Adam Sneed is a senior associate editor at CityLab, focusing on city life and culture. He was previously a technology reporter at Politico and a researcher at Future Tense, a project of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.
By adding some color and nature to a concrete plaza, designers in Australia transformed an intimidating place into a welcoming one.
Think of a dull, gray space in your city that people walk through each day, but generally detest. What would it take to turn it into a genuinely appealing place where people actually want to hang out?
Maybe not as much as you’d think. That’s what designers in Canberra, Australia, learned when they decided to spruce up an imposing concrete plaza to make it more attractive to locals. Their interventions weren’t huge, expensive, or particularly novel: Color is the most noticeable addition they made to Garema Place, by way of yarn-bombs, paint, and lighting. They also added vibrant, lightweight tables and chairs that people could move wherever they wanted, and installed a patch of grass to bring a little more nature into the mix…and voilà!
The pop-up park, dubbed #BackyardExperiment, brought a striking change to the area, as explained in the short documentary above and an accompanying white paper. The number of people walking through the plaza nearly tripled in the eight days of the experiment, which took place in mid-October. But before it began, 97 percent of all people in the area walked through without stopping, and nearly all of them were adults under 64 years old.
When the new features were added, the number of people stopping to hang out in the area shot up 247 percent, and it wasn’t just adults taking a seat as they passed by. More couples and friends lingered in the plaza, as did more seniors, families, and children. This was a key goal behind the project: Garema Place is known more for its weekend nightlife than for being welcoming to families. The researchers credit that change to the wide mix of interventions, including art and color, wi-fi access, physical and digital libraries, freely moveable furniture, and the community collaboration that went into redesigning the area.
If it’s messier than your average park, that’s the point. It was built to “appear wild and unrefined” to see how people would respond—and giving people the flexibility to use the space as they wanted seems to have worked well.
“It just changes the way that people engage in space in such a dramatic way,” Street Furniture Australia’s June Lee Boxsell says in the video. Her company worked with CONTEXT Landscape Architects, the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, the Australian Capital Territory Government, and others to carry out the project and study its effect on people in the area. (Another shocking result: None of the pieces of furniture were stolen from the park, and only one was damaged.)
“There is absolutely positive proof now that by adding this cocktail, you’ve changed behaviors,” Mark Armstrong, director of Blue Sky Design Group, says in the video. “We know for a fact that in certain circumstances when you add these levels of vibrance, color, and free-range seating, you change the way people think about a space.”
Find more details about all the features that went into the park, and data from the results, in the full report.