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Pulse of the City

A playful project at the intersection of public art and public health.

At public art installations, a heart-rate monitor in the shape of heart would play music back to you in rhythm with your heart beat. We placed five installations at spots around the City of Boston.

Why we did this

Through a variety of ways, the City has encouraged residents to improve their health. At the same time, we’ve been using technology to better inform or engage residents. We’ve also been using new designs to create fun and exciting experiences on the street. The Streetscape Innovation Fund has fueled our work in this area.

The Urban Prototyping Festival in San Francisco first featured Pulse of the City. The pilot project allowed us to use a fun piece of street furniture and technology to advance a public health interest.

The experiment

Our hypothesis? Public art can engage people walking by, create delight, and encourage someone to think about their health.

George Zisiadis, the artist behind Pulse of the City, designed and created five installations. He also work with some Boston-area fabricators. Each installation included a chest-high, over-sized heart. We equipped the heart with handles to capture your heart beat, and a speaker to play your song. We powered the installations with solar panels.

The songs were tailored, in rhythm and style, to each person’s beat. The five works were installed in different neighborhoods throughout the City. We place them near transit centers, parks, and athletic centers. Each installation sent a daily report showing how many people used the monitor in the previous day. We kept the installations up for about nine months.

Results and lessons learned

Getting more people involved

Across the five sites, the Pulse of the City was used 16,575 times. More people might have used the monitors if we had signage with instructions. Many people didn't know exactly how to interact with it.

Stronger public art

We had to re-work the initial design to make it stronger for public use. Within the first week, two of the hearts broke off from their posts, likely due to heavy use. Over the course of the installation, all five hearts had some form of damage. Artist George Zisiadis outlined some of the design lessons learned.

Finding balance

This project helped us re-think how we should strike the right balance with our projects:

  1. While we want to allow for discovery, we also need to consider providing instructive signage.
  2. Also, in designing visually striking works, we also need to keep in mind making them strong enough for outdoor and public use.

These remain issues for several of our related projects, like Parklets and Soofa.

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