Digital placemaking for public engagement


7 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Public engagement is a huge part of digital placemaking – and of British government policy around planning and development.

The new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), published in July 2018, emphasises the importance of meaningful community engagement in delivering healthy, inclusive and safe places where people want to live and work. On principle, and in practical application, community perspective is deemed vital for a successful development plan:

“Design policies should be developed with local communities so they reflect local aspirations, and are grounded in an understanding and evaluation of each area’s defining characteristics.”  (p.125)

“Applicants should work closely with those affected by their proposals to evolve designs that take account of the views of the community. Applications that can demonstrate early, proactive and effective engagement with the community should be looked on more favourably than those that cannot.” (p.128)

This community-led approach to development is apparent across British planning and development culture. Guidance by the Design Commission for Wales stresses consultation and engagement as a mandatory, necessary and useful element in successful design and planning. Consultation provides social and personal context to a site: it allows necessary changes to be made early in the process, when they’re both cheaper and of much greater impact.

Development cost and value graph - Site & Context Analysis Guide

Property and development industry leaders are on board with these policies. Richard Upton – the U+I developer and Historic England trustee who spoke out on how regeneration has ‘lost its way’ – has responded positively to the new NPFF. Commenting for Property Week, he said:

“If developers engage in good faith with local councils, and importantly, with the communities they serve, then we can really set about delivering the homes and neighbourhoods our country is crying out for.”

Consultation cannot afford to be a box-ticking exercise – there’s no use in asking questions and not acting on the answers. Developers need to ask themselves what will change as a result of the knowledge they’ve gained through consultation, how further engagement will integrate into the lifespan of the project, and what approaches will be taken to engage all sections of the community.

Public engagement in action

How developers consult is almost as important as why.

Research by a team at Newcastle University indicates that current methods of ‘community consultation’ aren’t suitable for the majority of communities. Putting up an architectural plan that fewer than 10% of people can read, in an office that’s only open during working hours, is a hollow pretence of public engagement.

Genuine and meaningful community engagement is more than a token effort on the road to planning permission.

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) treats the environment as something people shape, and that shapes people in turn. As a result, their priority is finding out how people use the spaces around them and how they might use them if changes were made. For the PPS, consultation is a dialogue – people making suggestions to each other about how their environments can be improved. The technology that’s used is grounded in a human approach and in human interactions: it’s not for making people act like machines.

Since 2012, Block-by-Block – a collaboration between UN-HABITAT and Minecraft creators Mojang – has been using Minecraft to design public spaces within communities affected by human-made and natural disaster. This works because it’s inviting: it uses a popular game rather than demanding engagement with a new technology, so it extends people’s activities into a new placemaking direction.

Barcelona’s 40-acre Superblocks – areas transformed into pedestrian-first environments – are a major achievement for community-led placemaking. Driven by concerns about multiple-lane traffic, the Superblocks clear substantial areas of cities of road vehicles, introducing bike lanes, open paths, trees, sculptures, play equipment and street furniture. Cars can enter – but pedestrians come first.

Consultation has formed the shape of the Superblocks project, and set its pace. After some resistance from residents – including protests around the traffic restrictions and the risk of gentrification – the planned construction of some 500 Superblocks has slowed down. Barcelona’s Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability has launched an Outreach project – a dialogue with the residents and policymakers of the Poble Nou Superblock. This collaboration between planners and community is establishing ways to keep the Superblocks healthy, affordable and liveable. The lesson for placemakers here is simple: if you meet resistance, stop, check, and discuss.

Calvium’s Ideascape project in Cardiff’s Porth Teigr works in the same way. Working with sustainable developers igloo, we had three primary goals: to explore how digital placemaking could help Porth Teigr thrive; to produce location-specific project ideas to act as stimulation for public engagement; and to encourage local communities to influence Porth Teigr’s physical and digital future.

The experiential sandbox event welcomed community stakeholders: it was held in a public space and presented local residents, workers and visitors with ten exhibits that all sought to suggest how the experience of being in Porth Teigr might be enhanced through digital technologies. While participants were on-site, we collected their feedback through a variety of methods such as chalkboards, questionnaires and interviews.

We found a real openness to the possibilities that bespoke location-specific digital services and experiences could bring to the location – but only when adding value, not omnipresent around the site, and not adding to the “digital noise”. Some attendees were inspired to become more locally engaged: many imaginations were sparked by the Book This Space concept, a digital service for people to identify and book public spaces in Porth Teigr and beyond. A number of attendees wanted to ensure that profit and context remained authentically local, and that the interests of the local communities was built into our decision making.

The positive results of public engagement

Digital placemaking is an enormously powerful tool for consultation, collaboration and discussion between planners, developers and community stakeholders – and it doesn’t have to stop at the planning stage.

By way of example, consider our Jeg Er Nørrebro (I Am Nørrebro) app. Faced with a segregated, antisocial community in the Copenhagen suburb, the local housing association worked with us to create an audio walk app, co-produced with the wider community.

The content production brought out hidden talents in Nørrebro’s residents that have lasted – the teenage girls who wrote and performed a song for the app have been writing and performing together ever since. The community was involved at the concept and creation stages, and then in greater numbers when the app rolled out.

This is just one example, but in our years of working with members of the public, we’ve learned four key points about how digital placemaking has to work and what it can do.

  1. People want digital placemaking to be open and inclusive, sensitive to the existing environment, and accountable to the public.
  2. Through public engagement activities, local communities feel stimulated to participate further in shaping their neighbourhood.
  3. Digital placemaking has the potential to offer people deeper physical, cognitive and emotional connections to a place.
  4. There is value in embedding a rich-mix of cultural representation in a development, by enabling a diverse and evolving range of historical accounts of the area to be present in a place, and for these to be available through different means.

You need the public involved in any digital placemaking project, at the earliest possible point. The sooner you understand what the community of residents, visitors, workers and commuters wants from a place, the sooner you can start delivering it – and the more certain you’ll be that your efforts will be welcomed, and achieve all that they can for the people who live there.

There’s a lot more to putting this approach into practice – you’ll find our deeper insights and practical advice in our new white paper, Digital Placemaking for Urban Development.

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