Musings on Post Occupancy Evaluations:

On September 23rd, I’ll be speaking at the Play for Life Symposium in Minnetonka, MN (http://bit.ly/jNoa2N) about how to make play environments   engaging. (Note that my talk, is the same name as this blog: The Engagement Zone.) As a landscape architect, I have long used both my creative instincts as well as the process of design to create gardens. In my doctoral work in environmental psychology at City University of New York (CUNY), however, I started working on post-occupancy evaluations. This has enabled me to see the project through the eyes (and other senses, as well as ideas) of those people who use these environments. Wow! What a change in perspective!

My first Post-Occupancy Evaluation involved the – then – new Indoor Children’s Garden at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA. Not only did I observe and record where children and adults spent their time and the types of activities they were engaged in, I also interviewed them.

Too often, when we observe people, we presume we know what they are doing. It is as if our child asks us where babies come from and, as we turn all shades of purple and green thinking about what to say in response, our child then notes, “I thought it was from the hospital, but Freddie says his brother was born in a swimming pool…” It is so much better to ask, not just watch. You would be amazed at what you will learn, especially from children.

One of the most interesting examples was when a mother of a 4-year old told me her daughter was afraid to go into the Secret Room with the Drooling Dragon at Longwood Gardens. This “dragon” is a huge face with a mouth that not only drips water (it’s a fountain) but is backlit with red lights so that some of the kids think there’s blood back there. The woman further indicated that her daughter was so afraid of being eaten by this dragon that she would avoid going in that area of the garden.

She wasn’t the only one, it turned out. Other children, as well as other parents, said the same thing. I noticed that all of these children were younger than 4 years of age. Further, when I observed children in that area of the garden, I noticed that they were older. Actually, they were larger – at least their arms were longer. The kids who were not afraid of the dragon were those who could reach into the mouth of the dragon and touch the water!

At this same time in my evaluation, I was interviewing staff members who were involved with the garden. Nancy Bowley, in Visitor Services at Longwood Gardens, who created innovative activities for the children, mentioned to me that the pieces of chalk the staff kept in the Secret Room was discoloring the slate walls – something they had not considered in the design stage. I suggested that they use, instead, big paintbrushes that could be dipped into the water coming out of the mouth of the dragon and “painted” onto the walls. I had discovered this suggestion when I performed an archival review of Longwood Gardens’ design process as part of the Post-Occupancy Evaluation. However, I also noted that, by holding a big paintbrush, this would extend the reach of a younger child whose arms would not yet reach the water in the dragon’s mouth!

Nancy wrote a note over the door in the Secret Room: “Please dip your brush into my mouth and paint me a picture. Signed, The Drooling Dragon.” I immediately started observing older children following this advice. Further, I noticed smaller children watching the older children…before dipping the paint brushes into the dragon’s mouth themselves!

This shows how my interactive way of conducting a post occupancy evaluation increased usage of the garden, reduced damage to the materials, and helped children overcome their fears through watching their peers!

How might this process help your project???

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