Public Space design

Public Space design

Christopher Stienon



Activity Description: Provide a brief description of the activity

This activity is for a course on urbanism that examines the context and principles of good urban design. This assignment began with a walking tour of Midtown Manhattan to visit several prominent public spaces including Rockefeller Center, Times Square, Bryant Park, Union Square, etc. The students were to experience these places and then select one they liked and hype it in the form of short video (like TikTok), a blog post, or podcast, etc. Based on their observations, they were subsequently asked to select a space they didn’t like and reconceive it using features and elements from the places they liked. These were presented to the class in the form of single image of a shadow box / stage set.

Learning Goals: What do you aim to achieve with this activity?

The purpose of the activity was two-fold. It gave the students a sense of the scale of the city and places within it (which was later used as a scale comparison with looking at other cities), and it pushed them to look at the character of place and the factors that made them this way. For example, was a space noisy or quiet, active or empty of people, shaded or sunny, small large, etc. The idea was to get the students to look at how the character of place affects human behavior.

Timing: At what point in the lesson or semester do you use this activity? How much classroom time do you devote to it? How much out-of-class time is expected?

This assignment was given at the beginning of the semester before examining the history of cities.

Logistics: What preparation is needed for this activity? What instructions do you give students? Is the activity low-stakes, high-stakes, or something else?

There is no preparation needed. The first part of the assignment was to follow a walking tour of several public spaces in Midtown Manhattan, starting at Grand Army Plaza next to Central Park and proceeding down Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller Center and crossing to Times Square and following Broadway all the way to Union Square.
The students were asked to look at all the open spaces to understand how they are physically different and what was contributing to the character of place. The students were to select a space they liked and hype it. That is they could create a photo essay, a blog or a TikTok video – or any medium that described why the space they liked was so appealing – and then hype it – that is, describe why the space was successful and attractive. Why should someone want to go there?
The second part of this assignment asked the students to then select a space they didn’t like and reconceive it using the elements from the space they liked. The students were to create a shadow box / stage set rendition of their proposal and present it in class.

Assessment: How do you assess this activity? What assessment measures do you use? Do you use a VALUE rubric? If not, how did you develop your rubric? Is your course part of the college-wide general education assessment initiative?

The VALUE rubric touched on Analysis and Design. The activity was assessed by how well the students were able to communicate and describe what they were seeing and identify contributing factors to the quality of place (analysis). For example, Bryant Park was frequently cited as a successful public space because it was less crowded and quiet, it felt separate from the rest of the city yet there were activities and people within the park. The creation of a shadow box to illustrate a proposed redesign of a particular place they didn't initially like was assessed by how well they could take an idea or an observation and translate it to a different setting – and could these ideas be clearly communicated.

Reflection: How well did this activity work in your classroom? Would you repeat it? Why or why not? What challenges did you encounter, and how did you address them? What, if anything, would you change? What did students seem to enjoy about the activity?

The assignment was well received, and I will use it again, but I will introduce the project to the students differently the next time. I'll need to emphasize that this is not simply a documentation of a site visit, but an actual analysis of why a space is attractive. It may entail an entire lecture devoted to the design of public open spaces so they understand what these contributing factors actually are before having them undertake the assignment.

Additional Information: Please share any additional comments and further documentation of the activity – e.g. assignment instructions, rubrics, examples of student work, etc. These can be links to pages or posts on the OpenLab.

As with all assignments, there are students looking for the simplest and fastest way to complete the work, so some students simply turned in a series of unedited video clips taken as they went from place to place and talked about what they were seeing along the way. If they did this in a group, then each student had more or less the same set of images. This was not entirely bad since there was at least evidence that they visited these spaces, but it was far short of focusing on the details of a particular place.

But the students who pushed a bit did some fantastic work. The result was an assortment of TikTok videos, podcast scripts and recordings, newsletters and blog posts – all capturing elements of the city; the lights, the sounds and the action.

With the second half of the assignment several students listed Times Square as there least preferred space, so there were several proposals for a Bryant Park or Union Square themed makeover of Times Square or 42nd Street. There was a general sense of playfulness and experimentation with these proposals and presentation.

Please share a helpful link to a pages or post on the OpenLab

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