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Why Human Centred Design Should Be at the Heart of Transportation and Land-Use Planning

David Brown of Driven Media recently interviewed Laura Aston, recipient of the Austraffic/ITE World Wide Learning Opportunities Award. Laura is a PhD candidate specialising in Human Centred Design and its application in transport planning and land use.

Human centred design is an approach that aims to make systems, products and services useful by focusing on the specific end-users, their needs and requirements. This approach enhances effectiveness and efficiency, improves human well-being, user satisfaction, accessibility and sustainability; and counteracts possible adverse effects of use on human health, safety and performance. (ISO 9241-210:2010)

Human Centred Design is about discovering the behaviours, motives and needs of specific communities.  Part of its success is people knowing that the design of their local area is a direct reflection of them; not just a 'one-size-fits-all' presumption.

Human Centred Design Principles

Laura outlined the core principles of Human Centred Design as:

1. Research - identify the needs of users (observe, learn and be open to possibilities)

2. Ideation (generate ideas/brainstorm possible ways of meeting user needs)

3. Prototype (this doesn’t have to be complex - cardboard models will often suffice)

4. Test (end users need to be able to touch/feel/see your proposed solutions so they can provide feedback)

“What I am learning from my job which is a part-time role in the User-Focused Design Branch in the Victorian Government, is from the human centred design perspective, not only is the context of a country important but the context of a neighbourhood is important ... To get the optimum outcome, you'd have to treat every instance, every new build (for example a train station or a level crossing removal), as a unique context and understand the local psyche to really design for the best outcome.”

An Old Concept

The concept of Human Centred Design is not a new one. In 1971 Danish architect Jan Gehl, published his seminal work "Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space" using ideas first prompted by his wife Ingrid, a behavioural psychologist, in the early 1960s. Jan has since gone on to influence the closure of Times Square to vehicles between 42nd and 47th streets (which “resulted in fewer pollutants and pedestrian injuries, revenue increases for neighbouring businesses, and, surprisingly, better traffic circulation in surrounding areas”).  He also oversaw the redevelopment of Melbourne's public spaces in 1994.

As reported by NextCity.Org:

“Gehl worked with Melbourne’s city planners to make incremental changes to the public realm so that it would foster a more engaged civic life...Between 1994 and 2004, public spaces on Melbourne’s streets and squares increased by 71 per cent. The number of cafes and restaurants nearly tripled. And the public came out to use them: pedestrian traffic on the city’s central Bourke Street Mall surged from 43,000 to 81,000 people per day. Swanston Street, another major thoroughfare, now sees more daily foot traffic than London’s bustling Regent Street.”

T Hancke and R.J. Braune wrote in 1993 "The human-centered design philosophy is part of this new paradigm. It is currently gaining increasing recognition and importance in various areas of technology design throughout the world."

Human Centred Design has been a cornerstone of companies like Apple and Amazon that have built their considerable reputations (with substantial profits) by putting the human end-users at the forefront of their product design and development processes.

Involve All Users

A further step, which is often overlooked, is to ensure that ALL end users have a say. Boulder Colorado made a surprising, but ultimately smart choice when they looked to their youngest citizens for advice on urban planning.

It turns out that when children design spaces, "they design them for all living creatures, not for cars, egos or corporations".

“Kids placed flowers between the biking and walking paths, and benches along the creek so they could hang out with their friends … Children design communities that incorporate water, trees, flowers and animals … children design for everyone, from their grandmother in a wheelchair to the homeless woman they see sleeping in the park”.

The observations of the Boulder children are in line with those noted by Stephen Goldsmith (Director of the Innovations in Government Program at the Harvard Kennedy School) in a recent Harvard Data-Smart City Solutions article on designing human centred cities:

  • People prefer areas with visual complexity over more homogeneous landscapes
  • Green spaces and other natural architectural elements offer a contrast with the typical industrial features of city life.
  • People also tend to prefer areas where they interact meaningfully with other people - socialisation is important to city health

Goldsmith states “urban designers have begun to understand that designing a city means designing for the well-being of the people who live there. Going forward, it will be critical that designers think about how their work affects all people, in all their differences. Today’s data collection and visualisation tools allow better planning, more inclusivity and a much better ability to actually model the effect of changes.”

Effective Data Solutions

As Laura notes, Human Centred Design starts with research and should be tailored to specific location and communities.

Good data is more than averaging large numbers. It is having an accurate handle not only on the magnitude of people but on the nuances and varieties of trips and trip purposes.

Good human centred planning decisions must begin with asking the right questions, and using accurate, appropriate and inclusive data collection methodologies, to ensure we achieve the best possible outcomes for all.