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Return of the Urban Detective:

On the Role of Data (Both Numbers & Words) in Understanding Walkability, Green Space & Place

A few weeks ago, I posted about how using State of Place turned me (and my mom!) into an urban detective. Today, as promised, I’m sharing what I actually found. Don’t worry, it’s only slightly technical - but I promise you’ll come away with a much better understanding of how green space influences walkability and how State of Place helped me quantify that.

MY AIMS WERE TO:

  1. Examine the way green spaces affect walkability.
  2. Gain insights into the potential impact of paving over Gezi Park and replacing it with (yet another) high-end shopping mall.
  3. Understand the relationship that Istanbul natives had with Gezi Park.
  4. Compare Gezi Park to Teşvikiye Caddesi, a very dense high-end shopping district with a large mall on one side of the street. 
Semrin Aleckson during the data collection in Istanbul

Semrin Aleckson during the data collection in Istanbul

Teşvikiye Caddesi (Nişantaşı) 

Taksim Square/Gezi Park

 
Source: Flickr

Source: Flickr

 

(In academic-ese) my overall research question was: How does Gezi Park’s impact on the walkability of the Taksim Square neighborhood compare to Teşvikiye Caddesi’s impact on the walkability of the Nişantaşı neighborhood. My goal was to promote overall well-being and better placemaking through the built environment.

How did I do this?

  • Marked out the blocks directly surrounding both Gezi Park and Teşvikiye Caddesi.

  • Collected State of Place data - over 290 built environment features - for all blocks within both neighborhoods.

  • Quantitatively compared the walkability of each neighborhood using the State of Place Index.

  • Identified the built environment assets and needs that made one neighborhood more walkable than the other (stay tuned to find out which one scored higher) using the State of Place Profile.

  • Conducted participant observation noting pedestrian activity in both neighborhoods.

  • Collected qualitative data on what Gezi Park meant to people and how they felt about the possibility of it being paved over.

What did I find?

Drumroll, please…. Gezi Park and nearby Taksim Square offered a lot of amenities for pedestrians and made for a much more walkable environment as compared to Teşvikiye Caddesi in the Nişantaşı neighborhood. 

And now to dig into the data details (non-data geek-friendly!)

Overall, Gezi Park scored a 100 on the State of Place Index (which aggregates all of the 290 data points I collected into a score from 0-100), as compared to Teşvikiye Caddesi, which scored a 74.3. With the State of Place platform, not only was I able to quantify walkability in a robust and objective way, but also outline why the observed neighborhoods were or were not walkable. 

You see, the State of Place Index is broken up into ten built environment dimensions that are empirically linked to walkability. So I was able to better conceptualize the differences between the two neighborhoods and compare them in a much more nuanced way. Accordingly, the Profile helped me quantify how these two neighborhoods varied with respect to walkability as well as provided tangible, evidence-based recommendations for improvements as part of my research, which made me feel like my little study could actually live outside the LSE Ivory Tower! 

Taksim Square

Taksim Square has been recently transformed into a pedestrian-only space, which connects easily to the nearby shopping Beyoğlu Street. Taksim Square is covered with concrete and offers little by way of aesthetic value, while the Nişantaşı district caters to the very wealthy with stone-paved sidewalks and high-end shopping. To me, Taksim Square felt more quintessentially “Turkish.” You could hear street musicians playing Turkish instruments and there were restaurants everywhere. And a silhouette of a mosque was in the background, which confirmed that I was, in fact, in Istanbul.

Teşvikiye Caddesi (Nişantaşı) 

In contrast, Teşvikiye Caddesi in the Nişantaşı district was more crowded and dense; it was harder to maneuver around and I felt like I was constantly in the way as I was collecting data. Taksim Square was more spacious and easier to get through. On Teşvikiye Caddesi, it felt like people were there to get from one part of the street to the other as quickly as possible - without getting hit by a car or bus! 

The Art of Listening  

We here at State of Place love data. But data comes in many forms. And when you’re talking about City-Making, you still have to talk to folks! (That’s also a key part of our ethos as a Lean Startup, by the way: we LOVE learning about our customers and the challenges they face - so please do book a time to call us anytime. Your insights are as valuable a currency as what we bill in our invoices - ok, back to the blog). Here’s what I learned from my conversations with Istanbul natives:

  • Taksim Square and Gezi Park is one of the most popular areas to visit in Istanbul.
  • Everyone has memories of walking around and shopping in the area. Even my mom said she remembers coming here all the time as a kid.
  • They acknowledge the area as a representation of the rich and diverse cultural history of the city.
  • The protest around preserving Gezi Park back in 2013 was started by environmentalists and urban planning students who saw the negative impact of paving over a green space (however small) in a largely dense, urban environment.
  • As a response to the need for traffic alleviation and activism around preserving Gezi Park, the government has turned parts of adjacent Taksim Square into a pedestrian-only area by closing off the roadway. Now, Taksim Square is a concrete open area that is closed off to cars.
  • Interestingly enough, there have been some Istanbul natives who are not the fans of the changes made to the public space. They don’t find the updates as aesthetically pleasing. 

Taking the time to talk - rather listen - to Istanbul natives significantly enhanced my understanding of the walkability of the Taksim neighborhood. Just because a place has wider sidewalks, more curb cuts, or a mid-block crossing doesn’t necessarily mean that people will consciously value a space more or that they will automatically choose walking over driving.

An open conversation among cities, developers, and the communities that use a space is vital to building better, more walkable and livable places. Communication is key. That is why I found the State of Place tool so valuable. I saw the potential for city governments and developers to communicate their vision to the community in a common language - numbers and data (nicely illustrated, of course)! State of Place can also empower community members to be more involved and demand better places from their government officials.

My passion for place

My research allowed me to experience first-hand the power of place. There is so much more that goes into making great places or improving walkability than I had originally thought. As an avid admirer of urban environments, I saw that so many aspects of the built environment that we take for granted play a key role in our decision to walk and how we feel in or experience different neighborhoods. On some level, I think I already knew this, but having the numbers corroborate my implicit beliefs was a game-changer. And supplementing this data with active observation and real listening solidified the importance of preserving culturally significant places like Gezi Park.

From a personal standpoint, I now understand how important it is to have an open dialogue between city governments and their people. Creating great places does not have to be one-size-fits-all. To become more walkable, Istanbul does not have to give up what makes it unique. We should celebrate what people value about their communities and strive to improve communication among cities, developers, and the people who live in these neighborhoods. I believe the State of Place platform demonstrates the value of place in a common, objective language in which governments, planners, developers or researchers can communicate their wants, needs, and concerns - and make the case for great places.  

Reflections: One Year Later…

A lot has happened in Turkey in the year since I finished my master’s thesis on walkability in the Taksim area. The political situation has become even more divisive and many people feel there is very little hope for a positive change. Something I learned from my studies, as well as through my experience working at State of Place, is that cities are more than just places where people live. They are representations of the communities that live within them. Now, more than ever, Istanbul needs good placemaking that promotes a safe space for everyone and celebrates its rich culture and diversity.

The historical and social values that people place on certain areas play a key role in how they view and use that space. Gezi Park and adjacent Taksim Square hold significant cultural importance for Turks beyond just the availability of a green space. Gezi Park and Taksim Square, together, are an urban center where people from all walks of life gather to socialize, shop, eat, and take in the beautiful sights and sounds of Istanbul.

This also helped put into perspective why so many people protested the demolition of the last green space in the center of Istanbul back in 2013. While the data was purely objective and quantitative, it began to paint a picture of why and how green spaces are so important for walkability, great places, and encouraging pedestrians to get outside and walk rather than take their cars. No wonder so many people didn’t want yet another high-end shopping mall in a unique (for Istanbul) green space, visited by both tourists and natives alike.

State of Place offers select students & universities pro-bono access to the urban data analytics platform that helps make the case for great places. To learn how to use State of Place in your urban design, planning, transportation, or real estate research, please contact mariela@stateofplace.co.