City of Melbourne social space.

This Melbourne chair is collecting data to discover how people in the city use public spaces. By combining data and design, City of Melbourne is learning what improvements can be made to ensure these spaces continue to meet the needs of the community.

The City of Melbourne installed the data collecting Social Spaces chair on a median strip one block from Melbourne’s famous Lygon St shopping and dining district. The pilot project uses sensor data and insights to explore how public spaces can meet the needs and improve the experiences of the people who live, work, and visit the area.

A collaboration between City of Melbourne, Inhabit Place, Spark Furniture, Altometer and Rowlands Metalworks, the project brings together a multi-disciplinary team to enable the council to trial data-informed designs.

What can the project tell us?

The goal of this pilot is to help understand:

  • Whether people are using their neighbourhoods differently post pandemic
  • How public spaces can adapt to accommodate the new needs of communities, such as making people feel safer and more socially connected
  • How public spaces can promote social activities
  • Whether public spaces currently reflect the local culture and diverse living situations
  • Why some public spaces are better utilised and not others
  • What makes urban furniture (such as seating in parks) successful and how that looks

The site at 313 Drummond Street, Carlton, was selected based on the level of pedestrian activity, opportunities for improvement (through qualitative data and observational audits), existing social activity, mobile phone and pedestrian sensor data and the opportunity that the narrow site presented (and applicability in other City of Melbourne locations).

The design is made from natural timber with powder-coated green steel. There are two spots to sit, a small ‘stage’ and a leaning bench. Extra factors considered in the furniture design included: surrounding transport behaviours and the potential for positive impact, existing furniture and amenities, perceptions of safety and macroopportunities such as if the site was a thoroughfare between significant hubs.

Collecting data

The sensors installed are Digital Matter Yabby Edge and VivaCity Artificial Intelligence Road Survey sensor (AIRS). A Yabby sensor, an accelerometer that senses movement, has also been installed on a nearby metal bench and is collecting comparative data.

This data allows us to understand how the use of the existing bench compares with the new Social Spaces design. These sensors are also used in other City of Melbourne projects: Argyle Square, Royal Park and at Micro-Labs.

Data collected using the AIRS sensor shows the flow of people around the chair, peaks and troughs in activity, transport modes and, most importantly, dwell time at different locations on the chair.

For instance, it will help to reveal behaviours of use that could inform the design of other spaces. This type of sensor is also installed at Melbourne’s Southbank Promenade to learn more about the different modes of transport used in this busy city thoroughfare.

Detailed information on use has been collected through observational audits in May and June as well as an ongoing community survey on the project webpage.

Data dashboard

A real time online dashboard presents data collected from 1 February 2023 and shows user trends at both the Social Spaces design and the existing metal bench.

Data shows the new design has been used almost six times more than the original bench: approximately 4,000 times compared to 700. The new chair is being used on average 43 times per day with 1pm the busiest time and Saturday the busiest day.

By contrast, the original bench is used on average eight times a day with 11am its busiest time and Monday the busiest day. Data also revealed the high bench for leaning, accounts for 60 per cent of all usage of the chair.

A real time data dashboard allows the community to see insights and ask questions about the data. The dashboard is shared on the project website (see link below) – hover your cursor over different parts of the dashboard for more information.

Learnings and impact

This pilot has already provided City of Melbourne with valuable insights and reflections that will inform future projects.

Benefits of this pilot include:

  • Testing different types of data and how they might inform design (for instance observational audits, mobile phone data, sensor data)
  • Trialling different kinds of sensors to enable the right kind of insights (not one sensor fits all!)
  • Exploring community engagement models and collecting community input to inform future projects
  • Testing new typologies in the public realm that are relevant in other narrow sites like laneways
  • Demonstrating impact of industry collaboration and multi-disciplinary collaboration within the organisation
  • Elevating digital literacy in the community and demonstrating a commitment to transparency
  • A blueprint for future pilots – iterative, collaborative, supported by data before and after an intervention

Community benefits

Implementing a design that responds directly to local user needs can add significant value to a community space. This pilot demonstrates a commitment to data-led design by being a tangible example of what can be achieved through open conversations between community and government.

Importantly, it can be a positive conduit to developing greater trust between community and government by increasing digital literacy through a better understanding of the role of technology and data in designing public spaces that improve people’s lives.

The Social Spaces Chair has become a local talking point with City of Melbourne Lord Mayor and resident, Sally Capp, observing the bench evolve from local curiosity to furniture, telling The Age; “I thought: ‘A seat is a seat is a seat’ but this has really proven that good design can exponentially increase the way that community infrastructure is used”.

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