When you are three years old, the built environment is not designed for you. Architects and planners often use standard adult dimensions when creating buildings and sidewalks; streets and retail spaces and public transit vehicles are built with the assumption that grown-ups will be occupying them. Mostly, this assumption is correct.

At Greater Good Studio, we use human-centered design (HCD) to empathize with the people we are designing for. The theory is fairly obvious: if we better understand our intended audience, we will create tools, programs and experiences that better meet their needs.

Design for the extremes
One less-obvious tenet of HCD is to design for “extreme users” - those with a pronounced need or behavior. Because their needs are more overt, extreme users often give clues as to what the rest of us need as well. And some of the most extreme users in communities are children. As Enrique Peñalosa, the mayor of Bogotá, famously said, “Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.”

Kids typically have to make do in an adult-driven world. Not only are they smaller than adults, but many decisions are made for them, leaving them with little control over their environment or activities. It would be hard for us as adults to really understand the joys and frustrations of kids’ daily lives. But understanding kids is key to creating places that contribute to their overall physical, mental and social well-being.

Empathy through fresh eyes
So in order to better understand what children experience, we tried an experiment. What happens when you strap GoPro video cameras onto the heads of a three-year-old and his dad? What can we learn about the design of community spaces, programs and policies from comparing these two perspectives?

We brought this short film on all of the Raising Places site visits, partly to share our philosophy around being child-centered, and partly to see how different applicant teams would respond with observations and ideas. Each time we played the video, the group would jot down what they were noticing, and then we would brainstorm ways we might improve this particular Chicago neighborhood for kids and families.

The results were fascinating. Ideas ranged from new ways to bring art to a child’s eye level, to new ways to organize stores, to new ways to cross streets that encourage play and safety. One of our favorite child-centered ideas was a split-level sidewalk, in which kids could walk on the “tall side.” And even though many of these concepts might sound outlandish or unrealistic, we’ve always found it easier to bring a wild idea back “down to earth” than it is to make a generic concept innovative and impactful. And we’re certain that many of these incredible ideas would not have surfaced without the inspiration of a new point of view.

More perspectives, better results
People from different backgrounds often view the same data and come to completely separate conclusions. This is why human-centered design teaches us to work in multidisciplinary teams; hearing those varying perspectives often gives us much richer insight than would a single interpretation.

This exercise brought that insight to a whole new level. We certainly heard a range of unique observations from individuals of different backgrounds, such as a government staffer noticing that the grass was cut, while a real estate developer noticed the style and density of housing. But we also heard major differences across place types and demographics.

For example, people in dense urban areas found this neighborhood to be beautiful, picturesque, and well-maintained; they struggled to find things they might improve upon. But people in rural parts of the country responded with a sense of sadness that this child was growing up in such a “concrete jungle,” without easy access to nature. Clearly, the context in which you live colors your perspective on the joys and struggles of others!

Scenes from different parts of the video highlight big differences in what was noticed by each team.

Likewise, some community teams found the father in this video to be neglectful, expressing shock that he would jaywalk with a three-year-old, buy his son gummy bears and leave him alone in a store. But other groups likened him to a saint, sharing how impressed they were that he was hanging out with his son one-on-one, holding doors for him and spending quality time. These differences point to clear cultural distinctions in the expectations placed on fathers, as well as the expectations around the safety and care of children.

Clearly, there isn’t one way to raise a child; nor is there one optimal type of neighborhood in which to grow up. This is why each Raising Places community will identify its own “extreme users,” conduct its own research, and draw its own conclusions about what to do next. But with human-centered design as their approach, all the teams will see the world with an increased sense of empathy. We can’t wait to see what they learn!


As you watch this video, ask yourself: how was Eliot’s experience different than you expected? Different than his dad’s? Different than your daily experience? How would you change this particular neighborhood to better support kids thriving - what would you add, and what would you take away? What new spaces, messages, programs, services, or policies would you create if you were in charge?

Lastly, what other extreme users exist in your community, and how might you better empathize with their experience? Let us know—we’d love to hear from you!