From left to right: Javier Otero Peña, Setha Low, Mike Benediktsson, Greg Smithsimon, Dana Taplin

The Public Space Research Group (PSRG) was founded in 1995 by Professor Setha Low and doctoral students at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). The objective was to create a center for ethnographic research, theory, and policy that focuses on the relationship of public space to people and communities within the context of legal, political and economic forces. The PSRG offers an integrated framework for examining the social processes that transform spaces into places, the conflicts that emerge over access and control of space, and the values and meanings people attach to places. We address local cultural and spatial resource problems and their evaluation, remediation, and revitalization through social policy, urban planning, management strategies and environmentally-sensitive design. The PSRG has rapidly grown in size and scope as faculty, graduate students and community associates research city parks, urban national parks, plazas, beaches, market areas, tourist areas, gated communities, co-operative housing, and historic preservation sites.

The PSRG utilizes ethnographic research methods to explore the psychological, social and cultural interrelations of individuals, neighborhoods and local public spaces. We utilize methods of interviewing users that go beyond the simple opinion survey to elicit significant meanings and values attached to these places. The PSRG is a leader in the use of Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Procedure (REAP), a rapid data-gathering methodology. REAPs involve multiple research techniques applied over a short interval of time and include interviews,
focus groups, behavioral mapping, participant observation, physical traces collection and transect walks. We emphasize the importance of involving people and communities as participants and part of the research team that may include social scientists, designers, and planners.

Key research topics range from protecting and enhancing large public spaces such as urban parks and heritage sites to examining and articulating the exclusionary practices and dynamics of fear in co-op housing and gated communities. PSRG undertakes a variety of activities as a means of achieving its goals:

  • Basic and applied research (i.e., interviewing, behavior mapping, participant observation).
  • Applied research in the form of Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Procedures, Needs Assessment, and User Studies.
  • Consultation with community groups and agencies concerned with the development of public space.
  • Training in ethnographic and anthropological research techniques.
  • Publication of technical reports and scholarly articles.
  • Presentations at local and national conferences on urban issues, culture and public space * informal exchange of technical assistance, advice, and information.

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Methods & Analysis

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