A walk in the park: statistics and socialising


  • Author: Carlos Alberto Gómez Grajales
  • Date: 05 February 2014
  • Copyright: Image appears courtesy of iStock Photo

With the coming of the middle day, the northwest corner of Bryant Park is littered with people, hundred of pedestrians who pass by, along many more who take the time to sit, talk or patiently wait at the benches. Not everyone uses this public space in the same fashion. Most have an ephemeral moment in the plaza, yet a few enjoy their time and spend precious minutes, even hours in there with friends or lovers, talking, smooching, living the moment.

thumbnail image: A walk in the park: statistics and socialising

While you may think indiscriminately watching the behaviour of pedestrians in a park is an untoward exercise, it became a scientific pursuit during the 1970s. Working in collaboration with the New York City Planning Commission, the sociologist William H. Whyte conducted groundbreaking studies of the city’s public spaces, parks and plazas, spending hours filming and photographing how people behave in public. Whyte also walked, talked with pedestrians and took countless notes about how the people really used the communal spaces the government had invested in. Whyte and his assistants walked the city streets for more than 16 years, in what became known as the Street Life Project. The researcher claimed that the social life in public spaces contributes fundamentally to the quality of life, therefore suggesting that authorities have the responsibility to create physical places that facilitate community interaction.

Whyte became one of the pioneers of social research for urban planning, by using a methodology that combined anthropology, sociology, art history, statistics and, well, common sense. Based on visits to parks and plazas in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, Minneapolis, Montreal and Venice, Whyte and his crew developed a list of details that every public space may fill to become socially attractive for the citizens. For instance, he discovered that city people don’t actually like wide-open, uncluttered spaces. Although this sounded counterintuitive at the time (and maybe even today), by relying on hard observational data, researchers found that people tend to prefer narrow streets and crowdedness. Empty open spaces seem dangerous, undesirable, so people will avoid it. And nature won't help, with the studies even suggesting that dense greenery can make places feel less safe. Also, if you wish for people to stay for a while, then give them seats, but avoid benches, which make it impossible for people to face one another: movable chairs are more reasonable. There are even some specific ideas suitable for some particular spaces. Never cordon off a fountain, avoid sunken plazas, use food trucks to invite crowds. Tips like these became more than simple theoretical advice and soon had a practical implementation. The Bryant Park Corporation bases its work on many of these principles, as the 1975 revisions of New York’s zoning code did.

What William Whyte started became an interesting topic of research, one that has been continuously active even after he passed away in 1999. Furthermore, what is even more interesting is the fact that, as most recent research has shown, this peculiar branch has now been subjected to deeper statistical methods. Keith Hampton, associate Professor of Communication at Rutgers University is one of those new scientists still interested in the social interactions that occur in public places, as well as the diversification that technology have produced in those interactions. For this, thirty years later, Hampton and his team repeated the strategy of recording the activities of pedestrians who walk by and participate in the life of public parks. These observations result from current day recordings with some of the surviving recordings from some of Whyte's assistants, who continued the work of the late professor in what is now named the Project for Public Spaces (P.P.S). By comparing footage, it would be plausible to detect different patterns in social interactivity due to the arrival of the mobile world.

When we think of exhausting research methodologies, we usually recall or own painful experiences, but let me tell you that Hampton and his team developed some of the most excruciating data gathering methodology. Between 2008 and 2010, his team captured enough videos to begin a comparison with the P.P.S. films, totalling more than 38 hours of footage. The videos were sampled at 15-second intervals for a total of 9,173 observation periods, and for each one, a team of 11 graduate and undergraduate students from Penn spent a total of 2,000 hours looking at the films. They coded the individuals they observed for four characteristics: sex, group size, “loitering” and phone use. Multiple coders would periodically look at the same sections to ensure their perceptions matched, as a way to reduce any risk of subjective bias. If an individual within a video was uncertain to be in a group, the video was immediately reviewed in more detail in order to verify that the individuals represented a collective unit. This definition was based on details like physical touching, talking and “collective locomotion”, a cool term that I will now use in any occasion I can. I'd suggest you to do the same.

Through this complex coding scheme, the research group created two data matrices, one for the recordings made in the 1980s and one for the current ones. These matrices could then be compared numerically, thus allowing them to statistically contrast recorded video images that were captured more than thirty years ago with some obtained in recent times. Although the process still required some form of subjective decisions by the observers, the use of the coding process allowed for a more scientifically based comparison, sustained on statistical methods.

Hampton has also relied on more orthodox statistical procedures to study how people interact with each other in public. The Personal Networks and Community Survey, sponsored by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, obtained telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of adults living in the U.S. This study was particularly interested in analysing how “isolated” adults have become, measuring whether they're social activities are now being replaced by more secluded behaviours, e.g. video games, internet surfing. By using regression models, the researchers measured the effect that smartphones, the internet and social network activity has on their relationships and the bonds that people produce with their peers. These studies have produced quiet interesting findings. While most people are talking on how mobile devices are wrecking our social life, Hampton's research seem to indicate that such a tragedy has had a minimum impact in our conduct within public spaces and a positive one indeed in our social relationships. For instance, by analysing the videos, results showed that only 3 percent of adults captured in all the images were on their phones. Also, mobile-phone users tended to be alone, not in groups, so no meaningful relationships or friendships were being sabotaged by mobile devices. In turn, the survey showed similar results: people’s use of the mobile phone and the internet is associated with larger and more diverse discussion, as well as social networks.

Still research like this did indeed show some significant differences between our life today and that of 30 years ago. By contrasting the differences in the videos, it was clear that the roles of women in public spaces has shifted: there are now more women on the streets than there were 30 years ago. Shopping avenues, usually reserved for ladies, are now more frequented by men. Furthermore, the internet has created more complex relationships among us. We are not becoming isolated, but our relationships are changing and becoming more diverse and complex, both geographically and socially. So stop worrying about your social life being ruined by your phone. We have statistics to tell us what is really going on.


(1) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1460-2466.2010.01510.x/abstract
(2) http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/18--Social-Isolation-and-New-Technology.aspx
(3) http://www.pps.org/reference/wwhyte/
(4) http://www.nytimes.com/1999/01/13/arts/william-h-whyte-organization-man-author-andurbanologist-is-dead-at-81.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm     
(5) http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/19/magazine/technology-is-not-driving-us-apart-afterall.html?hp&_r=0

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