Future of the High Street: exploring iterative ‘collaborative evaluation’ to reflect on and guide the project, and public life studies to reveal pilot impact.

Film by Megan Miller — project film-maker
Edinburgh illustrator Victoria Rose Ball creating window illustrations for Gorgie-Dalry high street businesses as part of the June pilot

But we also wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just us as a project team deciding what success looked like for the project.

We have called this approach collaborative evaluation.

Example elements of the pilot Tactical Urbanism Kit on site in Jarnac Court in Dalkeith
Public Life Study in Dalkeith: tracing pedestrian flow using Procreate
Project Officer Shawn Bodden on site as part of the Public Life Study research team evaluating pilot impact

Direct from the project team: our thoughts and diaries from inside the project process — June 2021.

This last month I have been training the research team in Public Life Studies, and together we have completed our on-site data collection and started analysis of our findings. I have led 9 of these studies previously for City of Edinburgh Council, but this time there are a few differences.

Firstly, in addition to the ‘standard’ public life direct observation research activities completed at several standardised time slots throughout each research day by each researcher distributed along the high street (footfall, stationary activity, dwell time, tracing studies of pedestrian flow, age and gender studies) we incorporated and tested out some new ones. These included ‘business activity’ (how busy each high street business appeared, and whether they had outdoor seating/elements) and capture rate (how many people went into high street shops/businesses vs walked past). Whilst we quickly learned that capture rate would only yield reliable results over a far longer time window than we had available, business activity revealed useful insights and is a good addition to our understanding of the link between public life in the public realm and the adjacent businesses and the ways they can both support and benefit from this.

Secondly, having used entirely analogue data collection methods previously, I was keen we test out using Procreate digital drawing software for iPad as an alternative. This worked extremely well and led to efficiencies in reducing required printing of research packs and in time-saving data exports ready for analysis (AirDropping exported files instead of laboriously scanning pages and manually aligning map data).

Thirdly, we not only created a full baseline Public Life Study for Gorgie-Dalry and Dalkeith high streets (which fed into selection of specific pilot locations), but also repeated the same research activities consistently during the June pilot interventions as a way of monitoring and evaluating the impact of small-scale changes to the built environment on footfall, dwell time, public life and user experience. I am excited to finalise our analysis and share these reports next month.

These past few weeks, the rest of the research team and I have been waist (shoulder? neck?) deep in analysis. The data from our first, base-line Public Life Studies gave us a lot to think about — both about the Gorgie-Dalry and Dalkeith high streets and about our own research methods, and we spent considerable time adjusting and tweaking(!) our plans for the second round of Public Life Studies to focus on the methods that we found most useful. Research methods like mapping stationary activity and qualitative interviews proved especially useful for identifying little-used or disliked spaces — ones that would be perfect for trialling a prototype!

We also had our second round of Public Life Studies this month, and it was exciting to finally see the prototypes in real life. I’ve never been so excited for people to sit on a bench before! The second Public Life Studies (PLS) presented an unexpected, but exciting challenge too: in our original plans, we had assumed/hoped that the spaces would remain relatively similar between the first and second PLS, allowing us to examine the relative impact (i.e. differences) caused by the prototype. In reality, so much had changed! At one site in Gorgie-Dalry, gorgeous street art had appeared on a utility box. In Dalkeith, an enormous tower of scaffolding now loomed over Jarnac Court. “Well, you can’t help but stare at that”, one woman pointed at the scaffolding with a laugh when I asked about her impression of the high street. It was a nice reminder just how dynamic public life is, and that our project is only one among many animating and reshaping public life on the high street. But it also made clear the value of the kind of in situ, empirical research our team is using: we can document, discuss and respond to these ongoing, unexpected changes. We can make informed decisions to change our plans to respond dynamically to the situation, and we can share our reasoning with others. I mean, you really should see that scaffolding.

This is part of the reason why we’re keen to emphasise that collaborative evaluation — about the prototypes, the research and the high street itself — is an ongoing, interactive and reflective process. Assessments and evaluations aren’t “once and for all” — things change and surprises happen — but these conversations and debates help us get our bearings in a changing landscape and help us find ways to move forward together.

Public spaces evolve in ways that are unpredictable — often piecemeal, sometimes through significant upheaval. Every new addition, subtraction, or modification to public space is contingent on the path of countless decisions made before. It is rare to be able to test and trial changes to public space in a low-cost and low-risk way before embarking on the hard work of making more lasting change stick. As practitioners invested in place-based approaches to development, being able to prototype and trial designs and learn from how people engage with these temporary changes is a fantastic opportunity that is not often afforded by clients.

The emphasis on using robust evaluation frameworks as part of the Future of the High Streets project is an interesting design challenge to us as design professionals. How do we take data and learning and use this to shape the iteration of the ideas that have emerged from the creative process so far? How do we react if this learning challenges our assumptions? It is important to always remember that public space is contested — that one person’s idea of a great place may not be shared by others. Sometimes there are irreconcilable differences in what people want in their neighbourhoods — a street can either offer lots of parking availability or a low-traffic experience. Prototyping, trialing and evaluation does not solve these intractable challenges, but does offer a chance to learn and reflect before making long-term investment.

In these past few weeks, I have enjoyed seeing ideas and concepts start to take form as potential physical outcomes of High Street Tweak. In April, I worked with Abi to organise and facilitate a Youth Engagement workshop in Dalkeith with Dalkeith Arts. While there, we worked with volunteers from Dalkeith Arts to interview local residents and record these conversations visually. It was great to finally get to engage with the public face-to-face for High Street Tweak, and in fact was my first time doing in-person engagement since joining New Practice!

Later on I helped to facilitate the final round of co-creation workshops, where we heard more from residents about their ideas, and began to discuss them in the context of physical, place-based outcomes. In each workshop, several strong ideas emerged, and residents seemed to reach a consensus about what each location is in need of. This helped to provide a clear steer for our Toolkit of 6 Ideas, which I have been helping Duncan to develop over the past couple of weeks. Having to justify why we have chosen certain ideas has really made me think about the purpose of collaborative design, and helped me to understand how our research will feed into the design realisation stage.

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