In September 2019, the UK government invited 101 places to each develop a Town Deal proposal as part of its £3.6bn Towns Fund for England. The towns then devised strategies for sustainable economic regeneration to deliver long-term economic and productivity growth, paying particular attention to urban regeneration, planning and land use, skills and enterprise infrastructure, transport and digital connectivity.
Of course, a lot has changed over the last 18 months. While the overarching aims around place-based growth remain the same, the effects of Covid-19 add a new contextual dimension and provide a greater sense of urgency; intensifying the importance of digital technologies to the experience and management of places. So much so, that it is now accepted that pervasive digital connectivity and innovative digital products, services and experiences are central to fuelling local economies.
With a focus on its potential to advance sustainable urbanisation and improve quality of life for all citizens, this article explores why digital placemaking is an essential part of achieving the place strategies of towns. It also looks at some of the key considerations for place managers when creating strategic and operational plans that incorporate digital placemaking.
Starting with first principles, people expect to connect and interact with places through their personal devices, be they smartphones, wearables or other kit. They want real-time information to be presented to them as they move around the public realm – which is why Google Maps is the most popular digital service in the UK. They value social content about a place from TripAdvisor, hiring bicycles to get from a to b, seeing hyper-local air quality data to assess their walking route, learning about local landmarks such as Battersea Power Station or playing family games on a day out to Tower Bridge, and much more. These examples serve to demonstrate the diverse ways in which digital technologies are connecting people to places, and they only scratch the surface.
Place leaders across the UK are seizing the opportunities that digital technologies afford.
Our work has shown just how valuable digital placemaking is when it comes to boosting the social, cultural, environmental and economic value of places, which is why place leaders see this as such a huge opportunity to regenerate urban spaces, revitalise high streets and boost local tourism as areas begin their post-pandemic recovery.
Community participation to envision future neighbourhoods
Meaningful participation and community engagement is a cornerstone of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Our groundbreaking research project with sustainable developers, iglooRegeneration, is a good example of engaging different stakeholder communities to explore the potential futures of a major regeneration scheme, Cardiff Bay’s Porth Teigr.
As one of Europe’s most significant waterfront development projects, Porth Teigr is intended to become a sustainable and creative place that will be home to a thriving community. However, without understanding the opportunities that digital placemaking affords this prime site, the developers would be working with and designing for a partial sense of the location. That’s where Calvium came in. Using a participatory and co-design approach that embraced community engagement, we spent an intensive six months researching ways in which digital technologies could enhance the liveability of the Porth Teigr regeneration scheme. Residents, workers and visitors of Porth Tiegr were encouraged to share their ideas about the site’s physical+digital future – the findings of which can be found in the Ideascape Research Report.
Revealing the social and economic heritage of a destination
For any town to have long-term viability, it needs to attract people who want to live, work and play there. People need to build relationships with the town, in part through getting to know its heritage. A perfect example of digital placemaking helping to do just that is situated on the bank of the Thames. The extensive redevelopment of London’s Battersea Power Station is revamping the iconic Grade II*-listed power station to its former glory. Across the 42-acre site, the project is turning the power station into a new town centre with shops, restaurants, offices, homes, green spaces and a recently launched tube station.
Alongside Circus West Village, the first phase of the redevelopment project, is a unique digital placemaking experience. The Battersea Power Station Heritage Trail mobile app shows visitors the site in a new light; revealing the social and economic history of a building which helped shape modern London.
Digital placemaking building a new immersive destination
By activating the public realm, digital placemaking has the power to make any town centre high street an entirely new type of destination. Look at the multi award-winning ‘theatrical performance’ in London’s Whitehall, The Lost Palace. The palace burned down 300 years ago and today is the centre of government administration. Yet, through digital placemaking we were able to build a modern immersive theatrical adventure on those same streets, taking people back to the exact location where Charles 1 was executed and experiencing the moments leading up to it.
“I was amazed how easily modern life drifted to the background whilst the past became more vivid and alive around me.” – The Lost Palace audience member
All of these examples lend themselves perfectly to how we should be thinking about developing sustainable ‘hybrid’ town centres and high streets: using community engagement to influence the development of our digitally connected futures; discovering the layers of a place’s rich heritage; bringing historical landmarks and buildings back to life and using digital placemaking to draw people to a destination in the first place.
Quality of life
Digital placemaking’s ability to create meaningful connections between people and places means it is well positioned to improve the quality of life for all citizens. For instance, by adopting an inclusive design approach to make towns and cities more accessible.
Navigating towns and cities
We have worked on a raft of wayfinding projects that all demonstrate how the thoughtful application of digital technologies can significantly improve people’s experience of a place. Both NavSta and UCAN GO were developed to enable people to navigate indoor spaces independently; the primary intended audiences being people with less visible disabilities and those with sight loss, respectively. By providing digital tools such as these, technologies are enabling people to find their way around independently and supporting them to participate in the rich tapestry of urban life. Think how much better our towns and high streets would be if we could all enjoy them equally.
At the end of the day, if the technology is available to make people’s experiences of places more accessible and inclusive (and it is), why wouldn’t you?
Digital placemaking is also being used to help people connect better with nature. Project NOAH is a citizen science platform that allows users to learn more about plants and animals by recording their wildlife sightings, uploading photos and videos, and connecting them with experts who can share their knowledge.
What’s Growing on the Greenway, meanwhile, publishes weekly blog posts about plants that grow around the Connswater Community Greenway in Belfast, including facts and trivia and calls-to-action asking locals to take photos of featured plants and share them on social media. This is a fantastic project that won the prestigious Landscape Institute President’s Award in 2019.
Calvium also developed Parkhive a few years ago as part of Bristol’s European Green Capital programme, which aimed to help people to explore their local area more. By encouraging people to spend time outdoors and engaging with nature, these three projects have the potential to improve significantly people’s mental wellbeing. Not only that, we are starting to see the ways in which digital placemaking can play a part in helping to mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss, which will surely impact people’s quality of life on a macro level.
Ultimately, done well, digital placemaking helps to deepen citizens’ connection with our public spaces, while also bringing people closer together with one another through shared experiences. As human beings that are, for the most part, sociable creatures who value their communities, rebuilding a sense of belonging in our towns and high streets is critical – at a time when we have lost touch with public spaces and people as a result of Covid-19.
Technology and design
There are many important factors to consider when developing and designing digital placemaking solutions. Ultimately, digital placemaking is inherently about design, understanding the fine grain context of a place and working at the intersection of four key elements: people, place, technology and data.
As the users of a digital product, people are one of your most valuable assets when it comes to digital placemaking. Whether thinking about the user at the front end of a smartphone app or somebody inputting data into a content management system that stores the content about your destination, including people at all stages of the design process will bring a level of insight and creativity that you won’t achieve otherwise.
To better understand the place for which the technology is intended, designers need to look beyond the physical environment and understand its social and cultural environment too. It is this deeper level of understanding of a place that will make people’s experiences of public spaces more interesting, inclusive and authentic.
This might seem obvious but paying attention to the infrastructure technology of the place you are designing for, such as the availability and reliability of WiFi, or any hardware or software you need to get to grips with, is fundamental. Without figuring out these basic elements early in a project, it is going to be a much bumpier ride on your digital placemaking journey. At this point, it’s important to remember that while the gradual roll-out of 5G means many towns and high streets are investing in strong digital infrastructure, unlike smart city solutions, digital placemaking doesn’t rely on pervasive connectivity.
Finally, you will need to understand what types of data will be called upon within your digital product and where it originates. Here, you should assess whether you are creating your own data, relying on third parties, a mixture of the two and so forth. Who owns this data, how is it structured, where does it reside, will it be made available and at a cost – all critical questions. Whatever method you do use, it goes without saying that this must be done in a GDPR-compliant way.
Importantly, as noted above, inclusivity and accessibility should be at the heart of any user experience. So, if you are commissioning a mobile product, remember to consider including functionalities like screen readers and enabling the change of screen orientation. These features are often seen as costly additions but in my mind they are fundamental as they make the difference between having a digital placemaking experience that can be inclusive and enjoyed by everyone, or not.
The more inclusive the technology and design, the more people you can engage. The more people you can engage, the more the local economy will benefit – as will your town’s reputation for being open to all.
Revolutionise and regenerate
From its ability to generate sustainable urbanisation and boost the socio-economic value of places, to the many ways it can improve the quality of life for citizens, it is abundantly clear to see how digital placemaking can play a key role in revolutionising and regenerating our town centres and high streets through their post-pandemic recovery and beyond.
Its unique ability to connect people with places means that digital placemaking can be seen as a long-term investment into making towns and cities more sustainable, engaging, accessible and prosperous.
Contact Calvium to discuss how we can help you create a digital placemaking experience that will advance sustainable urbanisation in your area and improve quality of life for all.