Cusp In The Media

Disrupting the Park Bench

Communications Home Feature

“Oh, no. My phone is dead. Better head to the park.”

Walk past the basketball court down at Anita Stroud Park, toward the little creek below, and you might find a gaggle of teens clustered around a very modern-looking bench that would seem more at home outside a coffee shop in Soho than in a tiny neighborhood park next to I-77 on the north end of Charlotte, North Carolina.

A pair of USB ports on a console on the front of the bench provides juice from the solar panel mounted at lap level between the seats. Who wouldn’t want to hang out at a bench like this? It certainly catches the eye of passersby. What these kids might not realize, however, is that this bench is watching them back. Underneath that solar panel is a small Wi-Fi enabled sensor that sends data back to an office building in East Cambridge, Massachusetts. Anyone who passes within 150 feet of the bench with a Wi-Fi enabled mobile device in their pocket is picked up by the sensor and registered as a unique visitor to the park. The sensors can’t access personal information from your phone—rather, they’re designed to pick up the unique ID associated with any Wi-Fi enabled device—but still, if you come back the next day, it knows it’s you again, not a new visitor. It may make privacy advocates squirm, but such data is very handy for park planners.

“The idea that we can learn about how many people are using the space, when they are there, and how long they are there, without having to literally send someone out there to count people, is very valuable,” says Monica Carney Holmes, the planning coordinator for Charlotte’s urban design office.

Since bolting the bench into place last October, Holmes’s office has learned that 85 percent of visitors to Anita Stroud are repeat visitors and that Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights are the most hopping. Outdoor Zumba and Tai Chi classes were scheduled for Saturday mornings last summer, Holmes says, but this summer they’ll program more events for weeknights to capitalize on the higher traffic.

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