How people use the University of Maryland, College Park mall

Note: One of my human-computer interaction classes is working on a project with an anthropology class and a landscape architecture class on redoing the the University of Maryland, College Park mall (a large green space in the center of campus), which is the largest campus mall in the country. My class is working in teams on proposals to use technology to improve the mall. I attended a session where the anthropology class presented their initial ethnographic findings on how and why students use the mall. This post is my notes and thoughts on the initial findings from that session. I’m working with two other students to propose several technology improvements to the mall, and we done our own ethnographic research into how and why people use the mall. By understanding how and why people do and don’t use the mall, we can better understand how to make the mall a better place that more people will want to use.

The mall is a central part of campus surrounded by academic buildings, one of the school’s libraries and the administration building. Because of this, there is a lot of through traffic from people crossing campus getting from one location to another. The anthropology students noted that the mall was a popular place to disseminate information: sidewalk chalk, information tables, information fairs, canvassers on the mall and more.

The mall is also somewhat popular for social activities (depending on your definition of popular for a public space, but at least in terms of University of Maryland public space popular, it is fairly popular). The center of the mall features a long fountain that students enjoy gathering around. The anthropology students witnessed the usual studying and people meeting around the fountain, but they also witnessed some more unique activities happening around the mall, particularly during off hours and on weekends.

They witnessed people swimming in the fountain after drinking. One person that was interviewed said it was sort of a freshmen tradition to come back to the mall and the fountain to meet up after going out for the night. The fountain is not particularly lit up at night, nor does it provide any sort of show to attract people, which some fountains have. Despite this, it’s a popular social attraction at night.

The fountain reigned big in the mind of interviewees. One of the groups of anthropology students noted that when they asked people to draw the mall for them, they made the fountain disproportionately big. Some of these drawings had the fountain almost taking up half of the drawing, despite the fountain being a relatively small fraction of the mall.

The fountain is an obvious attraction on the mall, but the anthropology students noted some issues with that part of the mall. One issue interviewees brought up was that they didn’t find the metal benches that ring the fountain to be comfortable. The benches get hot to the touch when it is hot out and they lack backs, making the benches uncomfortable even when the weather is nice.

The reason for not putting backs on the benches is that backless benches allow for people to face multiple directions. Some students can face the fountain, while others can face out to the rest of the mall for people watching. Another benefit of backless benches is that people can sit on both sides of the bench, allowing for more seating. This is popular in more dense, urban settings, but no one witnessed people sitting on benches back to back.

Instead, the anthropology students witnessed either pairs of people or solitary people on the benches. Because the benches lack backs and big arm rests, students took to using their backpacks as makeshift backrests.

The anthropology students witnessed other, more physical activities, such as capoeira, frisbee games, Quidditch, touch football, juggling and other athletic endeavors. The mall doesn’t really provide a lot of uninterrupted green space for a full-fledged soccer or football game, but it does have enough uninterrupted green space to allow for frisbee, Quidditch, smaller football games and other athletic activities.

The mall is a central location on campus, and an easy place to meet up for a quick game. The Quidditch team (yes, the game from Harry Potter) said they liked practicing on the mall because it gave them visibility and allowed them to recruit new people to the team. Other students appeared to use the mall as a public theater. Anthropology students noted guitar players, jugglers and other public performances.

While the anthropology students witnessed a lot of people using smartphones and other portable electronics, they did not witness a lot of people using laptops on the mall. Students surveyed about this complained of a lack of electrical outlets (there are none), and the bright light on the mall. Except for the allés ringing the mall, the mall has no shade, making it a difficult place to view a laptop screen.

The mall also doesn’t have tables with chairs on it, making it difficult for someone to spread out and use a laptop. Conversely, McKeldin Library, which sits on the mall, is filled with people on laptops.

The mall is an open, exposed place with little shelter from the sun and other elements, except on the outskirts where they are trees but no other form of shelter. On rainy days, the anthropology students witnessed few meetings or people stopping. There is real place to stop outdoors that is still covered, and the mall was mostly empty during classes on rainy days.

People both liked and disliked the formal, natural setting of the mall. One of the anthropology students said, “It’s one of the quasi-natural spaces on campus, and people find it relaxing.”

One of the students interviewed, however, said “the mall is simply aesthetic,” and that he didn’t find it to be the center of campus. The theme of the mall being the center of campus was brought up by several students that were interviewed by the anthropology class.

Some felt that the mall was indeed the center of campus, while others felt it was more the middle of campus, but not the true center. This second sentiment is because the mall is closer to humanities buildings and far away from some of the science buildings. If you’re a humanities student, you’re by the mall frequently, and it may indeed by the center of campus for you; if you’re in another type of major, you may not frequent the mall very often, especially since there is very little programming on the mall.

One of the areas that the anthology students seemed to differ in their findings from my classes findings was safety on the mall. The mall has diffuse moonlighting that is significantly different and less bright than traditional street lights for walking. My class found a lot of people who found the mall unsafe at night and thus didn’t want to spend time there after the sun went down. The anthropology students did not note the same degree of fear of the mall at night.

This appears to be because my class mostly interviewed people during the day time about their perceptions of the mall at night, while the anthropology class interviewed people who were out on the mall at night. The people who do make it out to the mall at night don’t find it unsafe, but a lot of students have the perception that it is unsafe, so they don’t come out at night.

Safety and lighting appear to be two areas that technology really could help bring more vitality to the mall. But just getting more people to the mall will raise the perception of its safety.

The anthropology students did not witness a lot of people using technology on the mall, and neither did my group when we were doing our own research. But technology and public spaces goes far beyond personal technology. How can we use technology to get more people engaged with the mall? And what kinds of technology make sense for a public space?

Ultimately, like my team’s findings, the anthropology students noted a lot of people crossing through the mall and not stopping. The mall is used by a lot of students as a convenient way to cross campus. But many of those people aren’t stopping to make further use of the mall.

I work in Washington, DC, and have quick access to several public spaces. Despite these spaces being much smaller than the mall on UMD’s campus, they are much more heavily used. It’s common to see someone passing through one of them and then decide to stop.

My group is trying to figure out how do we get more people to stop and use the mall. With our three classes combined, we are looking at ways to alter the built environment, programming, landscaping and technology of the mall to make it a more inviting place to stop and use.