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HXD with OCAD U Public Spaces

In mid-2016, we set out on an insight journey to learn more about how humans experience the public spaces around OCAD University. Inspired by techniques such as user experience design and ethnography, our team consisting of Sarah Gatpandan and Howard Tam performed a series of public observations and surveys between August and September 2016 to learn how people experience these public spaces and what could be done to improve them. Spaces we examined were Butterfield Park, a series of benches on McCaul Street, and the area in front of the main OCAD U building at 100 McCaul Street.

Methodology

The area in front of OCAD U showing some of the benches on the sidewalk

We began by doing an observation of the situation at OCAD. We noted the context of the public spaces, how people arrived and departed from them, the paths people would take and the conditions of the spaces. We then drew out the layouts of the spaces we wanted to learn from and constructed an observation methodology with a worksheet to track what people were doing in the spaces. We also built a paper survey that would ask people more specifically about their experiences in the spaces, what they usually did in them and their suggestions for improvement.

We performed 4 separate observation trips and spread them out over the 2 months. 2 were in August and 2 were in September. We tried as much as possible to observe daytime and nighttime use, weekday and weekend use and summer holidays and semester in session use.  Our typical method was to observe the different spaces for 1 hour on each trip and note the different observed activities every 15 minutes.

Results

Over the course of the 4 observations, we observed a variety of different activities happening including reading newspapers at night and sleeping on the benches. The top ten observed activities are shown in the chart. We also tracked demographics, how people arrived, popularity of specific features and where people tended to congregate.

We observed that certain benches on the street tended to be more popular than others. Also, the second most popular spot was beside the front doors to the main building – where most people meet to chat or smoke. Benches tended to be more heavily used during lunch times and quieter outside of the lunch hours. At many points of the day, the ledges along the windows facing McCaul were often used as informal seats – despite the fact that they are not deep enough to sit on comfortably. We didn’t track any stats on the usage of the ledges.

The windows ledges. A person can be observed sitting on the far back ledge

In Butterfield Park, each of the cement blocks had different levels of usage but the most popular feature was the grassy area. Observed activities in the grassy area included sitting and talking in groups, lying down and sitting. The sun often determined where people sat (shaded areas were more popular). At night, an interesting observation occurred around where people would sit if they wanted to read – there didn’t seem to be enough light in the Park itself and people would sit by a far bench that was right under a lamp.

Understanding that what people do and what people really think about it can be different things, we then performed the survey with people using the spaces. Most respondents thought that the public space were good and worked well for them. They were good meeting and waiting spots and were generally positive on the whole. Complaints included comments about Butterfield Park sometimes being not welcoming due to all the games (like hacky-sack) that happen there that took up much of the space. Some reported that the spaces felt anti-social and unwelcoming at certain times.

Human activities in Butterfield Park. The grassy area can be seen behind the concrete bench

Key suggestions from users for improvement included: adding more green spaces, having more covered areas, more shaded areas, bike racks taking up too much space on the sidewalk, personal safety with using the crosswalk, more benches/seating and extending the window ledges along McCaul Street so that a person could sit comfortable on them.

Insights

We learned a fair number of public space design insights:

  • More seating needed: There was clearly not enough of it around the public spaces. At lunch times many of the existing seating would be used a lot. The fact that the window ledges were being used as improved seating alludes to this too.
  • Facilities for smokers: A popular activity is smoking outside the main entrance with a decent amount of cigarette litter. Improving facilities such as ashtrays might help discourage this
  • Bike Racks: While more bike parking is clearly needed, especially when school is in session, on McCaul they are currently obstructing opportunity for more seating spaces. A separate bike parking facility that is not on the street (perhaps in a basement) might be a good alternative.
  • Grassy spaces: were quite popular and more of them should be encouraged
  • Encouraging conversation: Building amenities that would more easily facilitate conversation could be helpful. For example benches that face each other or at in an “L” shape might help as would tables as it would encourage talking while sharing meals.
  • Having more shaded areas: especially in the summer months
  • Adequate levels of lighting at night: As a student oriented space, having places to read or study in the warmer months might be helpful

Presenting to OCAD U

While we originally created this project to primarily experiment with HXD and ethnography techniques, in a sheer stroke of coincidence, it turns out that OCAD U is currently working to revitalize the campus, including adding new buildings and (as luck would have it) revamp the public spaces! In August 2017, we were invited to share our findings with OCAD U staff who were excited with our HXD approach and were keen to see how it could fit with their ongoing Creative Campus plan. As of the time of writing of this post, we are continuing to explore this opportunity with OCAD U and hope that they will choose to use an HXD methodology in creating new campus public spaces.

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