CAMBRIDGE — What if sidewalks had lanes, so foot traffic was channeled in specific directions and people looking down at their phones avoided collisions?
If you remember when people could handle walking all by themselves, you might wonder whether urban smartphone addicts — the zombie-like “petextrians” scorned in op-eds and mocked in YouTube videos — really deserve special attention.
But to a group of teenagers at URBANFRAME, a summer program for high school students based out of MIT’s architecture department, the phone-users are one of a number of ignored groups worth considering in how we design our cities.
Mason Daniels, Griffin Deans, and Katie LeBlanc laid down lines of white tape on a stretch of Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square last Friday, hoping to turn the sidewalk into a two-lane pedestrian highway where people walking in opposite directions would stay in their lanes without having to look up. They also put brightly-colored tape around a bike rack, to make the obstacle stand out.
“The right side . . . is more comfortable because of driving,” Daniels said. “People will be using their phones and just follow it blindly. I did it yesterday myself.”
The three high school students observed urban spaces, collected data, ran trials in the halls of MIT, and tried numerous iterations of the lanes before settling on the version in Central Square.
It worked. People — many of whom were staring at screens — shifted unconsciously into lanes. Some petextrians looked up, puzzled, but most just kept walking (and texting).
“No one’s really been designing for distracted people, people who are removed from their surroundings, which is incredibly important in the 21st century,” Deans said.
Six other groups of URBANFRAME students installed temporary projects in Central Square on the same day. The goal of the two-week program, which included 22 students from eight countries and eight states, was to design for under-represented groups in the community — people whom designers might typically ignore.
“We wanted to consider all different kinds of groups who are ignored because of unconscious bias,” Daniel Hewett, director of the program and executive director of research at Rhode Island School of Design, said. The students identified nearly 70 such groups before narrowing them down to seven. Then they created installations aimed at the homeless, lovers, artists, people-watchers, regulars, foreigners, and people distracted by technology.
Of course, the designers themselves were part of a group that society frequently ignores: teens.
“Often people don’t take the ideas of teenagers very seriously,” Hewett said. “They have really innovative ideas, and this is a chance for them to build something tangible.”
Some of the projects were more conceptual. One group focused on “regulars,” people within the Central Square community who have a specific place or area that they frequent but who may go unnoticed themselves. The group created wire sculptures intended to represent them.
”We wanted to show their presence when they’re not there,” said Lucy Gough, one of the students involved. “They’re there every day, so when they’re not there, we want people to notice.”
Last Friday, on the last day of the program, the URBANFRAME students presented their designs and discussed the project with roughly 50 parents, guests, and members of the public near City Hall in Cambridge. The installations came down that evening.
For now, Central Square texters are once more left to blunder along the sidewalk without help.
“The point wasn’t to create permanent solutions,” Hewett said, “but to spark conversation about certain groups in the community and how design can address them.”