Our group analysed the user activity of Les Halles, learning about who used the area and what they were doing there. At first glance, it was easy to note that thousands of people pass through this area each day: as we learned at the information booth of Les Halles, 800,000 commuters pass through this hub daily. This area, in particular its public spaces such as Parc de Nelson Mandela and Fontaines des Innocents facilitate a wide variety of activities ranging from simply passing through, meeting a friend or colleague for a rendezvous, relaxing solitarily or smoking, shopping, selling or advertising something, etc.
While restaurants and shops surround the public spaces, the spaces themselves are not heavily programmed. There is little other than sparse seating, trees for shade, the fountain, and a jungle gym to the side of the park, providing flexibility and adaptability for users to determine for themselves what to do in these places and at what time. As we watched, we found that people are creative in their uses, and counted at least 12 different uses simultaneously. We watched as children entertained themselves walking along the seats around the fountain or riding scooters, AIDES volunteers bravely approached everyone who might listen about their campaign, and people walked dogs who sniffed cigarette butts.
The Project on Public Spaces’ analysis of the success of a public space includes “Uses and Activities” as one of the four categories of factors. This category looks for a diversity in ongoing activities, usage throughout the day, a balance between different demographics using the place, and different sizes of groups of users. A good public space welcomes everyone and creates the opportunity for many activities. Les Halles is undoubtedly welcoming for both singles and groups, both men and women, old and young. It is crowded, noisy, and dusty, but frequented daily by both those who must pass through on a commute and those who choose to use this space.
Looking into a second category titled “Sociability,” we learned that a great public space is one that fosters social connection and a sense of community. In order to quantitatively measure the success of Les Halles in fostering human connection, we tallied the percentage of users using their electronic devices rather than interacting with the people around them face-to-face or enjoying the space itself. We counted the users in Parc de Nelson Mandela and Fontaines des Innocents, dividing the users into five categories, which were (1) no device usage, (2) headphones, (3) screen (mobile phone, Kindle, iPad, etc.), (4) both headphones and screen, or (5) phone call. Our survey was conducted on a Wednesday afternoon at 2:00 PM.
The majority of users were not on an electronic device, with 78%, or 274 of 353 people counted electronics-free. There were some differences between the two places. In Parc de Nelson Mandela, 80% were not using a device, whereas at Fontaine des Innocents, 70% were not. A chi-square test reveals this difference to be significant, so we can conclude that the park was fostering more sociability than the fountain area at the time of our survey. At the fountain, a higher percentage of users were talking on the phone, suggesting that it is a good place for individuals to come by themselves and take care of their individual tasks. Otherwise the percentages between the two places are similar.
The density of people during our count was 0.041 people per square metre in the park and 0.022 people per square metre around the fountain. The park attracted more people.
Our team was curious regarding the differences in design of these two public spaces and how these inherent differences help Fontaine des Innocents foster more face-to-face interaction and attract more people. We tried to answer this question with other criteria for evaluating public spaces: comfort and accessibility. Regarding comfort, it is easier to find a seat at the park, because the entire surface area is seating. By the fountain, seating is mainly restricted to the ledges forming a square around it. The park also offers more variety in seating, with sunny and shaded areas. A second point of comparison is the prevalence of nature. The fountain incorporates water elements, but during our count, nobody touched the water. It provides background white noise but is not an interactive experience with nature. In comparison, the grass in the park helps people feel closer to nature.
In terms of access, the two places have similar proximity to the Chatelet-Les Halles commuter hub, but the park is more visible from the outside, due to its size and distance from neighbouring buildings, and thus might be more welcoming. The park lacks the access that the fountain area has to neighbouring commercial activities. These comparisons inform us about designing urban public spaces for Parisians. The citizens of Paris likely value an experience that is increasingly intertwined with nature in a city with relatively few natural spaces as opposed to immediate access to the ubiquitous monotony of brasseries, bistros, and bars and shopping boutiques.