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Understanding & Making Use of People’s Visual Preferences

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In 1979, Metuchen, New Jersey commissioned the Rutgers University urban design studio (of which I was director) to help them prepare a plan for the downtown. Metuchen is a small, older town in central New Jersey, with a population of about 13,000.

In thinking about the project, I began to ask myself how the people who lived in Metuchen thought about their downtown. What did they feel was positive? What didn't they like? What type and density of new development would they find acceptable? We photographed the town and picked other scenes from our slide library. The slides were then shown to townspeople at a large public meeting. We asked them to give us a positive sign if they like the picture, and a negative one if they didn't. This was our first visual preference survey ("VPS").

After the meeting, the evaluations were added up. Interestingly enough, some scenes were rated positive by most of the participants, while others were overwhelmingly rated negative. We interpreted this to mean that there were building and landscape designs, land uses, and even densities, that almost everyone found acceptable. If the acceptable images were incorporated into the downtown plan, we reasoned, then the plan should be well-received by the town. Conversely, the plan should contain recommendations on how to deal with (either through prohibition or upgrading) the negatively rated images.

The results of the VPS were used to guide the character of downtown streetscape improvement, facade renovations, and infill multi-family housing. Metuchen went on to adopt design codes based on the community's articulated preferences. Subsequent development received very favorable "reviews" from the town. In effect, the town's visual preferences were becoming reality.

In the years since the Metuchen project, working with many different communities, we have found that the VPS enables citizens, government officials and developers to participate in creating a common vision -- for either a large development project, a part of the community or, even, the entire community.

End of excerpt

... the article continues with a detailed look at how visual preference surveys were used by the the small city of North Bend, Washington, in updating its comprehensive plan.

 

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