THE CHINATOWN CIRCLE
Imagining a holistic landmark for the heart of Chinatown
The New York Department of Transportation (DOT), the Chinatown Partnership, and the Van Alen Institute tapped us to take part in their Gateways to Chinatown initiative to design a digital gateway at the nexus of Manhattan’s Chinatown and Little Italy. Our big challenge was to discover and account for the needs of a diverse user base of residents, business owners, and tourists.
Our concept, The Chinatown Circle, adds a highly visible entry point to the Chinatown experience, connecting it to surrounding neighborhoods, enhancing wayfinding, and encouraging social gathering. The circle features a digital display that can be programmed to share content from Chinatown's rich history, current exhibits at the Museum of Chinese American History, and Lunar New Year festivities.
User Research · Strategy
Scott Cowell, Young Jang, Janel Wong, Azucena Romá
New York Department of Transportation, Chinatown Partnership, Van Alen Institute
Jill Nussbaum (Facebook)
MY ROLE —
My role was to drive strategy, extracting key insights from literature review, field observations, and user interviews to establish a framework and design principles to guide our solution.
Stakeholder Interviews, Literature Review, Field Study, User Interviews, Affinity Mapping, Personas, Competitive Analysis, Video Prototype
Reimagine the information kiosk as a symbolic entrance to Chinatown.
Since the 1800’s, Manhattan's Chinatown has served as an entry point to America and home to the largest Chinese community in the Western Hemisphere. Bustling with locals and tourists, its streets are rimmed with shops, jewelry stores, street vendors, and dim sum restaurants that attract millions each year. However, unlike other traditional Chinatowns found in the U.S. featuring a traditional "gateway" arch, Manhattan's Chinatown is lacks an iconic structure to mark its historical importance.
The DOT asked us to reimagine the Chinatown experience for residents and visitors by creating an iconic marker for the neighborhood with a digital component. This marker would be replacing a decade old information kiosk located on the Canal Street Triangle, a 2,000-square-foot traffic island anchoring Chinatown.
DOT Project Goals:
Improve the public realm
Spur economic development
Although we had received a brief outlining the goals and desires from the DOT at the outset of the project, we still needed to ensure that the design was developed in the best interest of the users. Over the course of seven weeks we conducted in-depth primary and secondary research, making five field visits to Chinatown. During our time there we interviewed our target users: residents, tourists, business owners, and community leaders. We aimed to identify key content and/or services our users want or need to have a better experience when in Chinatown. Our goals were to:
Gain a holistic understanding of Chinatown, past and present.
Explore how the current kiosk is being used.
Identify how each unique target user views and uses the neighborhood and the challenges they face.
Understand what makes a neighborhood landmark successful and marketable.
Our research kicked off with an evaluation of materials provided by DOT and existing studies to enhance our knowledge of the problem space, gain an understanding of the neighborhood history, demographics, and infrastructure. We extracted the following key points:
Chinatown's narrow, severely constricted sidewalks cause poor pedestrian circulation and low accessibility
An unfavorable image of Chinatown makes it difficult for businesses to attract customers due to perceptions including an unattractive, inconvenient physical environment
Total tourist spending in New York has risen, however over the same period, tourist spending has hardly made it to Chinatown businesses
From The Field
During our initial visit to Chinatown we observed how people interacted with the current information kiosk and then asked them about their experience with it. We learned about two major pain points:
Our conversations with tourists revealed that they weren't aware the information kiosk existed and that it wasn't noticeable in the Chinatown landscape.
Locals were unhappy with the design of the current kiosk, many felt that the current kiosk was too traditional and symbolic of only Chinese Culture - not representative of the diverse demographics in the area. They also found it upsetting that the dragon is facing the wrong cardinal direction according to Chinese philosophy.
On subsequent visits we continued to speak with tourists, business owners, and residents. We also coordinated several in-depth interviews with long-term community members including Wellington Chan, director of the Chinatown Partnership and Beatrice Chen, VP of programming for the Museum for Chinese Americans
Delving into our data revealed patterns that we used paint a detailed picture of the diverse desires and challenges of our users. These insights provided valuable information that led us to reframe the initial brief request into our design opportunity, shifting our attention to the user's perspective to brainstorm solutions.
Tourists drop into Chinatown for the food, not the culture. They aren't familiar with the history and culture, though they are curious to learn more. Their biggest pain point is wayfinding as they are unable to orient themselves when exiting the subway on Canal Street or easily distinguish Chinatown from Little Italy.
Business owners have experienced a decline in business causing them to worry. Their number one concern was increasing foot traffic and tourist spending to improve their financially vulnerable storefronts.
First generation residents are concerned about Chinatown's future, noting that many second generation community members have migrated to Chinese enclaves in Queens and Brooklyn. They fear their traditions are fading and are experiencing low morale.
Second generation residents embrace tradition and heritage, but their identity as first generation Americans is causing a struggle with past vs present.
REFRAMING THE BRIEF
How might we reimagine the kiosk as a symbolic entrance to Chinatown that is meaningful for locals and drives tourism?
What makes a landmark successful? We conducted a competitive analysis to find opportunities and inspiration from notable points of interest in Manhattan. These included landmark structures and popular artwork, including the Wall Street Bull, Chelsea's Highline, Theatre District's Love sculpture, and the Alamo Cube. Our research showed that iconic structures enhance familiarity with a neighborhood and can become a popular tourist destinations over time, resulting in transformative economic impact.
Based on our research, insights, and the DOT's goals, we were able to establish a list of concepts that were important to our stakeholders. From this list we were able to prioritize four core concepts to shape our design decisions.
Highly visible landmark to improve wayfinding.
Inclusive of Chinatown past, present, and future.
Welcoming for both the community and tourists.
Inspiring, photo-friendly, and shareable experience.
The Chinatown Circle
A highly visible, recognizable landmark to represent Chinatown's unique identity, enhance quality of life for the community, and spur economic vitality.
While Manhattan's Chinatown makes it on most tourist's itineraries as a quick stop for shopping and cuisine, we believe that Chinatown needs a marker that not only distinguishes it as a defined destination, but also as a neighborhood of community with rich ties, and as a cultural district. Our design strategy intended to create an iconic sculptural landmark visible from the subway, that over time will be recognized as a must-see tourist destination.
Round and Round
The circle is a symbol of oneness, fulfillment, unity, and connection. It is a symbol that holds value in Chinese philosophy, as well as having the ability to resonate with Chinatown residents, tourists, and New Yorkers. The dramatic, but minimal geometry can be distinctly discerned from the surrounding landscape as well as captivating to street goers just from scale alone.
The Chinatown Circle features a display for sharing current information and artwork about Chinatown culture and major events, such as exhibitions at the Museum of Chinese American History and Lunar New Year festivities.
By slightly lowering the ground plane and using partitioning architectural elements, the design strives to create a refuge from the busy canal street thoroughfare - which serves as the main traffic artery across Manhattan. We envision that this space will be utilized as a meet-up spot, a rest area, and as a gathering space for a game of Xiangqi. It could also perform functionally as a pedestrian collection and meeting point for the greater neighborhood. and become a marketing tool to attract new visitors and bring vitality to Chinatown businesses.
Do It For The 'Gram
Part of our design strategy was to create a photo-friendly and recognizable structure that would inspire social media sharing and become a marketing tool to attract new visitors and bring vitality to Chinatown businesses. Our hope is that the #ChinatownCircle buzz would spread rapidly, attracting tourism and reducing the perception of Chinatown as an unattractive environment. .
In the end our team presented the winning pitch to Neil Gagliardi, Director of Urban Design at DOT and Wellington Chen, Executive Director of the Chinatown Partnership. They incorporated our research, findings, and design solution into materials for a public Request For Proposals.
The best outcomes are mutually valued outcomes.
In design we learn that diverse teams create the most innovative and successful solutions. So what happens when you expand that team to include the community you are designing with? This project was particularly interesting because we had several stakeholders with varying needs that we sought to understand then meet in a respectful way. To achieve this we maintained consistent and open communication with all stakeholders from kick-off through final concept. This ensured that we were capturing what we heard and translating it into a happy medium during the ideation phase, iteration process, and into a useable final solution.