The Future of Public Space

The Urban Center Plaza at Portland State University, topic of my thesis research. Photo credit: Doug Macy of Walker Macy (used with permission)

The Urban Center Plaza at Portland State University, topic of my thesis research. Photo credit: Doug Macy of Walker Macy (used with permission)

Public space isn’t something typically on everyone’s mind on a daily basis, though of course it dictates much about how we live our lives – Where do you cross the street? Do you have sidewalks? Where’s your nearest public park or plaza? For those without private open space (apartment/condo dwellers, houseless individuals) public space is the only space they have to travel, walk their dog, have a picnic, or just plain experience the rest of their society (myself included). Considering that urban environments now contain over 50% of the world’s inhabitants, and that this is only going to increase, I believe that an emphasis on public space is necessary for the future of cities.

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Bicycle Commuter Stats Maps

[Originally written by Allison Duncan]

A simple graduated symbol map from Governing.com shows the range of commuter rates for cities – with a roll-over for specific cities to show more detail. The map for Bike Commuters shows a comparison of commuters to total workers – so each is proportional.   The high margin of error in the data (which in the notes is attributed to 2006 and 2011 American Community Survey – ACS) means, as with all maps and data, one must take it with a grain of salt.

To compare, another map on the site shows total people who Bike to Work - which could be construed as the same thing, and obviously there would be some correlation – but is a specific question and not a comparison of bike commuters to overall workers, as shown above, so does make for a slightly different spread – for instance Eugene, Oregon – which is larger on the above map – is significantly smaller on the map below – because the plot is based on total riders – so obviously Portland would be bigger due to larger population.

It would be interesting to dig into some of the ACS data and see what the specific questions are, and hopefully the survey will still be around in future years (more on this to come) for future longitudinal studies.

Square Pegs & Round Holes

[Originally written by Allison Duncan]

A conversation that permeates any discipline involved in the social sciences is how to evaluate the rigor of research as ‘science’.  There’s a ton of baggage related to this, particularly when compared to ‘hard’ sciences and the traditional  theory > hypothesis > testing  mode of  deductive reasoning.     A recent short article, “Overcoming ‘Physics Envy’” from April 1 in the NY Times tackles this issue in the social sciences by deconstructing the science implied in scientific reasoning.


Authored by two political science instructors from University of Rochester, the article discusses the inherent bias in scientific communities, such as the National Science Foundation as well as peer-reviewed journals in only accepting and disseminating research that fits the hypothetico-deductive model.  They disagree with the focus on this as the only valid scientific method, saying that:

“…we believe that this way of thinking is badly mistaken and detrimental to social research. For the sake of everyone who stands to gain from a better knowledge of politics, economics and society, the social sciences need to overcome their inferiority complex, reject hypothetico-deductivism and embrace the fact that they are mature disciplines with no need to emulate other sciences.”

There are countless examples of the sort of apologist writing in social science literature – with caveats on the lack of repeatability – specifically in the qualitative vs. quantitative debate – and the methods employed to imbue social research with testable, statistics based methods that give the illusion of hard science, or more annoyingly, prefacing research with long explanations of the need and validity of the qualitative methods.

There is a need for untested theoretical models in science, to shift thinking and to open up new avenues of dialogue, even in the absence of testability.  These give some pointers on how we may get to a solution, not the actual method, but the theory that guides us.  From the article:  “To borrow a metaphor from the philosopher of science Ronald Giere, theories are like maps: the test of a map lies not in arbitrarily checking random points but in whether people find it useful to get somewhere.”

The authors conclude that the overall hyper-focus on testing, rather than theorizing, limits the scope of research and our ability to understand issues.  Social science is difficult, due to myriad variables and actors interacting in tandem, to fit into a traditional hypothetico-deductive model of science, and to limit research to only that form of science limits our ability to tackle large issues.   What we need right now is the ability to do just that, not to regress into the purity of science – further distancing academia from the actual world it aims to study.  As the authors conclude:

“Unfortunately, the belief that every theory must have its empirical support (and vice versa) now constrains the kinds of social science projects that are undertaken, alters the trajectory of academic careers and drives graduate training. Rather than attempt to imitate the hard sciences, social scientists would be better off doing what they do best: thinking deeply about what prompts human beings to behave the way they do.”