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Digital planning for cities

By Kate Dowdall
What can technology teach us about the way we design our cities, and how should they accommodate it?

As the technology of smart phones becomes increasingly advanced, with a greater 
level of interaction with the real world, how should designers react to the increasing relationship that virtual reality has with the environments we are designing?

The public’s response to the use of mobile phones can be both positive and negative. It can bring people together, connecting them at all times to a wider network and interacting with people using different social media opportunities. It can also cause chaos in our busy cities when people are not paying attention to their surroundings or stop to take an impromptu selfie in the centre 
of a crowded street.

In this age of social media, there is great opportunity to create exciting environments which can accommodate this new-found interaction, extending to groups in society who may not before have been interested in our cities’ public spaces. Winston Churchill once said, ‘We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us’. What if this extended to our public spaces and cities? The importance of understanding the needs of the growing popularity of these public spaces as platforms for social media and gaming could create some exciting and engaging spaces for our future generations.

The growth of Pokémon GO has swept the world over the last few months with virtual creatures popping up around our towns and cities, engaging different generations to ‘catch them all’. The app superimposes its creatures over a user’s smart phone camera as if they exist within our public spaces.

It encourages wannabe Pokémon trainers to be active, through achieving goals and reaping rewards based on attaining walking distance goals. Urban designers have been aiming to make cities walkable for years and Pokémon GO has done it overnight.

Applications such as Snapchat and Instagram have made the sharing of images over the internet almost instantaneous to a worldwide audience. This gives the selfie generation an infinite number of opportunities to capture their day to day activities (in their favourite sepia tone of course). This greater connection to the wider world could reap unforeseen rewards for private developers and managers through free advertising of events, places to see, or raise awareness for specific causes through the sharing of imagery with users of a similar interest.

Social media can also be used as a tool to meet others. Dating apps such as Happn, Tinder and Match all rely on users being within a radius of each other in order to make a connection. Some of these are as localised as crossing paths with other users. 

Public spaces used to be the place where you might approach a person to pay them a compliment, but today it is more likely that the best thing you can hope for is a swipe right and a positive match. Should managers of publicly accessible spaces be promoting the use of social media to invigorate our squares, parks and civic spaces?

The public realm is being used very differently from 20 years ago. So should this steer the design, programming and management of our external spaces? There is still a need to provide the traditional elements of a public realm which have always been required – I am not advocating a brutalist ‘Terminator’ style approach to the design of our public realm where we all have to ‘plug‐in’ to be a part of the space, more that we should be incorporating a new level of design and management which heightens and widens the use of our public realm to encourage a different type of user’s need.

As designers we should be considering a greater level of milling about within our spaces. Additional seating and shelters could be incorporated to encourage social spaces. Wifi enabled spaces and improved lighting could encourage a wider use within a safe environment. Users should be encouraged to interact with these spaces, perhaps with programmable elements that can be controlled from your smart phone. Of course, the design of these spaces will need to ensure they are not subject to abuse or antisocial behaviour.

Buy‐in from the end users and managers of the spaces will be crucial to the success of these spaces, and the increase of privately owned and managed public places could help 
this become a reality.

The virtues of social media and virtual gaming are evident from much research on the subject. The commercial benefits of having a space with which the community fully engages can give a business the base it needs to be a big success, and through providing the platform within the public realm such as social space/wifi and safer environments this benefit can be reaped by the managers of the sites.

So what if the Churchill quote was ‘We shape our public spaces; thereafter they shape us’? Shouldn’t our landscape evolve with our technology to be a truly immersive space for all users, encouraging a truly sociable environment virtually and within reality?

Kate Dowdall is associate director at Macfarlane + Associates, urban and environmental land planning

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