My recent blog about urban planning not being a science but more of an art, got lots of comments from the public and planners, some in support and some in disagreement.
As a result, I have been giving more thought to different approaches to urban planning and city building and the importance of the “power of observation” i.e. what works and what doesn’t in creating vibrant cities.
I have always been intrigued by the idea of the role a “participant observer’’ plays in understanding the world we share, how we live together in urban places and how we shape our urban spaces.
I have often thought of myself - rightly or wrongly - as “participant observer.”
So I checked with colleague Harry Hiller, Urban Sociologist at the University of Calgary to see if he could with what is a “participant observer.”
Hiller quickly emailed back:
“Participant observation is a concept and research strategy that is
rooted in the scientific or scholarly community. As such, it requires the utilization of the logic and canons of science. This does not mean others cannot engage in participant observation, but it often has a less rigorous procedure.
From a scientific perspective, we begin with a literature review in order to know what is already known about a topic and how that knowledge was discovered. Then a research plan is established that seeks to isolate explanatory variables for that phenomenon and then to alert the researcher for the link between variables that are desired to be tested.
So before going out into the field of research, a careful plan and set of objectives are established first that clarify what to look for, the pitfalls in doing so, and above all, an empirical strategy is created that allows one to speak to results within a carefully designed framework.
This does not mean no one else can observe things as a participant, but it does mean that a researcher is more aware of how their presence as a participant affects the results and it means that observing is structured by a background of knowledge and a research plan.
Perhaps one difference from journalism is that the researcher engages in research like this to make a carefully planned contribution to knowledge with some sense of certainty about the results and how they are to be evaluated.
There are many "observers" of urban planning actions and consequences who bring their own biases to bear in their evaluations, but a good researcher is open to a variety of outcomes and can weigh the results with more depth.
That is the challenge!”
A challenge indeed, by this definition I am definitely not a "participant observer," as I am certainly not that rigourous as flaneur cities aimlessly, enjoying the urban surprises.
Top Planners Are Often Participant Observers
While doing some Internet searching, I found an interesting 2014 article from the American Planning Association’s magazine. Written by Reid Ewing, a professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah, he referenced a 2009 poll of Planetizen (an independent resource for people passionate about planning and related fields) members asking them who the believe have been the “Top Thinkers vs. Top Academics” in the history of urban planning. Ewing noted, “Topping the list was Jane Jacobs, the ultimate participant-observer, who analyzed the built environment from her apartment in Greenwich Village and wrote in poetic fashion.
Also high on the list were Allan Jacobs (no relation to Jane), Donald Appleyard and William H. Whyte all participant observers in Ewing’s mind. He concludes, “observational methods seem particularly well suited to urban design.”
We are all observers!
I have often thought many tourists are quasi “participant observers.” When you travel to a new place, you are looking with “fresh eyes” and often wonder “why don’t we have a park, street, museum, store, café, festival etc. like this in our city?” or “why does this seem to work better here than back home?”
Sometimes the thinking stops at just wondering. Other times it may go further as one tries to understand the rationale for what works and what doesn’t in making our city a more attractive place to live, work and play. More and more the public is becoming more engaged in designing the evolution of their community and city with their participation in workshops, open houses and Council meetings.
Today, as community engagement has become the norm for projects big and small on a community, citywide and regional basis. More and more, politicians, planners and developers are realizing the value of getting a diversity of citizen input (even if some is diametrically opposed and some isn’t feasible) to capture the hidden expertise that comes from the average person’s observation and day-to-day experience of their community, as well as experiences when travelling in other cities.
One could say, “it takes more than just academics to create a great community/city.”