Blogpost: Digital technology as one pathway to social inclusion in placemaking

As part of the Placemaking Leadership Forum in Vancouver, we had the opportunity to attend several breakout sessions on approaches to placemaking. One session that has stood out so far centred on Digital Placemaking - defined in the program as learning how to build in and wisely use technology in authentic ways that reinforce the place-based and community-centered approaches inherent to placemaking.

Moderator: Daniel Latorre, PPS, Digital Placemaking Institute (New York, NY)

Panelists: Cath Carver, Colour Your City (London, UK); Glenn Harding, UrbanScreens (Melbourne, Australia); Karen Quinn Fung, Vancouver Public Space Network (Vancouver, BC); Teeko Yang, Northern Spark (Minneapolis, MN); Yuri Aritbase, Strong Towns (Vancouver, BC)

While integrating digital technologies into our practices of placemaking was the focus of the discussion, themes like bridging online and place-based communities; thinking holistically about the environmental impacts of digital technologies; and the issue of who gets to tell and receive stories through digital technologies, brought up questions about how we can thoughtfully refine our concept of placemaking as new tools and technologies inform our practice.

In this blogpost, we summarize and reflect on three of the five excellent speakers whose work was thematically linked through explorations of the tension/synergy between the physical and digital communities that comprise placemaking.

cityscape

It was wonderful to hear from a Vancouverite, Karen Quinn Fung, who has experience working deeply in Vancouver's neighbourhoods through the Vancouver Public Space Network (VPSN) and other groups. The VPSN is a citizen-led grassroots organization working in many facets of urban life in Vancouver, from open space design to ownership of and access to place - hugely important issues especially in cities with income inequality and the accompanying social and economic exclusion from place. They also work to bring to light the social use of public spaces - in fact, they were one of the organizers of this week's Placemaking Leadership Forum, putting together a fantastic #POPCrawl (Power of Place Crawl) to encourage participants to discover some of downtown Vancouver's underappreciated public spaces.

Karen raised thought-provoking questions around the ways in which we use digital tools and technologies to augment public participation, and the need to be conscious of different populations' comfort and trust of these technologies, especially with concerns about ownership of data. This was timely given all the praise and critiques of Pokemon Go, the location-based augmented reality game designed for mobile phones, and how it enhances or detracts from our experiences in public space. Karen also addressed an important question about the environmental impact of the manufacturing, use, and disposal of digital technologies. As a placemaker, she aligns with a "fixer" (rather than strictly "maker") state of mind, which involves a cultural shift towards understanding how things work and fixing/adapting/improving them; in other words, a shift away from planned obsolescence (something that moderator Dan Latorre also honed in on).

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Image from the Vancouver Public Space Network

Cath Carver presented a unique approach to expressing values and personal connections to place through colour. Why colour as a means of participating in placemaking? According to Colour Your City, "Colour impacts everything we do. It is a very powerful tool of language, expression, communication and connection. Everyone 'gets' colour, making it an accessible and potent tool." The idea that colour is something everyone can relate to and thus can use to ascribe meanings, values, and aspirations onto public spaces resonated with us, especially in light of concerns about "non-places" - places that are difficult to connect with due to their absence of rootedness in a particular community.

Cath's presentation brought about a few questions for us: How can we, as placemakers, use colour as an entry point to engage individuals to shape public space, particularly those whom 'traditional' public engagement does not reach? Who communicates the stories that inform public space design? How can we broaden the methods by which those stories are communicated so that more can be heard and thus included in the design and programming of spaces?

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Image from Colour Your City

Teeko Yang's work on the Minneapolis-St Paul based Northern Lights, a  a nonprofit arts organization working to transform our sense of what’s possible in public space, touched upon these questions as well. One of their main initiatives is Northern Spark, a "free, annual, dusk-to-dawn, multidisciplinary arts festival that takes place on the second Saturday of June in the Twin Cities and draws tens of thousands of Minnesotans each year". Like colour, light projections have a wonderful capacity to reach everyone who passes through or stops to dwell in a public space. Teeko explained that one of their core principles is not leaving anyone behind, which is a serious concern, especially in communities comprised of diverse migrant populations. Hearing Teeko's emphasis on not taking places away from people to make them more appealing to others was an important reminder as we increasingly work creatively to fuse the digital with the physical in the dynamic process of placemaking.

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Image from Twin Cities / Northern Lights

From all these thoughts, ideas, and questions, we can conclude that digital placemaking must begin from listening to how people understand and use a particular place, then humanizing technology to enable these multiple feelings, stories, and connections to be surfaced and communicated. This begins with acknowledging basic human instincts and desires, like curiosity, status, and search for meaning. Often for people to feel belonging in a spaces, those spaces must provoke an interest in newness in tandem with satisfying our intrinsic need for rootedness/connection/comfort. Our understanding from this rich session is that digital placemaking is a process that can either increase inclusion in placemaking, or push people away from places to which they no longer feel connection. We hope these open-ended conversations around the evolution of placemaking will continue.

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