What makes a place walkable? Turns out it’s not just sidewalks. ‘Fixation points’ that stimulate the eye to look in a direction or at a specific place, matter too.
With eye-tracking tools, you can start to deconstruct the hidden process behind walkability, looking at how how we ‘fixate’ without conscious control, and then move our attention and/or our bodies towards the place in question. We can track the visual sequence our brain gets our eyes to follow as they look at something, as shown in the streetscape above, (at right).
This is Chance Street, a new neighborhood in Devens, central Massachusetts, designed to promote community and rehabilitate a former military base. Working with a team at Tufts, we eye tracked the new development using an off-the-shelf emulation product, 3M’s Visual Attention Software (VAS). The central image which it created shows a ‘heat map’ that glows brightest where people likely look most within the first 5 seconds taking in this scene (during ‘pre-attentive’ processing). The image at right above, shows the path eyes likely follow within that timeframe. The fixation sequence shown here, 1 through 4, goes straight down the street, suggesting both the building layout and architecture promote walkability as intended – even before our conscious brain can get into the act.
Eye-tracking data can also be compiled into ‘regions’, where outlined areas in red (in image at left) indicate a high probability of garnering viewing attention (74% – 98%), in yellow, a medium probability (58% – 63%). Areas with no outline will most likely be ignored.
So, here again, you can see that even if you’ve never been to Devens, you’ll have a pretty easy time navigating along Chance Street.
The biometric testing suggests that not all areas of the new development invite walkability to the same extent, however. For instance, the parking alley behind Chance Street, lined with free-standing garages, would prove much more daunting for the newcomer who would be less likely to even consider ambling along it. Why?
The images above show how the brain directs the eyes to take in the central area of the scene but provides no clear path of fixation points down the roadway – so nowhere to go from the unconscious brain’s perspective; and because unconscious processing directs conscious behavior, this is not going to be a popular pedestrian byway – ever. But come to think of it, that may be exactly what the developer and residents want: a street out front with people and one behind – for privacy’s sake – without them.
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Thanks to Prof Justin B Hollander, of Tufts, Hanna Carr, Tufts, ’20, for assistance with research and the Devens Enterprise Commission for supporting it.