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Chinatown Circle

Imagining a holistic landmark for the heart of Chinatown. 

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 to Manhattan’s Chinatown. The main challenge was designing for multiple audiences which included residents, business owners, and tourists.

While Chinatown makes it on most tourist's itineraries as a quick stop for shopping and dim sum, we proposed creating The Chinatown Circle. An iconic sculptural landmark that over time will be recognized as a must-see tourist destination. Adding a highly visible entry point to the Chinatown experience, The Chinatown Circle would connect it to surrounding neighborhoods, enhance wayfinding, and encourage social gathering. Features include a digital display sharing content from Chinatown's rich history, current exhibits at the Museum of Chinese American History, and Lunar New Year festivities.

Our team presented the winning student pitch to Neil Gagliardi, Director of Urban Design at DOT, and Wellington Chen, Executive Director of the Chinatown Partnership. the DOT then incorporated our research, insights, and proposed solution into a public Request For Proposals.

Interaction Design · Design Fiction

Timeline —
7 Weeks

Team —
Scott Cowell, Young Jang, Janel Wong, Azucena Romá

Client —
New York Department of Transportation, Chinatown Partnership, Van Alen Institute

Advisor —
Jill Nussbaum, Instagram

Role —
User Research, Data Synthesis, Ideation, Content Strategy

The Chinatown Circle is a concept for a highly visible, recognizable landmark that represents Chinatown's unique identity, enhances quality of life for the community, and spurs economic development. 

Gateways to Chinatown Circle Prototype
Gateways to Chinatown Circle Prototype
Gateways to Chinatown Circle Prototype

FEATURES

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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.

 
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Cultural Content

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. 

 
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Gathering Space

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. 

Marketable Attraction
 

PROCESS


The final design was the result of a collaborative, participatory, and iterative design approach. Desk research, field research, competitive analysis, and in-depth interviews led us to develop concepts that were put in front of our users and iterated upon with ongoing feedback. The final solution balanced user needs for multiple audiences with DOT’s business goals, while working within existing city infrastructure.

 

Brief: Reimagine the current information kiosk as a symbolic entrance to Chinatown

Background: 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.  

Problem: Unlike other Chinatowns in the U.S. featuring a traditional "gateway" arch, Manhattan's Chinatown is lacks an iconic structure to mark its historical importance.

Challenge: The DOT brief asked us to reimagine the Chinatown experience by creating an iconic marker 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

  • Enhance wayfinding

  • Engage community

  • Reinvigorate Chinatown

  • Spur economic development

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Chinatown Triangle
Existing Chinatown Information Kiosk

Existing Chinatown Information Kiosk

Research Goals

Although we had received a brief outlining the project goals 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 a total of five field visits to Chinatown. During our time there we interviewed residents, tourists, business owners, and community leaders. We aimed to identify key content and/or services our users wanted and needed 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 was being used.

  • Identify how each unique target user perceives and uses the neighborhood and the challenges they face.

  • Understand what makes a neighborhood landmark successful and marketable.

Literature Review

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

 
Chinatown Storefront
Chinatown Street Vendor
Chinatown SIgnage

Initial Brainstorming

Prior to conducting ethnographic research, our initial assignment required researching popular interactive installations in other cities and coming up with concepts early on based solely on the brief. We came up with a few ideas for digital interactions that would provide opportunities for tourists to explore different areas of Chinatown and in-turn spend money at area businesses. As we got deeper into our research and understanding our users, we realized that these ideas failed to provide value, were geared only towards tourists, and relied solely on novelty.

Interactive Kiosk Games

Interactive Kiosk Games

Interactive Lantern Wish Kiosk

Interactive Lantern Wish Kiosk

Chinatown Scavenger Hunt App

Chinatown Scavenger Hunt App

 

Early Insights 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 experiences with it. Our conversations with tourists revealed and residents revealed the following pain-points:

Non-Inclusive Design
Locals were unhappy with the design of the current kiosk, many felt it was too traditional and symbolic of only Chinese Culture and 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.

Low Visibility
Tourists weren't aware the information kiosk existed and that it was not noticeable in the Chinatown landscape.

Existing Kiosk in Landscape

Existing Kiosk in Landscape

Existing Kiosk Design

Existing Kiosk Design

Conversation with tourists

Conversation with tourists

 

In-depth Interviews & Conversations

On subsequent visits we continued to speak with tourists, business owners, and residents to get a better sense of their desires, concerns, and attitudes towards the project. 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. These interviews help us identify user’s desires, needs, and pain-points.

Chinatown Resident
We need a symbol of hope and change, let people know we are not abandoning Chinatown.
— Wellington Chan, Director of the Chinatown Partnership
Chinatown needs a marker anyone will recognize, visibility is key, many people get off the subway and stand on the corner 10 minutes trying to figure out where to go.
— Beatrice Chen, VP of programming at Museum of Chinese Americans
People need to know Chinatown will change eventually, its not about preserving the old, but imagining the future of Chinatown.
— Second generation resident

Research Video featuring in-depth interviews with key stakeholders

Uncovering Pain-Points for Multiple Audiences

Our data revealed patterns that we used to 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, shifting our attention to the user's perspective to brainstorm solutions. Through our research we were able to assess unmet user needs. This qualitative information drove our ideation and content strategy.

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 as first-generation Americans they are struggling with past versus present.

 

Landmark Success

What makes a landmark successful? We conducted desk research on public landmarks and notable points of interest in Manhattan. We learned that having an icon adds a nostalgic connection to a neighborhood and once recognizable can become a popular tourist destination – resulting in increased foot traffic and a transformative economic impact.  On Instagram alone and #wallstreetbull showed 15,989 posts and the #ChelseaHighline had a whopping 96,212 posts. Part of of strategy became ensuring


 
 

How might we reimagine the kiosk as a symbolic entrance to Chinatown that is both meaningful for locals and drives tourism?

 

Approach

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Design Principles

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.

 

DISTINCTIVE
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DISTINCTIVE

Highly visible landmark to improve wayfinding.

CULTURAL

Inclusive of Chinatown past,  present, and future. 

COMMUNAL

Welcoming for both the community and tourists.

INSTAGRAMMABLE

Inspiring, photo-friendly, and shareable experience.

 

Another Concept

In parallel to our research we continued to ideate possible solutions we could garner feedback from. During our initial conversations we heard that enhancing wayfinding was important. We also heard that residents felt the area lacked a sufficient means of crossing Canal Street and some community leaders wanted something more similar to a traditional Chinatown gateway. This design direction took on the form of a more traditional Chinatown Gateway while serving as a pedestrian walkway. When presenting the ideas to users, the feedback we received was helpful. While the design was well intentioned, it missed the mark on several insights we uncovered after conducting additional interviews and synthesizing our data. The Chinatown Walkway lacked cultural relevance, didn’t ignite a sense of community pride, and was not iconic enough to consider it a must-see landmark.

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TAKEAWAY

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 for? This project was particularly interesting because we had multiple stakeholders with varying needs that we sought to understand and meet in a respectful way. To achieve this we maintained consistent and open communication with our stakeholders throughout the process. 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.