Urban anthropology may not be top of mind for most people (or most anthropologists for that matter), but I’m here to argue it is the key to creating livable cities for people. In fact, applying this concept to the management and design of our urban environments could be the single most important thing to ensure the livability of our urban future. This may sound outlandish, but I assure you it’s not so radical as it seems. Believe it or not, the methods used by urban anthropologists are surprisingly similar to a far more common staple of the design world: user experience research and design.
In the world of tech and product design, user experience (UX) is key. You basically can’t design something efficient for humans without it. From your favorite app to your web browser, that chair you’re sitting on to an egg beater, nearly everything goes through some kind of user testing before it’s ready for launch. Whether that’s by playtesters ahead of a video game release, or focus groups giving feedback on product messaging, vast amounts of research is being conducted in order to create the best product for “users” of all sorts.
It’s the time of the year again when the sun is out and the streets are alive. From festivals to block parties — and my favorite, open streets — there’s just something about summer that makes a city more vibrant and human scale.
Open streets events in particular are important in more ways than one. Not only do they showcase streets as public spaces — as some of the largest public spaces we have in cities — but they provide a demonstration of ownership of space and remind us all that we have the right to the city in how we play, get around, and prioritize people over cars. More than this, they provide the incentives and cultural shift necessary to make lasting improvements to our urban landscapes.
In the past year I’ve been lucky enough to take part in several different iterations of open streets events across the country. In my observations of these events I noticed some interesting similarities as well as differences — in part due to geography perhaps, maybe even population, or just the preferences of the open streets coordinators. Coming from the perspective of an uninformed participant*, I’ve summarized my observations and the basic information for four open streets events, ranging from the Mission District in San Francisco, to Philadelphia, PA.
Open Street #1: Sunday Streets SF in the Mission District