Atlantic Cities

Can You Tell if a Street is Safe Just By Looking?

Can You Tell if a Street is Safe Just By Looking?
Place Pulse

Imagine your street passing you a note. It says “Do you like me?” and asks you to circle “Yes” or “No.” There's no “Maybe” or “Kinda” or “Yeah, but… .” This should be an easy answer. Which do you circle?

Any question framed this way can seem not particularly informative. But take that same note and send it out to a couple hundred thousand people, and the results start to gather a little more meaning. That’s the thinking behind the web-based project Place Pulse, which seeks to collect simple binary responses about images of places in cities.

Visitors are shown two pictures and asked one of the following questions:

Which place looks safer? Which place looks more unique? Which place looks more upper-class?

The project has received nearly half a million votes, and from that pool of data they’ve been able to draw a few visual conclusions. Smaller, tree-lined streets tend to be perceived as safer, while wide and blank blocks seem less so.

Developed at the MIT Media Lab by the Macro Connections group, the site uses geo-tagged photos to create side-by-side comparisons from which voters are asked to select which photo better meets a certain criteria. Images are collected from New York and Boston, and also the Austrian cities of Linz, Salzburg, and Vienna.

Only the results of the safety question are available on the site, which presents the top and bottom ten from all the cities, as well as rankings for each individual city. Overall, the safest-seeming cities are in Austria and the least safe are in the U.S.

We're not yet sure what it means, but so far the vast majority of Place Pulse respondents are male. Nearly 13,000 votes have been cast by men, while only about 3,200 came from women. The age of respondents is also tracked, and the bell curve of ages is heavy on youth, peaking at about 25.

The project is still operating and accepting votes.

According to the Place Pulse’s creators, a “full-featured website will be launched to the general public, enabling anybody to create or participate in a study.” When that happens, it might be even more interesting to do a single-city study, or even single-neighborhood studies to gauge public perceptions of places. Even the questions can be expanded upon: Which place would you live? Which place would you never visit? Which place would you want preserved? Which place would you want demolished?

The potential of this kind of tool has a lot of relevance today. Developers and city officials often tout the importance of public participation in local planning and development issues. By framing simple yes-no questions based on existing conditions, officials can tap into some very general perceptions of the city that can help guide new design preferences and priorities. Obviously this method shouldn’t be given overarching influence, but it can be an interesting addition to a pool of information on public perception and preference. Understanding that a lot of people like a certain place or neighborhood is a lot easier than understanding why, but that yes or no response will undoubtedly help officials get closer to the answers they seek.

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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