Part 1: The Power of Place

A new series on why the physicality of cities matter.

Cooling courtyards at a school in Ahmedabad, India enable multiple social and cultural functions — from impromptu gatherings of friends to planned meetings and events. The stone tiles also double as a chalkboard and performance area. (Author’s Image, 2013)

I love cities for what they are! Layered, uneven, and storied places of connection and exchange. As an urban design researcher, I never expect cities themselves to become simpler entities with simpler problems to solve.

Unfortunately, being honest about the realities of urban life is not a universal value in the city-software space. I recently attended a panel discussion titled “The Future of Cities” with speakers including venture capitalists and tech entrepreneurs interested in using software to improve urban life. The conversation circled around greenfields (an area without any building history) and new condo developments as ideal locations for new smart surveillance and property management technologies. I felt that the emphasis on contained, exclusive, and simplified terrains — free of history and diversity — ran counter to what a city really is. And I left the event thinking: how could these software solutions serve real cities, if they’re focused on such un-urban environments?

I concluded that the city software space could use some more, well, “city-ness.” To advance a deeper understanding of the cities we live in and all the complexities they represent, I’m kicking off a series of conversations with urbanists and architects to explore why the physicality of cities matter.

Here’s a conversation with Daniel Latorre, founder of The Wise City, co-founder and director of Digital Placemaking Institute, senior fellow for digital placemaking at Project for Public Spaces, and founding member of the Illuminator.

Dan Latorre, reviewing Puswagon’s illustrated novel Soft City

Q: How do you define a city?

A city is defined by its people! It’s centered on our very fleshy, human complexity that we experience in a physical place. The built environment around us shapes our understanding of who we are and what kind of life we want — it’s both an individual and collective exercise. Since the 90s however, technology has been celebrating the freedom of the individual and the removal of place. This kind of “placeless” power that technology enables is part of an unsustainable calculus that has put us out of balance with the realities of our ecosystem. It’s also ahistorical to see cities as flat; as places to only consume services and not contribute as part of a physical community.

Q: We like to think of the city as the ultimate exercise in inclusion. How has the city’s ability to be inclusive evolved with the emergence of new technologies?

Preserving place at the center of our shared experience is a big challenge in the technological-cultural shift we’re now going through. There are many wise things we can do with technology, but we’ve lost touch with how to incorporate it in appropriate, sustainable ways. One of the things that digital technology has done is accelerated the dualistic division of mind and body. The obsession with AR and VR, the platforming of everything and the general abstraction of interactions via software, can amplify our alienation and fear of others. Research shows us that using mobile phones and personal tech in public space reduces impromptu social interactions amongst strangers. This subtle, yet fundamental, shift in social dynamics is often overlooked by technology’s focus on “solving” for a narrow concern.

Our physical public realm gives people the opportunity to experience an embodied feeling of connection and empathy, beyond anything that can be simulated or virtualized.

When people meet in person, in various types of public spaces, people who seem different from each other can realize that they share things in common. It can break down and soften the perceived rigidity of different backgrounds and perspectives that “placeless media” like Facebook or television can propagate. Our physical public realm gives people the opportunity to experience an embodied feeling of connection and empathy, beyond anything that can be simulated or virtualized.

Q: What is digital placemaking?

Digital placemaking is a community and place-led approach to co-create our public realm using digital tools to enrich our shared experiences — it is 21st century placemaking. In practice, it’s the appropriate use of transmedia in public space to enhance social, cultural, and physical identities, facilitate regeneration programs, and support inclusive place-led governance. This can include various offline and online public participation methods, including non-commercial installations of urban screens and a growing variety of interactive digital installations that support greater community connection between people in shared public spaces (as opposed to extractive or nonconsensual uses of technology in cities).

In essence, it’s a very hybrid and intersectional practice, which is why we also say it’s about mediating culture and place, and curating cross-cultural realities. To make this approach more accessible, I created this simple list of questions to help people assess the implications and ethics of adding an urban technology idea to the public realm.

An example of a shared, civic experience enhanced by digital media: former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd on screen in Federation Square, Melbourne, apologizing to the Stolen Generations (Source: Wikimedia Commons; February 13, 2008)

Q: What kinds of cities or entities seek out digital placemaking as a solution?

The people that want to work on digital placemaking value communities and the power of place. Not all cities have the luxury of huge budgets for speculative, often placeless, R&D projects. Digital placemaking is more grounded, immediate, and respectful of local identity. By using transmedia in ways that judiciously improve the sense of community and shared space within a city, it’s easier to get local support and see inclusive outcomes.

Recently, I was part of an NGO team that advised local governments in Australia on how to better plan for smart city projects and their funding structures. This included a healthy skepticism for industry-driven ideas of smart city projects, and instead focused on better defining local needs and opportunities. For example, I explored how the well-considered use of urban screens can better enable social resilience, in addition to merely relaying content or “information.” Instead of individuals looking down on their phones, people are looking up and around together and having a shared experience. When you focus on place-based tools and methods, you open up many more activation opportunities. These kinds of shared experiences are otherwise nearly impossible when people are looking at their individual phones, even if they’re viewing the same content.

Q: Can you tell us about the Illuminator? What lessons from that mode of engagement and application of tech can be translated to some of the issues that cities are facing today when it comes to upgrading infrastructure and engaging communities?

Before the era of tech, cities were the most complex thing that humans made. So if you are going to add technology to the mix, you need to do it with care, concern, and good intention. The Illuminator made it clear to me the power of when this balance is done right.

You have a van, an AV system and a projector. Then you have the labor of the team and the social infrastructure to operate it, who have local knowledge of neighborhoods, governing parameters, and social skills. It’s such a hybrid of the social and the technical, a real transdisciplinary thing. You’re not removed from the physical; you’re not sending a tweet. People can come right up to you and talk about it how it makes them feel. Technology at its best can be like this — a microcosm of the city itself.

“We need to reconnect to our communities, to our sense of place, and to each other.”

Q: What role can technology have in cities that is more integrated and less imposing?

There’s a famous quote by Marc Andreesen that “software is eating the world.” We need to be much more critical and resistant to this type of placeless ideology. Given the “techlash” that we’ve seen this year over numerous societal failures from placeless tech, it’s time to de-center technology as we’ve defined it. Cities are far too complex to be left merely to engineers and technocrats. We need to focus more on the pluralistic, hybrid reality of all of this. We need to reconnect to our communities, to our sense of place, and to each other.

P.S. For more on cities and why place matters, Dan recommends these reads:

Hespanhol, L., Haeusler, M. H., Tomitsch, M., & Tscherteu, G. (2017). “Digital Placemaking After 6 Years: Defining An Emerging Practice By Daniel Latorre & Glenn Harding” in Media Architecture Compendium: Digital Placemaking.

Evgeny Morozov and Francesca Bria, Rethinking the Smart City, (January 2018).

Robin Hambleton. (2014). “From Smart Cities to Wise Cities” in Leading the Inclusive City: Place-based Innovation for a Bounded Planet.

Interested in learning more about how Stae can help with inclusive urban design? Get in touch.

A community for civic-data wranglers, developers, and innovators: @staehere

Adriana Valdez Young

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City as a Service
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