• Saurabh Sharma

HCI + Smartphone + Adobe Illustrator = Insights into urban planning

Updated: Mar 12

Notes from the front-lines of Human-Computer Interaction and Design at the scale of Urban Planning!


As a part of the “Design and Prototyping” course in our Master’s HCI program at UC Irvine, we were given the following assignment:


“Investigate human environment by choosing a physical location/area. Then, through a series of mapping studies, (based on observation + secondary research), isolate some of the *forces at play in this area. Use aerial photography/maps of your area and map the forces that you’ve identified, onto your site. Then step back, study your resulting map. What do you see?"

(*Forces = traces, decay, transformations, ethnicity, festivals, traffic, formal exchanges, informal exchanges, illegal operations, business type, business size, waste, human habitation, wild space, vegetation, forgotten places, water flow, traffic, vehicles, density, among others).


Initially, I didn't think much of it. If anything, ‘mapping a location’ felt more like a digression from what (I thought) our goal was — understanding users and designing interface that enhanced experiences. (Interface felt more like = digital + web-based + mobile). So, an assignment about mapping neighborhoods and spotting things in it, seemed a little off topic. But it was compulsory, and we had to do it anyway.


I chose my location and started taking photographs and making videos of “forces” that I found interesting. Before long, I started realizing the sheer volume and variety of things that I could observe on a street that I thought I was familiar with. There were obvious things like automobiles, traffic, businesses, foot traffic, formal communication (like road signs etc.), transformations (mainly new construction), and there we the not so obvious things too, like the urban wilderness, informal communication (mainly graffiti), forgotten spaces, religious institutions, traces and decay (organic and inorganic un-recycled trash) and a lot more.

“Photoshop and Illustrator "layers" are a great way to compare and contrast information and uncover interesting connections and contradictions. This makes them a great tool for insights, and not just design!”

Once I had identified the forces, I started plotting them into a map. It was quite satisfying to identify various forces, but that was nothing in comparison to what I started discovering as I plotted each subsequent force on the map. Looking at my Adobe Illustrator file, with various forces stacked on top of each other, it dawned upon me that layers are a great way to compare and contrast various forces on the map. Intriguing correlations started emerging, revealing new insights and hypotheses. Although, these hypotheses cannot be considered conclusive, given the relative smallness of my sample location in relation to the City of Los Angeles city, they can certainly form the basis for initial conversations about the way a city is organized and the roles that various forces play in shaping a city’s character and destiny! And this is big!

Especially Considering the fact that what I set out to do was relatively simple —  observing and taking photos and videos with my smartphone, and processing and analyzing these in a designing software Adobe Illustrator.


Here are the key hypotheses that emerged from my mapping exercise:


1. Trash does not correlate with foot traffic



I used to think that places with high foot traffic might have more trash in the street. However, what I discovered is just the opposite of this. Could it be that trash that is seen or reported by pedestrians is the trash that gets removed? At a broader level, are cities with more foot traffic cleaner than cities with few pedestrians?


2. Wilderness is limited to a river and its narrow shoulders

The only wilderness that I noticed was in and around the LA River, because everything else has been turned into commercial or residential space. The river is the only space that has escaped ‘development’. As a result, nature is trying to find its way back, in and around the river.



3. Business correlates with traffic



Traffic congestion correlates with businesses of all kinds. These could be restaurants, small and medium sized offices etc.


4. Traffic correlates with formal communication



With more intense traffic comes a higher concentration of traffic signs. Does this mean that people tend to not follow traffic rules when they have more traffic to navigate? Does that mean we behave as less than ideal citizens and city-dwellers when we have lesser room to ourselves? Does that also mean we are ‘less civilized’ when we are pushed into a corner?

[Coming from India, a country with high population density, I see a parallel here. I believe that as humans, wee tend to behave sub-optimally when there are too many of us jammed into a limited space. Also known as unlimited people and limited resources triggering, a not so charming, competition among us.]

“Are we are ‘less civilized’ when we are pushed into a corner. Or when we have to compete for resources?”

5. Informal communication does not correlate with foot traffic (or, may be, people on foot end up reporting and removing informal communication?)



Informal communication, like graffiti, is seen in places with no foot traffic. Does that mean that graffiti makers are just expressing themselves and not trying to send a message to anyone? Or could it mean that people on foot are most likely to report public graffiti and have it removed?

“New development isn't preventing congestion, it’s merely postponing it.”

6. Transformations don’t correlate with traffic (they create traffic over time?)



There’s a lot of new development — both commercial and residential — happening in this neighborhood, but it’s not happening in places that already have traffic and congestion. It looks like city planners know how to avoid adding congestion to already congested streets/neighborhoods. I wish I had data to show that new development leads to traffic over time, because such data will help us in seeing that new development in less congested areas is not preventing congestion, it’s merely postponing it.


7. No foot traffic = forgotten space? (or forgotten spaces don’t attract foot traffic?)



Places that have no foot traffic often do not have developed sidewalks. Or is it the other way around i.e. people are not choosing to walk because sidewalks are in a state of disrepair?


8. Housing correlates with ethnicity?



Places of worship are often right in the middle of residential neighborhoods. Do neighborhoods need these places of worship or do places of worship need these neighborhoods?


As I look back, this exercise could be a great way for city planners and city administrators to generate hypotheses about what’s going on the in their city. They can then use hard data from various departments in the city hall to check their initial hypothesis. (May be LA County’s Chief Data Officer can lead this!)

It's not hard to imagine summer interns and volunteers doing such work with county administration and helping the city make smarter choices about how it wants to use land and develop urban spaces.

“How many people are too many people in a city?”

The topic of land use is related to the question of “how many people are too many people in a city?” In this day and age, and with all the data and information available to us, this question should not be impossible to answer. I’ve never lived in San Francisco or NYC but looking at LA (and having lived in Beijing, Mumbai and Delhi) I can say that in order to avoid congestion, extreme pressure on natural resources and public services, every city should know their its point of equilibrium. Any development beyond this point should first explore options such as incentivizing people to move to other areas and exploring the option of developing newer cities.

“Every city should know it's point of equilibrium.”

This is what a strategically- minded city administration can do in order to guarantee quality of life for people in a city. Growing economic activity and prosperity that does not adversely impact natural resources and the sustainability of various social, economic and environmental ecosystems is the only kind of growth that matters in these times. Big cities like Los Angeles can lead by setting an example.

“Tools can come and go, but a way of thinking and a way of solving problems will stay with us long after we’ve graduated.”

Before closing, I’d like to go back to where I started. This was a design and prototyping assignment. It is greatly satisfying that a Master’s program in Human-Computer Interaction and Design is looking at design holistically. This stands in sharp contrast to various short-term courses out there that think of User Experience Design narrowly, only in terms software. By making us think about design holistically, and stretching our imagination beyond software, hardware, and into paradigms of physical space, this course helped me in developing a broader way of observing, thinking and creating. Of course, I’m learning to put software tools to better use too, but I’m glad that we are doing much more than that. Tools can come and go, but a way of thinking and a way of solving problems, will stay with us forever.


[End note: This project also made me want to learn more about the LA River. A short desktop research revealed an interesting past. First the city chipped away at its flood plains, and then many people lost their lives in the floods during 1930s. Soon after the river was transformed from a naturally flowing stream of water into a straitjacketed canal for flood control. Many species of wildlife were lost in the process. Now, the city is trying to bring those species back. They are trying to bring ‘Angelinos’ closer to the river by revitalizing it and promoting wildlife through a river revitalization project. More about this here.]

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