mfa thesis, Co-creation

Patterns in Public Spaces


I held a co-creation workshop as part of my MFA thesis research. The goal was to discover in what kinds of public spaces people take mental breaks during their daily or weekly navigation of the city.


Video: Zihan Chen


4 weeks, 2018


Recruit participants, develop materials, guide participants, facilitate discussion

low-level goal

Identify Public Spaces in which People are Mentally Absent

I wanted to know where, why, and how people take mental breaks when going about their day in a city like New York. If I could identify nodes where people are most likely to be mentally absent, it would indicate weak social resilience in those spaces.

high-level goal

Understand to what Extent Private Citizens are Aware of their Dynamic Surroundings in Public Spaces

According to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Soft Targets and Crowded Places Security Plan (May, 2018), “An informed and empowered American public is the greatest ally the Department has in its work to enhance the security of ST-CPs [soft targets and crowded places].” (p. 8)

New York City's “See Something. Say Something.” public awareness campaign depends on civilians being situationally aware. The city's call to action to download the app is: “It's Our Responsibility to Pay Attention and Take Action.” Simply: private citizens won't be responsive to indicators of an impending attack of violent extremism if they aren't engaged in spaces they occupy.

step 1: brief participants

Lightly Prime Participants About Mental Models

I spoke for the first 10 minutes about people's daily and weekly navigation patterns in a city. I used Guy Debord's The Naked City, pictured below, which depicts psychogeographical nodes cut out of a Paris guidebook, as a backdrop to understanding my participants' own understandings of the spaces they tend to occupy. I wanted to know if they mentally skipped over the spaces in between their city nodes. And if so, were they cognizant of these mental lapses?

Step 2: free-form Data Collection

Ask Participants to Illustrate, Map, and Describe their Patterns on a Blank Sheet of Graph Paper

The purpose was to get participants to think freely without constraints about their weekly navigation patterns and begin to think about the spaces they occupy in those patterns that they consider either desirable or undesirable.

By getting them to use a blank sheet of graph paper, they were less constrained to envision and represent the mental models of their navigation patterns and spaces that intersect with them.

Emily, a participant, illustrated her most frequented nodes in New York City and her journey between them.

Step 3: Data collection in context

Map Those Spaces, Desirable and Undesirable, on a Map of NYC

The map of NYC was then used to constrain participants' patterns and spaces to tangible areas of the city that are linearly distinct in proximity to other spaces. We could also see the spaces in reference to other spaces around them, such as parks next to schools or highways, and then reason why certain locative traits of spaces affect their quality.

The purpose was to visually reveal commonalities across the participants' desirable and undesirable spaces and perhaps highlight traits among the undesirable spaces that make people disengage with them, and so become less responsive to attacks or indicators of one, resulting in the heightened vulnerability of private citizens.

Step 4: data points explained

Flesh Out Commonalities Among the Undesirable and Desirable Spaces Identified by Participants

As a group we broke down the spaces people identified in their navigation patterns. We discussed what makes spaces undesirable and the kinds of coping strategies people use when they're forced to occupy an undesirable space.

Emily visually compares her behaviors when she's in good and bad spaces. She described triggers and indicators of "bad" spaces, as well as her coping strategies.


Unappealing Spaces Encourage Vulnerable Behavior

People's expectations of a space's quality, before entering it, determine their capacity for situational awareness when they step foot in it. If people expect the bus ride from dance class to a friend's house, for example, to be socially, physically, or environmentally unappealing or isolating, they plan to disengage from that space before they access it. They prepare for disengagement in many ways, such as listening to music, browsing an app on their phones, reading a book, closing their eyes etc. Co-creator Emily Murphy summed up the group's feelings.

"The difference between good and bad patters are my expectations and time."

Emily Murphy
Co-creation participant

I spoke with Ian Graham, Director of Planning at R.E. Millward & Associates in Toronto, Canada, shortly before the co-creation session. When speaking about the future of mobility infrastructure in cities, he affirmed the challenge of managing expectations and time:

"We need to plan for people's temporal, minute-by-minute decisions--not just cost."

Ian Graham
Director of Planning at R.E. Millward & Associates

Transportation systems in cities have high throughput, and so DHS (Department of Homeland Security) categorizes them as ST-CPs (Soft Targets and Crowded Places), which are difficult to oversee and secure because they are open in nature.  

next steps

Apply Insights

How might we affect people's perceptions about the quality of a space before they enter it, when it's already too late to foster engagement and situational awareness in it? While continuing my research, my high-level goal is to find ways to make private citizens more responsive to indicators of an attack and attacks in public spaces. My low-level goal is to access people and prime them before they access spaces to encourage their engagement in them.

Patterns in Public Spaces is part of a larger body of research for my MFA thesis titled Fantasies of our Independence: The Role of Civil Society in the Postmodern City. Take a look here.