Exploring the digital pillars of urban regeneration


6 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Urban regeneration – reviving the underused land and decaying structures that appear in many cities – has become an established force in urban environment planning and placemaking. Emerging in the mid-twentieth century and gathering impetus as concerns about greenfield development continue to rise, the trend toward urban regeneration has seen spaces and places take on new socio-economic roles. Empty factories and warehouses become flats, shops and restaurants; economically deprived areas become transport and cultural hubs.

As the urban regeneration process has developed, it’s seen technology take on new roles, connecting us to our environment in new ways. Digital placemaking often comes up when discussing regeneration spaces, but in reality, this is just one of the digital pillars of the built environment.

There is a clear distinction between digital in urban planning and design – whereby digital is used to plan and manage the built environment – and digital placemaking, which enhances or transforms how people experience and emotionally connect with places.

To understand digital’s contribution to urban regeneration as a whole, we need to know and understand exactly how digital technologies contribute to planning and placemaking alike.

BIM and CIM – understanding the built environment

The first digital pillar is on the planning side of regeneration – simulating and monitoring individual buildings, and the infrastructure that connects them.

BIM (Building Information Modelling) is already fairly standard within construction, providing intelligent 3D models of buildings under construction. These models help to improve workflow and reduce errors during the construction process: AR simulations can even place BIM models in the locations they’re going to occupy when built, allowing planners to test the construction process before committing time and resources.

For architects and designers, the ability to move around a design in situ as well as populate a virtual model with simulated occupants means they can better understand the site and explore how people can navigate and use it. This identifies problems and opportunities, like potential bottlenecks in movement around the site or unexpectedly glorious views where a window could be added.

BIM is advancing all the time. Drones can carry scanning equipment, feeding back data which allows for accurate 3D representations of existing sites. Through VR technology, those representations can then be explored inside and out.

CIM (City Information Modelling) takes environmental simulation onto the grand scale, recording the countless micro-events that take place every single minute of every single day in a connected city, and bringing that data together to create virtual models of cities.

Cloud storage and increases in processing power are enabling new operating systems and platforms which can simulate and support an entire city in real time. These virtual environments are based on open source maps, overlaid with data from Internet service and mobile phone providers, utility companies, public transport firms and traffic control systems – everything that’s generated by a living, inhabited city.

Projects such as Sensing London are already working with data on air quality, human activity and traffic flows – smart data that’s collected during the day to day operations of government and business – and interconnecting it to provide solutions for problems on every scale.

Joining up this data means it can be fed into anything from an app that tells asthmatics how to navigate the city with minimal exposure to air pollution to a business plan for opening and maintaining cycle corridors and green spaces.

Enter the placemakers

Whilst the above show a focus on improving existing systems and processes through better management – enabled by digital technology – digital placemaking is concerned with enhancing the lived experience of citizens in places, with the emphasis on location-specific services, products and more playful happenings that attract people and encourage them to spend more time in a location.

Digital placemaking can take many different forms, from tools that help make planning processes more transparent, interactive and citizen-friendly by inviting people to be more closely involved in shaping their environments, to connecting people with the history of the place they’re in through interactive storytelling.

A big difference between planning and placemaking is in how the tech and the citizen interact. For example, planners are often motivated to use technologies to monitor or predict where people go and what they do; the data that comes from those activities is then analysed and used to inform how the area is maintained or developed. Whereas placemakers are using technologies to enhance people’s experiences of a place, e.g. by revealing its social and cultural heritage, enabling them to forge deeper emotional connections to that location.

Of course, placemakers can benefit from accessing some of the same data sets as planners as well as using the same digital tools – but the underlying motivations for doing so are different – and both can support each other’s work, too.

For example: Focusing on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, a project established in 2014 by UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis and the Future Cities Catapult, aimed to identify combinations of data that could be visualised in real-time to benefit urban planners, site operators and ultimately citizens – ensuring the space works efficiently for all its stakeholders.

Digital placemaking can draw on this same pool of data, using insights gathered by emerging technologies, to create digital services that enhance the experience of living, working and playing in spaces like Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Digital placemaking aims to help places prosper – socially, culturally, environmentally and economically – by making them more meaningful and areas where people choose to be.

Increasingly, digital technology helps to define our relationship with urban areas, from the planning stage where it powers understanding of how cities work and flow, to digital placemaking projects which create deeper, emotional connections with a place. As technology entwines more deeply with our physical reality, so too this hybrid space of digital and physical becomes the best way to think about and undertake urban regeneration projects.

In September 2017, we brought our people-first digital placemaking approach to the regeneration of Porth Teigr – the dockland heart of Cardiff Bay – to research how creative use of digital technologies could enhance people’s experiences of the area. Our findings can benefit future areas undergoing large scale regeneration and development. To discover how, explore the full Ideascape report here.

Image Credit: (CC) Pete Birkenshaw, Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/binaryape/5108212873

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