Digital Placemaking in Urban Spaces

As urban areas have become populated with residents’ digital devices and smart infrastructure, the way urban residents experience or connect to their neighborhood has changed. By exploring new designs in the urban interaction space, I will examine opportunities in the way residents perceive, participate, and/or critique their neighborhood in this new physical/digital environment.

How I Arrived in Here

I was originally drawn to urban interaction design through the Playable Cities movement. Their vision is that cities use or appropriate the digital infrastructure for creative installations or interactions that unlocks social dialogue in order to bring a city’s residents into the city’s development conversation. According to the Playable Cities website, “A playable city is a city where people, hospitality and openness are key, enabling its residents and visitors to reconfigure and rewrite its services, places and stories.” I was intrigued by the participatory nature that Playable Cities described as playable and kept that in mind as I continued to explore the urban interaction design space.

Playable City projects also tended to focus on designing for discovery. Many of their projects were commonplace objects or city scenarios that only revealed their playfulness once you started to interact with them. These methods allowed for placemaking in a more engaging way — they were invitations to re-make what a physical space meant to residents by using digital means. The next phase of my research explored placemaking and the affects the digital world had on the practice.


Placemaking is an approach to designing spaces that focuses on a local community’s assets in order to create public spaces that promote the happiness, economic boost, or well-being of residents who use the space. Digital placemaking uses smart city infrastructure and the growing number of personal cellular devices to optimize placemaking efforts. The nature of digital placemaking is more participatory — residents can give their opinion over the internet or research can be done via forums or comment sections to gain information about the beliefs and feelings of residents of a neighborhood.

The Ways I Explored Placemaking

To see how others were tackling placemaking, I attended Contested Spaces, a mini-conference put on by the American Institute of Architects. One of the goals was how placemaking and other methods in urban planning could help the contested spaces of the city — neighborhoods where changes were happening rapidly and what it meant for the values Seattle held as a city. Community organizers brought their concerns to six groups of architects, students, urban planners, and concerned residents using the human-centered design process. My group developed the persona of Sandi — a grandmother in the Central District raising her two grandchildren. Her worries reflected many of the people in her community and centered around her rapidly changing neighborhood and keeping her home.

We eventually settled on the design goal of how to create (or help the public to perceive) value in Sandi as a long-time resident of the Central District. The solution my group decided on was somewhat disappointing to me: Sandi would sell part of her yard to a land-use organization that would build affordable housing onto it. While this could technically work, I now feel it lacked some imagination in the way that value could be created. (In my team’s defense, it had been a long day.) Placemaking is about making space that is valued and that method might also have worked for people inhabiting a valued area. After thinking about this design goal of value creation, it reminded me of the ways individuals might placemake and share their own values.

Guerilla placemaking is a common way that residents might physically alter a site to provoke thought or opinions on current use of a space. These might be unofficial gardens or even pop-up dinner spaces. They are a temporary claim of a space, often for the good of or with the help of the surrounding community.

Another way to think about this was through something I found in Lyn Lofland’s “Public Realms.” In it, she describes that the three social realms (public, parochial, and private) are not based on the spaces we inhabit but rather the relationships we have to people in those spaces. With mobile phones, people are able to appropriate public space to create any social realm they wish. People no longer rely on what their relationship is to the other people in the space to determine how they will use it. While this can be extremely annoying to those of us who prefer not to hear breakups via Facetime while we are out, it does present an interesting way to possibly manipulate the use of space.

There are ways that we already placemake through digital means. One of these ways is by building up, submitting, or participating in digital representations of our physical world. For example, residents of Capitol Hill let their opinions about projects be known on the Capitol Hill blog and post pictures to the blog’s Flickr account, building on residents’ knowledge of the ways their neighborhood exists. Another way we do this is through review sites like Yelp. This can lead to an impact on the physical world (such as a business shuttering) if the place does not live up to community values.

After participating in this conference and thinking about the ways individuals might placemake, I knew I was interested in the non-formal ways people manipulate their space or how the non-formal manipulations became accepted formally. I was still interested in how this digital layer came into play, but I also knew I wanted to focus on the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle and was curious to see what people gravitated towards in the physical space within that neighborhood.

Walk & Talks

Walk and Talks are a method developed by Stals, et. al that required researchers go on walks led by participants. They would be recorded and were given an emotional wheel to help describe how a space made them feel. I attempted to use a similar emotional wheel but abandoned it when it proved unhelpful. I instead asked participants to sketch a cognitive map of the route they took me on and the places we talked about. These walks lasted from fifteen minutes to over an hour long and were either wandering walks or routes that participants chose to take on their way to work.

One trend in the walks was that people paid attention to the ways that others were manipulating public space. This was in the form of decorating lamp posts, yarn bombing, or more interestingly stickering. The stickers were often in places that flyers were not seen and had messages that connected to bigger ideas or movements that could be found on the internet. I found that this was a form of public authoring, or the alteration of the physical environment to call attention to a greater movement or idea that exist in the digital space (Angus, et. al, 2018). This is particularly interesting in the case of yarn bombing, which is a movement that is well documented online that focuses on re-appropriating traditional masculine urban spaces as more feminine (Mann, 2015).

Another was that the knowledge you bring to your neighborhood helps you recognize and appreciate obscure things about it. Sharing this with others grows that appreciation and creates a richer neighborhood space. For instance, one participant has knowledge of many plant species and pointed out the California Buckeye plant out to me. He told me how native people would use the neurotoxic qualities of the Buckeye nut to stun fish. This is an important part of the way this participant chooses what route to take (he likes to walk by a street with an abundance of plants) but it is now part of the way I think of that particular street. This sharing of knowledge reminded me of the Capitol Hill Blog’s Flickr account where people post photos of the things they notice or value in this neighborhood. This sharing builds up a collective knowledge of what the neighborhood looks and feels like.

Finally, choosing a route based on a desire to check up on a favorite spot was mentioned frequently. This could be a favorite courtyard, a construction site, or even a street with lots of overgrowth. These sites rarely change, but there is a motivation to see if the places are still as they remember them. Analyzing these actions made me think of the augmented reality game Pokemon Go, where there was similar motivation to walk around favorite spots to see what new Pokemon could be found. In that case, there was more of a chance that the spot saw change in the digital world than not which created depth to the space and the experience of visiting.

Insights and Design Opportunities

One insight was that digital placemaking through individuals can create a feedback loop that has an effect on the physical world. One of the ways that the loop regenerates itself is with public authoring. The feedback loop is only the first step — participation is the next. One of the questions I am researching is if design can have a role in helping residents take the digital placemaking they already take part in and become active participants in their neighborhood.

One design opportunity is that the digital layer that corresponds to much of our physical world can create more intricacy in how spaces are used over time. I saw this with Pokemon Go in the summer of 2016 — parks exploded in use, especially as the sun went down. Public spaces must be used by many different types of people through many time periods throughout the day in order to be successful. Adding intricacy with the digital layer could prove effective.

A second design opportunity is harnessing that intricacy to spur participation. One project I came across in the Capitol Hill neighborhood was invigorating the Neighbour’s Alley (located between Pike and PIne streets.) As part of the project, residents were asked to take part in meetings or online surveys to give their opinion on how the revitalized alley should look. What if this kind of city-making took a page out of the Playable Cities handbook and made this process more playful or discovery-oriented?

Finally, there could be an opportunity in creating a platform for discourse or location-based information about neighborhood changes. What if the construction notice signs that called for public comments were gateways to the actual public commentary? Currently, the comments are not easily accessible or the only way to display them publicly is through graffitiing the sign.

I look forward to investigating these design opportunities more as I move into the next phase of my thesis work and continue to explore the impacts of urban interaction design.


Nijholt, Anton. (2015). Designing Humor for Playable Cities. Procedia Manufacturing. 3. 10.1016/j.promfg.2015.07.358.

Lofland, Lyn. (1998). “The Public Realm: Exploring the City’s Quintessential Social Territory.” Aldine de Gruyter, New York, p. 10–22.

Stals, Shenando & Smyth, Michael & Ijsselsteijn, Wijnand. (2014). Walking & Talking: Probing the Urban Lived Experience Mobile. Proceedings of the NordiCHI 2014: The 8th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction: Fun, Fast, Foundational. 10.1145/2639189.2641215.

Angus, Alice & Martin, Karen & Papadogkonas, Dikaios & Papamarkos, George & Roussos, George & Thelwall, Sarah & Sujon, Zoetanya & West, Nick. (2018). Urban Tapestries: Exploring Public Authoring in the City.

Mann, Joanna. (2015). Towards a politics of whimsy: Yarn bombing the city. Area. 47. 10.1111/area.12164.



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