part by using new modern technologies. 


In 2009, Keith Hampton saw current modern technologies as perhaps alienating today’s social interactions. Converting roughly 3,273 reels of Whyte’s original footage into a digital format, Hampton chose sites in three cities– New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston– that had the best footage and conditions allowed for replication (i.e. the sites still existed today). 

Between 2008 and 2010, Hampton’s team collected and analyzed roughly 38 hours of film– coding individuals and interactions based on sex, group size, “loitering”, and phone use. Overall, the study showed a lower amount of texting and phone use than expected. Moreover, phone users tended to be alone instead of in groups. To the researchers, phone use was prevalent if individuals were passing time while waiting for someone, or as a way to enjoy a solo lunch break. 

Moreover, the study showed that today there is a significantly higher proportion of females in public urban settings in relation to men. The only place where females decreased proportionally? Boston’s Downtown crossing– a major shopping hub in the city. As Hampton said in a recent New York Times article, “The decline in women within this setting could be interpreted as a shift in gender roles… [men seem to be] taking on an activity that was traditionally regarded as feminine”.

While Hampton set out to see how modern technologies are shaping human interaction, he found a completely different narrative. Today’s cities are not shaped by loneliness or ubiquitous connectivity, rather we see more gender equity.



For more information on the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit planning, design, and educational organization expanding on the work of William Whyte, visit: http://www.pps.org


Ma’ayan Dembo: Reclaiming Public Spaces for the Public

Shortly after the American mass urbanization, city streets became infested with parking lots and spaces– great spans of pavement that have negative impacts on our environment (heat, run-off, etc). Recently, there has been a new initiative throughout many cities all over the world to convert some of these parking spaces into parklets in efforts to create a more livable urban environment. Spearheaded by the San Francisco Planning Department, in 2010 the first parklet was installed, with 38 more by the end of 2012. Parklets have been created along major thoroughfares, especially along the Valencia, Divisadero, and Columbus corridors.

Parklets repurpose street space to achieve greater utilitarian goals. These parklets also represent a wonderful public-private partnership– processes are expedited by city partnership, but funded mainly through residents, business owners, and community organizations. Moreover, achieving egalitarian goals, these parklets are open to the public and require no purchase necessary. Parklets accomplish four main goals: they reimagine the potential of city streets, encourage non-motorized transportation, encourage pedestrian activity, and support local businesses. These parklets are an ingenious and inexpensive way to turn ordinary streets into cozy and warmer public spaces.

If you have an under used space in mind by your house or in your community, check out the Pavement to Parks manual on the SFDP website for more information and ideas.

The Original High Line

This past weekend I took a day trip to Lucca, a small city about an hour northwest of Florence, Italy. The city’s history is visible everywhere and legible even to an uninformed outsider. The shape of the ancient Roman amphitheater has been maintained in the shops and homes that ring the central square, the meticulously-planned Roman street grid is preserved in sharp contrast to the surrounding rabbit warren, and the medieval defensive walls, Lucca’s claim to fame, are 100% in tact and crucial to the city’s functioning as a tourist destination.


For me, however, the walls were a spectacle because they were not simply an historical vestige, but a functioning part of the modern city. In 1818, during Napoleon’s occupation, the walls (12 curtains and 11 bastions) were converted into a distinctly stunning urban park that runs the parameter of the city.  City planning is a product of zeitgeist, and much like fashion, cuisine, architecture, and music, trends are revived and recycled with each new generation.  As I biked atop the walls on a well-maintained recreational path, I was reminded of more recent urban repurposing projects—Lucca’s Parco del Muro (Wall Park) is the predecessor of New York’s High Line, San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, and Seattle’s Pike Place Market


Each of these projects required a willingness to think outside the box (a railway became a park, a port became a community market, etc.) as well as a conscious decision to preserve history in the urban landscape. Records from the post-Renaissance era, in fact, prove that there was a conscious effort to restore and modernize rather than raze and rebuild. This mindset was absent during the post-war boom and obsession with progress, but thankfully has been restored to modern planning conscience.     

Urban Trekking?

I am writing this post after having lived in a city (Florence, Italy to be specific) for the first time in my life. I have already been here for almost a month, which is exceptionally hard to believe. I have been experiencing phenomenon and urban issues that I have been studying, researching, and blogging about for 3 years now. I walk 20 minutes to school each day, I buy lunch at coffee shops and delis, I ride public transportation if my destination is more than 3 miles away, I live in a small apartment in a mixed-use building, and I am constantly surrounded by people, sights, and smells that are foreign and novel. I expected all of the things on this list.

What I didn’t anticipate, however, is the difficulty of finding a place to exercise. This sounds trivial, but for someone who is used to simply stepping out the front door to a plethora of running paths, hiking trails, bike boulevards, and for that matter, neighborhood parks with recreation equipment, city life is a big departure.  There is really only one park here—Cascine Park—and although it is lovely to run through, it does not exactly invite joggers to stop for stationary exercises (push-ups, jumping jacks, sit-ups, etc.). 

I went on my first run the other day and chose a path that runs along the Arno River and through Cascine Park. To be fair, the route was beautiful and provided ample space to keep my heart rate up for a while. The only trouble was how to navigate the before and after portions of my workout. Walking to the park was not such a big deal (although Italians never wear shorts or t-shirts in the city), but weaving my way back to my apartment, sweaty and flushed, on the crowded sidewalks, was definitely uncomfortable. I see no way around this though, if I am going to go for a jog outside. This brings me to the possibility of exercising inside: buying a gym membership or enrolling in a studio class are the two main options.  Indoor exercise is fine (I do play basketball after all), but there is just something freeing and truly exhilarating about blowing off some steam in the open air.


From the Urban Trekking Website. 

Maybe outdoor recreation is a suburban luxury or maybe it is a Californian’s misconception of how the world works. Alternatively, maybe I am just looking at outdoor recreation too narrowly. Today I saw an ad in the newspaper for the Ninth Annual Urban Trekking Day in Italy. The event takes place every spring and autumn in about two-dozen cities across Italy. The guided walks, which move at a faster pace than normal tours, can cover anywhere from 1 mile to 5 miles and take anywhere from 1 hour to 4 hours. This spring’s treks focuses on the importance of water in urban life. Step aside “yogging” (as the Italians pronounce it)! Urban trekking is my new sport of choice.


Oh, to be a (little) kid again


New York City’s massive skyscrapers melt away as you enter Central Park, and with them, so do the dangers of the city’s streets. 

The ordered rectangular geometry of the adult world, where kids are forced to walk rather than run; look every which way before crossing; and stay within arm’s reach of relatives is replaced by planning regimes that are a bit more fun.  In this section of the park near Columbus Circle, the only towering structure is a concrete fortress with water features that keep kids running, jumping, screaming, and giggling as they traverse it.  Trades are made between water balloon holders rather than shareholders, and the calculations being made deal with the arc of those balloons in flight rather than the trajectory of the market.  There is an interesting dichotomy that exists in the park—while it’s a chance for parents to rest, read, gab, it’s their kids’ rare opportunity to let pent up energy loose.  I lost track of time watching a group of kids moving about the structure, running, rather than walking, from place to place. 

I suspect that what I miss most about being a little kid is precisely that absence of the awareness of “cool” that allows you to run from point A to point B just because you want to get there faster.  As I myself stood up from my perch on the big boulder beside the playground (pictured above), a dad stood up and shouted, “Brian, we’re leaving” and for the first time since I had been there, the little boy walked (slowly) to where his dad is waiting with a towel, milking his stay in paradise as long as he could.