Public Space in the Smart City


Troy Simpson


Environmental Psychology

Project Title:

Public Space in the Smart City
Troy Simpson is a doctoral candidate in the Environmental Psychology program at The Graduate Center, CUNY, and a researcher affiliated with the Center for Human Environments. His research focuses on human-environment relationships, largely in the context of public spaces, as well as the application of social science research methods to architectural and urban design processes. He previously conducted research at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and he worked as a green building and policy advisor in the non-profit environmental sector.


Publicly accessible spaces in New York City are constantly transforming, both in terms of how they are designed and managed, as well as in terms of the nature of activities and experiences that take place within them. One of the key emergent factors in publicly accessible spaces in New York City is the degree to which new and changing technologies are woven into their design and operations. This dissertation project focuses on interrogating the experiential aspects of such spaces, and is organized around the following questions: first, (a) how do members of different constituencies interact with emerging smart cities technologies in the context of public spaces (i.e., do they interact directly, and if so, how?)?; and second, (b) how do users conceptualize and navigate notions of publicness with regard to their activities? Field work emphasizes publicly accessible space in New York City where these dynamics are relevant, and employs interviews and observations as primary field methods.

This summer marked the initiation of this dissertation project, and as such, the primary activities I engaged in related to conducting preliminary fieldwork in New York City. Field research methods for this project are drawn from multiple sources, but primarily from the Toolkit for the Ethnographic Study of Space (Low, Simpson, & Scheld, 2018), which is an in-depth yet efficient method for studying the everyday life of a particular public space via the application of ethnographic methods. The TESS is particularly well suited for the research questions associated with this project because it helps researchers establish a contextual background (e.g. via documenting history through multiple forms of data collection) but emphasizes the evaluation of lived experiences and processes of meaning-making among users of public spaces via multiple forms of observation and interviews.

My field work generally consists of spending long stretches of time in public space conducting observations and interviewing users of various constituencies to explore in what ways they relate to the site, including how technology is woven into their activities and perceptions. These observations and interviews, while preliminary, indicate transformative dynamics may be underway as public spaces become increasingly technified with regard to what draws people to such spaces and the forms of activities they feel inclined to engage in and perform.

This dissertation project is capturing transformations in New York City public spaces as they occur, and is oriented toward comparing the perspectives and experiences of different constituencies that interact with such spaces. As such, this study provides a valuable perspective from which to understand nuanced aspects of contemporary conditions while situating these findings in the broader historical context of transforming public spaces in New York City. In the months ahead, I plan to continue conducting observations and interviews to capture user data from a range of conditions (e.g. additional variations in weather, season, time, and during specific events, etc.). Moreover, I plan to deepen other forms of research such as documenting site history through an analysis of news media and policies to further interrogate how public space design and technology are transforming the very nature of publicly accessible spaces in New York City.

About the author: Param Ajmera