Putting Out in Public Space


Thomas Hart Benton, Instruments of Power from America Today, 1930–31 / The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Providing a great experience to visitors to public spaces is something we know that Disney gets for its parks. It’s also essential to the hotel business. Even museums and other cultural institutions are focused today on being responsive to visitor needs – to providing great customer service. They do this because the visitor experience is essential to generating repeat visits and building brand loyalty. At not-for-profit institutions treating visitors well is also part of their development strategy – happy visitors are more likely to become future donors.

In the world of public space management we don’t talk much about the visitor experience – but we should. Most public spaces are operated by government agencies, and the incentive systems of government bureaucracies are oriented towards different goals – minimizing costs, preventing graft and corruption, minimizing risk and avoiding political problems (analogous in some ways to good consumer relations, but not exactly the same thing). Those goals can often be in conflict with providing park visitors with a positive time. Perhaps those of us in downtown revitalization and public space management ought to think a little more about how the individual visitor is treated in our spaces.


Bryant Park Staff Member Samira Bouaou

Isn’t creating great user experiences at the very center of managing public space? Isn’t our goal, even in public parks, to provide a great visit and get the visitor to feel good about having been there and want to come back? And in those instances when we are restoring degraded parks or revitalizing disinvested downtowns aren’t we in the business of changing individuals’ perceptions about the public space? And isn’t it important to that mission that we make their visits as pleasant and convenient as possible? I would suggest that a negative experience with a government, BID or other not-for-profit employee creates a powerful, difficult to reverse perception about the attractiveness of the space (and the opposite is true as well – a great interaction with staff can leave a strong, lasting positive impression about a space). In any event, it strikes me that there is a moral component to treating visitors with respect. It’s just the right thing to do.

I started thinking about this as a result of an interaction I recently had in my local park. One Friday, I signed up for a tennis lesson at our clay courts (which are run but a group affiliated with the Park’s not-for-profit conservancy – which is managed by the park’s administrator, who is also a Parks Department employee) for the next day, a Saturday morning at 9. It rained overnight, which I hadn’t noticed until I got into the park. I arrived at the court, and my tennis coach was there – but he hadn’t been informed that I had signed up for a lesson (he had someone else regularly scheduled for 9 AM on Saturday mornings, who likely cancelled, creating the opportunity for me to sign up for a work-out on short notice). Because the courts were wet from the overnight rain, they were closed and would be for a couple more hours. But given that I have taken the trouble to come down to the courts, the coach sought out a dry court and tried to accommodate me. This coach is actually the person who “discovered” these long abandoned clay courts and led the effort, decades ago, to rehabilitate them and have them run by an not-for-profit organization. He identified a dry-ish court and we began to hit.

About halfway through our lesson an employee of the not-for-profit that runs the facility who is passionate about both tennis and the courts, came to us with great concern about our playing on the courts when they had been closed. The not-for-profit maintains a phone message that informs potential users of the conditions of the courts – and the staffer told me that the message on the line announced that the courts were closed and I should have been aware of that.

This created an interesting case for me. These systems had been set up for the convenience and efficiency for the folks who work in the office. The phone message is updated intermittently. The office had not informed the coach of the change in students (because he was going to be there anyway for his regularly scheduled partner) and had not informed me that the courts were closed because the standard operating procedure put the burden on the user to check the phone “hotline.” This all made perfect logical sense and was efficient for the staff – but it totally ignored the user experience; as did my slightly unpleasant conversation with the employee about my using the courts when they were wet and closed. In his view, we were creating a problem for him (and, he said, creating the potential to long-term damage to the court). Also, it was very important to him that the situation not be regarded as his fault (which, I have found, is often baked into the culture of administrative agencies).

I’ve noticed similar issues about blame when the public informs public space managers about a problem. Staff members’ first reaction to such information is often to communicate to the visitor that the situation is not his or her fault: that they already knew about the problem and it is “already being addressed” or that it is the responsibility of some other agency. That kind of response simply doesn’t add any value and is off-putting to the member of the public who is generally trying to be helpful.

These are situations that I’ve noticed a lot public spaces. Systems are designed for the convenience of the employees and the organization – and not for the visitor. In the first case above, very little additional resources would have been required to inform the coach of the change of players (especially given today’s technologies) and to send me a message about the closing of the courts. In addition, as a “customer,” it was not only unnecessary for the staff member to admonish us for playing – but it was counterproductive if the goal of the public space is to create great user experiences. Finally, the question of fault is irrelevant (in both of the above examples) – particularly since as a general rule in providing great customer service, it should almost never be the customer’s fault – no matter the circumstances.

By the same token, in the situation of the visitor complaint, there is a much better response. That is, to thank the member of the public for supplying the information, to tell them that it will be taken care of, and, most importantly, to give them a date by which the problem is expected to be remedied (this is especially easy if the issue is already in the process of being resolved!). Such a response makes the member of the public feel appreciated – and part of the team working to make the space better. It also provides them with a responsive answer – giving them information that enables them to follow-up on to see that the issue was resolved.



Maurice Prendergast

In reflecting on the tennis court exchange I realized that when I think about public space users I have generally considered them as a group – and about providing programs and services to groups, not to individuals. A great horticultural program affects all users. Detail oriented maintenance has a group impact. Putting on events in public spaces is done for large groups. But I’d like to suggest that we really ought to be putting more thought and effort into the experiences of individuals. The best BIDs have always provided some kind of customer service training to their “Ambassadors,” even when those employees are presented as more conventional security guards. But all employees ought to be trained to think about their work from the perspective of the visitor, shopper and office worker. This is harder to do in government – given the consent sense of limited resources, collective bargaining agreements and other systemic legal restraints – but no less important.

Placemaking is about giving people great experiences in downtowns and public spaces. And we ought to think more about how interactions between space users, staff and administrative systems play into that; providing high quality customer service training to all employees and designing administrative systems that put the visitor, rather than the staff, first. That encourages people both to think well about the spaces we manage and to make a return visit.

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