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The Place Game: How We Make the Community the Expert

Ethan Kent
Jun 14, 2016
Jan 25, 2018
Frequented Place Game site: New York’s Washington Square Park - Image by Juliet Kahne
Frequented Place Game site: New York’s Washington Square Park | Image by Juliet Kahne

People look to PPS as experts on public space. But where do we begin in understanding and identifying which characteristics make a place exemplary? On what are we basing our recommendations for how to make a public space into a better “place”? For us, the answer is simple. In order to really “see” a place—to look closely at each of its components and the way a space makes you feel—we developed an activity called the “Place Game,” nearly two decades ago. The Place Game helps us work with communities to identify what is working in a public space, and those aspects that could be improved upon, based on observations of how people are, or are not, using the space.

The Place Game is a tool for evaluating any public space—a park, a square, a market, a street, even a street corner—and examining it through guided observation strategies. The best part about the Place Game? Anyone can use it. You don’t have to be a planner or an academic. In fact, you don’t need to know anything about the city at all! You just have to pay close attention to how you feel in a space… and trust your intuition. Because of its accessibility, the Place Game is an ideal activity for community workshops, as it gives local residents an easy tool with which to identify the assets and shortcomings of the public spaces they use every day.

To conduct the Place Game, participants travel to a local site, split into small groups of four or five, and together they discuss a series of questions and evaluations based on the game’s rating scales (a process that takes no longer than twenty to thirty minutes). After this, the small groups come together to compare responses and report on their findings, and together they can make determinations about what is working in the space, and what might need some improvement. These findings are then presented to the larger group for comparison, analysis, and discussion.

Union Square - a frequently used Place Game site during PPS’s Placemaking trainings | Image by PPS
Union Square - a frequently used Place Game site during PPS’s Placemaking trainings | Image by PPS

So, how does the Place Game allow us to come to conclusions about public spaces? For one, it uses PPS’s Place Diagram, which outlines four criteria for analyzing a place: access and linkages, comfort and image, uses and activities, sociability.

PPS's Place Diagram - the foundation of the Place Game
PPS's Place Diagram - the foundation of the Place Game

Using each of these categories as a jumping off point, here’s a more detailed description of the game’s major components:

Step One: Initial Observations

In the first part of the Place Game, these four aspects of a public space are broken down further so that the participant can evaluate several more specific attributes of the space, such as an overall feeling of safety, activities taking place in the site, and evidence of volunteerism and engagement amongst visitors.

These Place Diagram criteria can be applied in many ways. For example, someone evaluating the northeast corner of a local public park might observe that there aren’t enough places to sit. How and why did they notice this? By walking around their designated area they saw quite a few people leaning up against a blank wall eating a sandwich or drinking a soda, and they saw at least twenty people standing around or pacing, looking tired or bored. These observations suggest that while people are going to a local park for one reason or another, it is not necessarily a comfortable place to be, nor does it invite people to stick around or linger for very long.

Here’s another example: imagine that during the same Place Game activity, a participant in a different section of the same park remarked that they had no idea that there was a playground in the center. They noted unattractive fencing and small shrubs surrounding some kind of central area, and they heard the sound of children, but they had no idea what the center space was, and there was no signage pointing to or announcing a playground. This would indicate that the park needs better signage, and that the playground could be a more open and welcoming space for visitors.

Step Two: Engagement and Analysis

The second part of the Place Game asks more detailed questions, including one that asks the participant to interview someone in the space about what they like about the space, and how they might improve it. As you can imagine, responses often vary greatly. For example, a participant might speak with someone for whom the park is a strong community hub, because it is the only green space in the area. Still, they may also feel that it would be more widely used if there were more amenities, such as food or public events during the warmer months, since there are few local shops nearby.

The results of these evaluations and informal interviews reveal a lot about the space—highlighting areas for improvement and offering clues as to what is working and could potentially be replicated in other public spaces. While user data can range greatly from person to person, we find that participants come to similar conclusions on what would make a space better surprisingly often. And most often, these changes are quite simple and could be easily executed through Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper projects.

The Place Game can be used on any public site, in any city or country - here, placemakers are evaluating a street in Mexico.
The Place Game has been and can be used on any public site, in any city or country - here, placemakers are evaluating a street in Mexico | Image by PPS

The Place Game invites users to make their own judgements and observations about a space, and the vast diversity of ratings and responses that emerge from the the exercise shows just how dynamic public spaces are—each one with functions and attributes that are unique to a particular region or community. This is why it works. By placing the evaluation and analysis of a space in the hands of its users, we put full trust in the idea that “the community is the expert.” It is those who know a place best—its everyday users—who are best equipped to remake it.

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