Pro-tip: Start using “-ing lists”

Pro-tip: Start using “-ing lists”

There’s a UPS ad campaign right now that asks “Can you believe all the ings we can fit under one roof?” It goes on to explain all the things you can do at UPS, like packing, mailbox-ing, fax-ing, copy-ing, and so on. I’ve worked on several design teams over the years where my particular niche is to develop the space program that informs the design of a place. One question I always ask is, How many “ings” can we fit into this design? And that gets me started on creating an -ing list.

An -ing list is my way to central planning and designs around a program of activities. It’s a method that draws a team into a deeper investigation of how people will use space – and it’s a great predictor of how active that space will be. It gets us away from focusing too much on form – at least long enough to really explore the project in terms of its function, or program.

Creating places for people

If you look at the most active people environments, you’ll find they usually have the widest selection of things you can do in the space. Is it really that surprising that the kitchen is the room where we by far spend the most time at home? Of all our rooms, our kitchens have the longest -ing list, including cook-ing, eat-ing meals, eat-ing snacks, drink-ing, mak-ing coffee, wash-ing dishes, sitt-ing, socializ-ing, unload-ing groceries, work-ing at the kitchen table, and more. What other room in the house offers such a rich menu of activities to such a broad spectrum of people?

Ecological psychologists use the term “behavior setting” – the idea that people recognize specific settings in their environment for their utility, and this is a basic way we navigate the world. When we see certain things grouped together in a space, we know what it’s good for. So, you see a stove and some cabinets and counters and a fridge – your brain registers that as a kitchen, and you categorize it internally along with all the other kitchens you’ve ever seen. You instantly know what you can do in the space. Now, if the cabinets and counters were in a room without the fridge and stove, then we might be confused by the room’s design, or we might classify it as a completely different behavior setting, perhaps a workshop.

The power of this idea is that it links physical spaces with behaviors, as well as meanings that people carry around with them – some of which are mostly universal (everyone agrees on what kitchens are good for), and some of which are personal/cultural meanings and memories.

Placemaking and design

In the early stages of an urban planning or design project, I spend lots of time developing -ing lists to think about how to create experiences and active settings within the project site – whether it’s a public park, a main street, a campus, or a retail environment.

I like to identify key audiences (are you serving mostly young college students, neighborhood residents, office workers?), and then develop an -ing list for each. Lots of the -ing list ideas come from stakeholder meetings and workshops. The initial -ing lists should be long. Have you considered children and the elderly? Are people of different income levels accommodated? Are there opportunities for people to be alone as well as in groups?

You can then start to cluster items from your -ing lists into places and bring the design back in to conceptualize truly engaging experiences (behavior settings). At this point, I make sure to combine activities that will draw diverse audiences together.

Things get even more interesting when we begin to layer in more social content – communing, exchanging knowledge, educating, and building environmental awareness. In other words, this exercise can put us in direct contact with higher goals and outcomes. Thus, for some clients, it can be very rewarding to use this process early in their planning process. 

In rich environments, people are interacting with the environment and transform it with their own actions – moving a chair into the sun, doing a chalk painting, posting a flier, bringing their own chessboard, etc. Our built environments are a result of this constant interaction between the social context and spatial conditions.

Decades of culture in a place bring additional meaning, as layers and layers of built features and memories accrete. It’s one reason that walking down Main Street, or along a street in SoHo is so much more soulful than a new retail development – even one that’s well-done.

The -ing list for Main Street will be quite complex and although commercial developers may attempt to reproduce the experience in a private retail environment, such as a mall, they carry over only a fraction of the -ing list to this simulated environment. You could say the term “strip mall” pertains very much to the stripping away of behaviors, and therefore of richness.

Occasionally I will see an urban space that looks to me not at all special or rich, but then I find out that a group of men gathers there daily for hours to play dominoes and talk – the social content is rich even if the physical setting is not.

When we match the social and behavioral content to a physical setting we create places of meaning. And each individual will add their own cultural interpretations so that although people may share some of the same experiences in a place, there will also be vastly different experiences for each person based on their own stories, backgrounds, and beliefs.

Pretty amazing how far an -ing list can take you!

More on how I work with -ing lists in planning and design:

Goal-setting and Visioning

·       Consider the goals of the client, the goals of the community, and the site. After many deep conversations, you will arrive at a vision statement. This is not a simple task.

·       Identify key audiences and develop some basic user personas – are you serving mostly young college students, neighborhood residents, and office workers? All of the above?

·       Ask underlying questions relating to functional aspects of achieving this vision and solving these problems: Collect and analyze data, including contextual information about local cultural values, history, and markets. Do additional site reconnaissance.

·       Identify form-related goals of the client and community – the high-level characteristics that will lead to how the site and its context are treated from a design standpoint.

·       Revisit your vision, and break it down into sub-goals or themes. Fit in site-specific and environmental characteristics.

Preliminary programming

·       Create an -ing list under each theme. What are people doing under each theme? Be generous, refer to your meeting notes with the client and community. The -ing lists should be long.

·       Evaluate your -ing list by audiences – have you considered children and the elderly? Are people of different income levels accommodated? Are there opportunities for people to be alone as well as in groups?

·       Cluster your -ing lists into places that consist of engaging experiences. Be sure to combine activities that will draw diverse audiences together.

Program concept development

·       Test these abstract place ideas with the real-world context. Make them more concrete by matching them to specific locations and environmental characteristics. What are the space requirements? What are the management requirements, and do they fall within the capability of the client? Are there opportunities to bring in other partners?

·       Once you have mapped some places that you think have a real possibility, think about adjacencies, linkages, and flow between them and the surrounding context, including important natural features. Evaluate existing and potential circulation patterns, entrances, and drivers of traffic. Do several user journey maps for different types of audiences (user personas), and arrange your places in ways that increase enjoyment and explorability.

·       Finalize your program in a program diagram and with narrative text describing the detailed experience of each space and subspace. Add details about comfort and amenities; consider the need for flexible spaces that can hold events. Add any design criteria that are important to its function (e.g. shade, water, seating types, etc.).

Design Development proceeds from here.

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About Phil Myrick

Phil Myrick is an advisor to planning and development projects around the world and former CEO of Project for Public Spaces. Phil applies research into how people interact with their environments and each other to create vibrant places, destinations, districts, and developments. His strategic advice has helped his clients achieve their goals of attracting people, engaging people in their community, strengthening connections and social fabric, and stimulating economic development. Phil is married with two teenagers and struggles to satisfy his passion for being outdoors or on the water.

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