In Defense of Bias

A protestor’s sign at an Occupy Portland rally in 2011 | Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman

Let’s talk about bias. I have it. You have it. As humans all of us have our own opinions towards virtually everything that comes across our plates in our daily lives, be it (literally) a menu option or (the more serious) potentially deadly first impression. And researchers, from the molecular biologist to the cultural anthropologist, are not excluded from this inherent trait.

However, there’s a perception in society that science is only legitimate when it’s absolutely objective. That is, to conduct purely scientific research is to remove yourself from the thing you’re studying in order to present the results in the most balanced light possible. Otherwise, how do we know for sure that your conclusions aren’t skewed by your internal advocacy or prejudices? Short answer: they are.

Here’s why I think it’s a good thing.

Where “normal” research consists of blind trials, randomization, multiples tests, and controlled groups, qualitative research often doesn’t afford the luxury of such static, planned environments. Social or cultural anthropologists often conduct work that is qualitative, like ethnographies, whereby we embed ourselves in a culture or location that we study purely through observation. Often our subjects are entire cultures or subcultures, definitely unable to be sorted into Group A and Group B for some statistical test, especially when they’re at-risk populations (like hookers or drug dealers for instance. Seriously!).

Our observations are made through the lens of human perception. As such, we see things that are inherently influenced not only by our education, but also by our past experiences, personal opinions, and even our demographic information. Because of this, it can be difficult for the consumer to feel that they’re getting a scientific conclusion.

Here’s an example.

Let’s say I’m studying public space issues when a protest camp springs up in a nearby city park (spoiler: this is a true story). After drawing up my research plan, I receive rushed approval through my university to conduct an ethnography on this at-risk (read: illegal) group. By slowly being accepted into their community through volunteering at the information tent, I’m able to get more information on the social hierarchy, the various subcultures and their structure, and create a comprehensive picture of the camp’s physical layout and development over its month-long occupation. Once concluded, the resulting report is released as a “draft for discussion” for commentary by the larger academic anthropology community.

But that’s not quite right. Let’s look at that again more comprehensively.

More than observation and analysis, I the researcher come to this topic from a young woman’s perspective. I also happen to be an advocate for many of the issues the protest camp stands for, but as a complex individual I am simultaneously against some of the others. And as could be expected, during my time there I inevitably get to know the people who are passionately protesting their beliefs, becoming emotionally involved and even forming lasting relationships with some of them long after the camp is gone.

The early Information Tent at Occupy Portland in 2011 | Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman

By slowly being accepted into their community through volunteering at the information tent, I’m able to get more information on the social hierarchy, the various subcultures and their structure, and create a comprehensive picture of the camp’s physical layout and development over it’s month-long occupation.

The academic impetus for this research was that by gathering this information I’m hoping to further a larger body of knowledge on subcultures (anarchists, etc.), the Right to the City in public space (how “public” is your park?), and provide a first-hand account of a 21st century protest camp (the first of its kind in years!). But as a person, I also want to tell the protesters’ story because of the lack of awareness the public has about these individuals, while simultaneously advocating for the democratic use of public space for things like civil disobedience.

Separating activism and analysis can be tricky, and it’s something that I’m constantly trying to keep in check. When I strung up tarps in the rain and marched side by side with protesters at Occupy Portland, it was difficult at times to gather data while also being so intimately involved.

When I reported my results, it was of course in my voice and limited to my own observations and experiences – as an ethnography often is. Rather than creating a simple statistical report on demographic information of the participants or a historical account of event, I came away with stories because of my close involvement with these individuals. Where onlookers saw a homeless camp, I saw a place full of mostly housed individuals with jobs who were spending every ounce of their free time on this cause. So-called “anarchist punks” were actually skilled organizers, fierce to defend those without a voice and create community where none existed before. And because of my training as an anthropologist, I was able to connect these stories to very serious academic topics of democracy, equity, and our new urban age as humans—something that would be much more difficult to accomplish if I only used quantitative data.

But in spite of this, qualitative research is often called a soft science as compared to quantitative research, which is viewed as more “solidly” conclusive hard science.

I’ll be the first to admit that this criticism hurts. While not having a microscope in your office shouldn’t make you less of a scientist, you can see where someone could get that idea. The thing is, even the “quants” out there have emotional reasons behind what they’re doing; either some personal incentive or just general enjoyment. Qualitative research just means that you aren’t able to have quantifiable data to compliment your final results—and that’s totally okay. So long as I’m aware of my role as a human-researcher and can separate my emotions from my observations or acknowledge them upfront, my results are as valid as a chemical equation or survey statistic in the quantitative scientific community (there, I said it!).

The fact is that we are all human. We make errors regardless of our biases and we allow our passions to drive the work that we do even if only tangentially. We should understand that this bias exists and celebrate it, as much as we would the scientist trying to cure a disease, preserve an endangered habitat, or shed light on women’s issues in the world. This doesn’t mean that we falsify results or make errors based on our opinions—it simply means that we acknowledge and accept the fact that we are all trying to help in the best way that we can, as scientists and as humans, with biases. I am not blind to my bias, but I embrace it. I gather and analyze data on topics that I believe can further my goal of creating better urban environments for people, and I’m not ashamed of it.

Science is not and should not be emotionless. There are so many causes in the world today that need attention from researchers everywhere. And since it is personal initiatives that lead people to study these things in the first place—I say, here’s to bias! And here’s to improving lives through (soft) science.

This article originally appeared on Peeps Forum. For more on people and culture – for people – check out their site and support their Kickstarter campaign to get them to print!

On Placemaking: An Anthropologist’s Perspective

Placemaking. It’s been called everything from a buzzword to a movement. It even comes in varieties like “creative.” And, depending on who you ask, it’s two words and not one. But what is it? And furthermore, what makes it such a hot topic?

Defining placemaking has been one of its biggest issues from day one. Taken at face value the term sounds fairly self-explanatory—a place is being made. But what place? And how? Is it being physically created? And what was it before it became a place?

The current urban planning and design viewpoint will tell you this: Placemaking acts as a stand-in for what could otherwise be called (albeit more clumsily) best practices in public space design. This could involve planners, architects, urban designers, landscape architects, developers and so on, but is done so in cooperation with the community involved in the space that’s being created or altered—that is, before it becomes a place with its defined set of meanings, activities, and associations.

This top down (planning) and bottom up (community) coordination is what makes placemaking sing. As a process, it was created in response to the status quo of the post-industrial, and primarily auto-dominated planning periods of the mid-to late 20th century. During the height of it in the 1960s, entire neighborhoods were razed to make way for the modern highways and housing complexes for the betterment of urban dwellers everywhere. Without consulting the communities affected, planners wielded seemingly unending control over peoples’ quality of life. Whether intentions were for the best or not, the actions of a few created less-than-ideal urban environments which would last for decades even after we realized our mistakes.

Pull Quote

Some of these spaces were parks and plazas, otherwise public spaces meant to be havens of nature and civic activity in the urban jungle. Today we can imagine Bryant Park in New York City for example, and see how successfully it provides a myriad of activities for New Yorkers of all ages, or just simply gives them a place to sit. A few decades earlier, however, and it was essentially left to ruin. With no one to manage it, it quickly became the overgrown haunting grounds for drug dealers and homeless populations where few would dare to tread—a story all too common for many parks then and now.

Plazas had their own set of problems. Whether out of laziness or as a trade for higher building heights (and extra profit), plazas—especially those attached to buildings in the city centre—were barren, lacking any form of refuge from the demanding sidewalks adjacent. Or worse—they were indoors and subject to guarded scrutiny and hours of operation: semi-public to say the least. And let’s not get started on the painful determents still employed by ledge-owners even today. Streets—also crucial public spaces—are another story entirely, and one in which we’ve sadly only begun to scratch the surface of.

But the importance of these public spaces lies not only in the desire for a relaxing respite inbetween buildings, but also to our Right to the City as residents of these newly formed human habitats. If your only “piece of land” happens to be a 600 square foot four-story walkup in the lower east side, with only a fire escape out your window, the need for these so-called third places becomes a matter of health. With no backyard, you rely upon the amenities the city has for all of its residents. And as members of society we have a right to voice our opinions via public gathering—and not in a place that is closed after 6pm.

As an urban anthropologist, I also view this from a different angle.

Even today, with the success stories and awareness—thanks mostly in part to the activists and researchers who came before us—there is still a need for reform. Placemaking (or whatever you’d prefer to call it) is essentially just a solution to this ongoing problem. What it aims to achieve is a time before developer interests, top-down planners, and auto-oriented thinking: the time when cities were products of our natural needs.

Think about cities before long-distance commutes; before cars, and before millions of inhabitants was the norm. Cities were clusters of buildings, often walled, with a set of connected public spaces and streets to provide passage. Public markets were housed in these squares and spilled out onto the sides of streets. Your wares were sold where your residence was, and all kinds of people and vehicles could be found crisscrossing in the streets.

A city like this could be like Venice today—a place where only foot traffic and less-deadly forms of transportation are allowed within its medieval boundary. People still gather in squares to socialize, talk politics, or just take an evening stroll. While parks were not formalized at this point (due to proximity to the hinterlands surrounding the city) the concept is still strong—public spaces are needed to take care of the city’s inhabitants.

More than idle nostalgia, we’re gathering more and more scientific evidence that shows the effect of street trees on our health, for instance. Or, just how devastating a lack of exercise is for us normally active animals, and the need for building this activity into walkable cities and suburbs. When faced with creating our own environments by hand, as was the case with these cities of the past, we inherently created ideal urban environments that fit with our senses, social needs, and foot-powered transportation—true places.

Knowing this, we have the ability—unique in the animal kingdom—to create the environment that we want to live in. And as homo urbanus, with over 50% of the world’s population urbanized for the first time in history, it is imperitive that we get behind whatever method unites us in a better way of creating new places and undoing our past mistakes—whatever you want to call it.

This article originally appeared on the Peeps Forum.
Illustration by Bernat Solsona

Recent Protests in Public Space: It’s All About Equity

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Thousands of protestors march in the streets of New York City | Image via PPS Instagram, regram via @Helenshirley


All of these have topped the Twitter trending charts in recent days, and for good reason.

The reactions in the last two weeks over the grand jury decisions on the deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson have started both online campaigns and important conversations about equity under the law. But it also brought people outside in ongoing protests to express outrage against these rulings – at times, shutting down streets and entire highways in the process. Continue reading Recent Protests in Public Space: It’s All About Equity

After the Park: The Future of Portland’s Public Space

This post was originally published in part on

This year’s PARK(ing) Day has come and gone, but to those who had a hand in the event or just took advantage of the day-long parklet on SW Stark, it was a happy memory and an example of what a public space can truly be in Portland. It was a day filled with friendly conversations, strangers uniting over a game of ping-pong, and citizens enjoying a place to work or eat their lunch. For me, I consider it a great accomplishment, and passing the street today seems bleak by comparison.

Continue reading After the Park: The Future of Portland’s Public Space

Pittsburgh vs. Portland: May the Best City Win

There is a competition mentality that plagues our conversations about cities year after year, here and abroad, that can be both the source of joy or scourge for mayors and citizens alike. What is the best city to start a business in? Where should I move to for a great nightlife? Which one tops the list for raising a family? The list goes on and on. Find your preferred publication and pick your flavor of competition. But are these really so important? A lot of time and money goes into attempting to top these lists, not to mention gathering the data to create them. And some people seem obsessed by the notion that one city would be more popular than another when clearly, this underdog city deserves more attention (and new residents). So why the popularity contest? Or more specifically, why the recent emphasis on the battle between Pittsburgh and Portland?

Continue reading Pittsburgh vs. Portland: May the Best City Win

Everyday Urbanism: Why We are All Urbanists

I call myself an urbanist, but what does that really mean? Being an urbanist is not something that requires a rigidly defined body of knowledge. There is no degree for urbanism, no certificate or qualifying test. Urbanists come from a myriad of disciplines: sociologists, anthropologists, geographers, economists, city planners (and other such “-ists” and “-ers” I’m sure I’ve missed). While these degrees are good for other things of course, they are by no means necessary to be an urbanist. It seems then the people who decide to call themselves urbanists are simply those that are united by a passion for urban environments and have some sort of urban-related knowledge – which therefore could technically be anyone. In a world where more than half of all people now live in cities, and with no degree for it, I wonder – where are all the urbanists?

Continue reading Everyday Urbanism: Why We are All Urbanists

The Most Influential Architect You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of

A documentary has been making the rounds recently in urban circles featuring perhaps the most influential architect you’ve (probably) never heard of: Jan Gehl. Aptly called The Human Scale, the documentary features numerous of Gehl Architects’ projects around the world, many of which are included in Gehl’s recent book, Cities for People. I recently had the opportunity to view said documentary and it did not disappoint (see trailer below).

Continue reading The Most Influential Architect You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of

Urban Green Space: Past, Present, and Future

Turkey’s ongoing developments in Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul could not be more pertinent to my personal research, but also have important ramifications for all of us and the future of urban design. Two years after the Arab Spring events we are witnessing another similar uprising in a large urban plaza filled with protestors of varying backgrounds seeking potentially disparate outcomes but gathering in the same place nonetheless. The difference with this situation, however, is the root cause of the demonstrations: a top-down redesign of one of the most important green spaces in the city.

Continue reading Urban Green Space: Past, Present, and Future

Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, Communications and Outreach Manager at Project for Public Spaces

Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman:

Here’s a reblog of my recent interview with Amy Santee! Loved spilling my guts about what anthropology means to me in the “real world”.

Originally posted on Anthropologizing:

Anthropologists in Practice is an ongoing series of interviews featuring practicing anthropologists who work outside the academy. The goal of the series is to provide a source of information and inspiration to anyone who is interested in the application of anthropology in the real world, including anthropologists, anthropology students, prospective anthropology students, employers, policymakers and the general public. It seeks to illustrate the wide variety of jobs, skills and competencies held by anthropologists, and create clarity around where and how we work. While all of the interviews follow a similar framework, each one is unique in its reflections on anthropology training and education, workplace applications, and advice for current and future practitioners.

The following interview features Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, Communications and Outreach Manager at Project for Public Spaces in New York City. Katrina, who has a BA in Anthropology from Arizona State University and a MA in Urban Studies from Portland…

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Travel Blog: East Coast Public Spaces

I recently had the pleasure of traveling back to the East Coast and exploring a few major cities I had not visited since becoming an urban enthusiast. Being a public space aficionado, I of course made it a point to investigate as many public spaces as possible. Starting in Pittsburgh, I made my way by train to New York City and Philadelphia, before embarking on a cross-country train ride back to Portland (with a quick stop in Chicago). I visited some spaces new and old, and was delighted to see such infamous improvements for myself.

Continue reading Travel Blog: East Coast Public Spaces

Park Portrait: PARK(ing) Day PDX

This is the third in a series originally published on Parksify of brief spatial ethnographies intended to provide a snapshot of one public space, for one day, in Portland, Oregon. Armed with a camera and a watchful eye, I observe the social behavior in relation to the built environment. The profiles are based on research methods used in my masters thesis in Urban Studies and are inspired by the works of William H. Whyte, Setha Low, and Jan Gehl. 

This Park Portrait is admittedly not about a permanent park, but a parklett that I helped create for a single day in downtown Portland. On September 20th, we took part in the PARK(ing) Day event with hundreds of other public space enthusiasts around the world. On an entire block of Southwest Stark Street we converted ten parking spaces into a greyspace plaza for a day.

Continue reading Park Portrait: PARK(ing) Day PDX