The Search for Scientific Validation: When Our Feelings Are Just Not Good Enough

Melissa Hege's picture

Planners are taught to be analytical thinkers who use quantitative data, but also qualitative research. Remember the Myers Briggs personality test? It assesses an individual's personality based on four preferences: A focus on the outer world (extraversion) or inner world (introversion); basic information (sensing) or interpretation and meaning (intuition); making decision based on logic (thinking) or people and special circumstances (feeling); dealing with the outside world with clear decisions (judging) or staying open to new information and options (perceiving).  As planners, we are constantly in conflict with these preferences as we straddle the world of technician and analyst. We use numerical data to understand transportation, economic and demographic trends. Our mapping software offers a precise tool to input this data and perform mathematical extrapolations. But somewhere in our decision capabilities, we need to shift from Thinkers to Feelers, and as planners, we do this quite well. 

There seems to be an emerging trend in planning and urban design, though, towards measuring qualitative changes and improvements in city design as a way to rationalize design decisions. Consider the following examples. Since 1985, downtown Melbourne has transformed itself into a vibrant and vital place which they have, in part, quantified over a 20-year period by conducting two ten-year surveys of public spaces and public life. According to an October 2008 Urban Land article written by Sam Newberg, the City's consultant repeated research in 1994 and 2004 to establish a baseline survey to measure against. The comprehensive 20-year assessment tracked population increases for residents and university students, increased pedestrian traffic, outdoor cafes, public art, and trees. This alone is interesting because it demonstrates a methodology for comprehensive long-term urban design surveys and their value to measure success. But equally fascinating is the City's attempt to measure overall increases in stationary activities-resting, leaning, sitting. The author had taken something which we planners feel, that open spaces make better places because they accommodate casual and informal activity, and changes it from a qualitative observation to a quantitative measurement.

Now consider this second example. This year New York City published a manual of design strategies to increase physical activity in public and private spaces. The premise of these Active Design Guidelines is to investigate ways to measure how design influences physical activity in urban places based on five design characteristics which the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Active Living Research Program have discovered are critical to a good walking environment. These are imageability-creating a memorable impression based on a strong identity and character; enclosure-using vertical elements to visually enclose space; human scale-developing spaces with proportions that are comfortable for people and the speed at which they walk; transparency-establishing visibility and a perception that there is human activity beyond the street edge; complexity-creating visual interest with a varied and rich environment. The attempt to understand and articulate the factors that make a good walking environment by breaking them into five distinct categories is quite scientific in and of itself, but the New York City manual takes the study a step further by citing "evidence based research" to rationalize different design techniques which influence physical activity. Each design technique is validated based on different types of research ranging from best practices which have theoretical evidence, emerging evidence based on emerging patterns of research, and strong evidence based on "two longitudinal or five cross-sectional studies". Over time, as more evidence emerges, the City hopes to create a tool box of design techniques based on scientific research. Sounds pretty darn scientific to me.

So how does the trend bode for planners? I've always been frustrated that our science of planning and design is too soft and subjective. Evidence based research and long term comprehensive surveys give more credibility to our work by doing something which most professions have always done-justifying strategies by measuring success. By translating more nuanced aspects of planning and urban design into measurable outcomes planners can develop a body of scientific evidence for future planners to make better designs. But while I believe this technique will help our profession tremendously, it should not be a substitute for our ability as Feelers to understand human behavior and hone into the underlying community issues which cannot be calculated in an excel spreadsheet!

Melissa Hege, AICP, LEED AP, Director of Planning at Redevelopment Management Associates.



Good presentation. Agree

Good presentation. Agree with premise- something I've been unable to articulate so clearly. I will share your article.

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