Streetlab – conflict of interest or celebration of diversity?

In the past year, we have immersed ourselves in the ways in which Amsterdam’s cyclists and pedestrians experience the streets. Our research was commissioned by various local councils to support innovation projects around the use of public space. In two of the projects (for Stadsdeel West and Stadsdeel Zuid) we focused on the opportunities for improving bike parking in specific areas. In others (for Stadsdeel Zuid and Stadsdeel Centrum) we focused on opportunities for creating more space for pedestrians.

Working on four projects with a similar research question allowed us to develop and improve a customised research method, we called Streetlabs. This method creates a setting for different users to share their ways of using the same environment. We sat around the table with inhabitants, shop owners, visitors, people who work in the streets, and people who work for the city district. Using visual tools such as a streetview map, vector map and pictographic cards, the participants had the opportunity to express their experience of the topic in relation to the focus area. To create a constructive dialogue, we encouraged people to speak from their own personal experience, and to try and avoid general statements. During this designed co-creation session, the groups identified problem areas and opportunities for improving the public space. Finally, they shared their visions for the specific street or neighbourhood we were investigating.

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It is not surprising that by bringing together different ‘actors’, who all share the same space, some conflicts of interest can be identified. For example, a shop owner may wish to increase the visibility of his or her business by placing an announcement board on the sidewalk. But for a parent with a stroller, that board may become an obstacle. While entrepreneurs see a busy street as a business opportunity, for an inhabitants or visitors this might also be a hassle.

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It is tempting to conclude that that’s just the way it is, and no solution can be optimal for all. This is why we found the constructive and positive tone of the conversations during the Streetlabs to be special. Although people have different motivations and different needs, with the Streetlab approach they were encouraged to find a common ground, a balance for a shared future. Most people love the places where they live, work and visit, and they care deeply about their local environment.

Interestingly enough, the same factor that may cause conflicts of interest – the fact that different users have different needs – is also the factor that makes the city a great place. In other words, the fact that the street is diverse, is something to be valued. It makes it interesting, energetic, exciting.

The Streetlabs method helped the participants, including civil servants, to discuss potential solutions from a new, shared perspective on the value of diversity.

At the end of the day, many people of Amsterdam share a similar vision – they wish for a safe yet lively area to spend a great deal of their day in.

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