DePaul University measuring how public spaces make people feel


Can a public space feel healthy and equitable?

DePaul University researchers are looking at the built environment and public spaces hoping to answer that question with the help of high-tech wearable eye-tracking glasses. With a camera in the front of the lenses, the glasses record wherever your head points, tracks eye movement, and records locations and heart rates.

In tracking how people look at their environment and asking how they feel while in those areas, Kimberly Quinn, DePaul’s psychology department chair, and Michelle Stuhlmacher, assistant professor of geography and geographic information systems, aim to show the psychological effects of public spaces and urban design.

Over the next three years, data will be gathered on people’s emotions and reactions through the glasses, a mobile app and GPS mapping. Data such as fluctuations in participants’ heart rates will be gathered to learn more about what they were feeling in the area as well.

Stuhlmacher said the app will track how participants move through public spaces and how they move through their daily life, while also checking in with how they’re feeling based on their surroundings. If you couple that information with satellite imagery that tells us how green or how built out a public space is with a variety of participants across different economic zones, Stuhlmacher says, we can understand what it is they’re experiencing as they interact with public spaces in their neighborhood, near their workplace or where they recreate.

“We have a lot of information looking at people’s home neighborhoods, but we don’t have nearly as much understanding of other kinds of green spaces and public spaces that they interact with,” Stuhlmacher said. “Not everyone stays in their home census tract. We’ll get a much better picture of where they’re going and also how it makes them feel.”

The project, funded by a $750,000 National Science Foundation grant, will be conducted with community groups and individuals in Chicago — including environmental neuroscientist Kimberly Meidenbauer of Washington State University, as well as social psychologist Sophie Trawalter and infrastructure designer Leidy Klotz, both from the University of Virginia. Quinn and Stuhlmacher hope the project will lead to the development of a protocol that architects and urban planners can use to ensure spaces are enjoyable for all visitors, regardless of their sociodemographics.

Quinn said that given what we know about the health benefits of green spaces in urban settings and Chicago’s life expectancy gap between residents in North Side and South Side neighborhoods, she hopes a project such as this will bring change when it comes to developing spaces with equity in mind.

“The environmental justice issues, the disparities in green space access that are correlated with lower socioeconomic status and various identities … that’s well-documented,” Quinn said. “But there’s less work pulling that together. This project is to try to deepen that understanding by adding new information that hopefully will be a bit more persuasive to governments and urban planners. Like: This is what you’re doing to people physically and psychologically and this is evidence of exactly what’s going on when people are in these spaces. If we can see certain things in the way people are moving, looking and feeling in the spaces, hopefully we’ll have more impact.”

This work documents people’s own experiences in their own words, Quinn said. “What are the emotions that you’re feeling and what are your thoughts about this space?” Quinn said. “We’re also going to be doing some open-ended interviews, collect their words and try to see what themes we’re seeing with different neighborhoods and different spaces and different people within those spaces.”

Stuhlmacher said this project could yield results similar to the way Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, became mainstream in construction and building.

“One of the main points of the project is to translate it into something that policymakers can use as far as design criteria,” Stuhlmacher said. “This project, if we understand what makes people feel welcome in their neighborhood, in their neighborhood’s public spaces, or even in the public spaces that aren’t in their neighborhood, I think that can go a long way to improving those public spaces and improving equity and access.”

Quinn and Stuhlmacher want the local community to reach out to them to be a part of the research. El Paseo Community Gardens and Women for Green Spaces are already connected with the research. The team is looking for adults in a range of ages, genders and racial and ethnic groups for a wide representation. As the work bears out, Quinn said she wants to identify other features that may also be good for people’s well-being, sense of community and belonging.

By bringing the emotional piece into the geographical space, and quantifying the environment aspect in psychology, the duo said the benefits will prove impactful for both fields of study. With all the data that will be collected, Quinn said the team will more than likely be analyzing it for about a decade. But at the end of it, she said they will try to produce a type of executive summary that people can take with them as they’re trying to make the case for needing more art or more green space in their neighborhoods.

“You can have green space nearby and feel completely unwelcome in it and therefore never use it,” Stuhlmacher said. “The hope is that this project will give a stronger understanding of what makes people feel welcome in their public spaces, so they can be utilized and receive those benefits. Linking a lot of these pieces together with the explicit goal of how we can make public spaces more welcoming for a wide variety of urban residents is new to geography, and hopefully a lot of other disciplines.”

To be a part of the study, contact the researchers at

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