As part of the Town’s Downtown 2020 Work Plan, the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership and the Town of Chapel Hill partnered to experiment with some ideas for activating the public space at 140 West on Friday, September 29 and Saturday, October 1.
A spring 2016 graduate student report - ‘Just Passing Through: Activating 140 West Franklin through Environmental Design’ - found that the space functions primarily as a thoroughfare, with very few elements attracting people to the space and encouraging them to stay.
The experiment tested the hypothesis that the space is underutilized due to poor design, a lack of comfortable amenities (seating, shade, plants etc…), and the perception that the plaza is private.
Using the Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper (LQC) methodology, the experiment added elements to make the space welcoming and provide increased, varied options for usage, including:
- Colorful tables and chairs, shaded by umbrellas at the center and edge of the plaza
- Artificial grass, and, plants and flowers at key transition points along the plaza, and in the arcade
- Colorful DIY benches in the shade
- Colorful flag banners along the ceiling of the arcade and edge of the plaza
- Internet access and charging stations to create a tech-friendly study and work space
- Improved wayfinding and signage to
- make it clear that the space is open to the public
- provide directions to nearby retail and restaurants
- provide information about the sculpture and its artist
Volunteer data collectors used activity mapping tools to record observed usage of the space. Data collected included types and frequency of activities (such as sitting, walking, reading) and interactions with features (eg sitting on benches, playing with the sculpture, reading at a table). Community input was also collected through surveys, interviews, and chalkboard question and answer.
Still a Thoroughfare:
The results of the experiment and data collection echo earlier studies - the space continued to function primarily as a thoroughfare. The implication here is that despite interventions in the space, there are still too few features in and around the plaza that attract people to the space as a destination. Large construction sites on both sides of the space, as well as a number of vacant retail spots on the plaza, are barriers to active use.
As in previous research, there was increased usage in the evening once the temperature dropped. The lack of shade during the day is a serious deterrent to extended use.
Compared to previous studies, we observed more types of activities and interactions during the experiment. Observed activities including people reading, working at laptops, and sitting for extended periods of time (half hour +), none of which were observed in earlier research. This indicates that better amenities and design do allow for more dynamic use of the space.
Perceptions of and interaction with the sculpture remain divisive. Many believe that the sculpture deters visitors because of its size, aesthetic, and perceived danger to children who want to climb on it. However, observations during the experiment show that the sculpture is by far the most engaging and interactive feature on the plaza, particularly when it is misting in the early evening. Observed behavior around the sculpture included taking pictures, stopping to look at it, running around it, playing in the mist, and simply standing or sitting nearby to cool down.
- Continue dialogue about improving the space, including engagement with local business owners, community organizations, and residents.
- Consider how the new developments, commercial activity and vacancies around the space affect usage.
- Carefully consider the future of the sculpture, its use, and its role in the space. A valuable avenue for experimentation could revolve around making the sculpture user friendly to children and families
Special thanks to the following community partners without whom the activation would not have been possible:
- Chapel Hill Florist (Chapel Hill)
- Old Chicago (140 West)
- North Carolina Botanical Garden (Chapel Hill)
- The Zen Succulent (Durham)
- TCS Rentals (Burlington)
- 140 West Management, HOA and residents
- The Bicycle Alliance of Chapel Hill
- The Bicycle Chain (Chapel Hill)
- Volunteers from the Department of City & Regional Planning at UNC
- Town of Chapel Hill
- Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership
- Chapel Hill Department of Parks and Recreation
- All interested and engaged community members who took the time to talk to us about the space, complete surveys and interviews, and come out for the event!