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New study provides glimpse into public life on Seattle streets

Manuel Valdes
AP Photo
In this Tuesday, June 26, 2012 photo, a group of people wait to order coffee at a walk-up espresso stand in downtown Seattle.

The Seattle Department of Transportation recently released the results of its first-ever "Public Life Study," in hopes data will help make the city's public spaces more vibrant.

Working with the research firm Urban Design 4 Health, SDOT spent three months during summer 2018 observing people on more than 100 blocks in 38 Seattle neighborhoods. 

The researchers documented how many people were passing by or hanging out, whether they were alone or being social, what activities they were doing, and demographic information like age and gender. The data will be used to inform future projects.

"We want to design streets and public spaces that people want to be (in)," said SDOT Urban Design Manager Susan McLaughlin. 

One finding was encouraging: 56 percent of the people observed hanging out in public spaces were engaged in extroverted activities like talking to others or eating at restaurants.

But the study also illuminated potential places for improvement. Women, youth and older adults were often underrepresented in neighborhoods compared to census data. That could suggest some people don't feel welcome in those neighborhoods.

The study also prompts further questions. Some of the less dense neighborhoods that were observed showed higher social engagement than denser neighborhoods that were designed to be busy. One next step is to figure out why.

"Collecting data is not the end-all. It's the beginning," McLaughlin said.

The 2018 Public Life Study is considered a baseline, and there are limits to the insights it can provide. But SDOT is planning to start using the data right away.

One example McLaughlin pointed to was the availability of public seating. She said seating was under-utlized in Belltown, but there aren't as many places to sit in Chinatown-International District, which has a high population of older adults. 

"We found that there's a lot of seniors standing, leaning, waiting, talking, being very social," she said. "How can SDOT provide the infrastructure to make that space more livable?"

She also pointed to upcoming action plans for Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill, where the public life data will complement traffic and bike data.

SDOT says it's the first municipal transit agency to systematically collect data on public spaces using the Public Life Data Protocol, which is the standard used in the study to classify public activity.

The department helped develop the protocol in 2017 along with the New York-based Ghel Institute, the Municipality of Copenhagen, and the City of San Francisco. 

A Seattle native and former knkx intern, Simone Alicea has returned to the Pacific Northwest from covering breaking news at the Chicago Sun-Times. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.