Digital placemaking: eleven key principles


6 minute read
Jo Reid

Jo Reid

Managing Director

Digital Placemaking

Heritage is all about recreating the past of a place. To create a rich experience, organisations have to draw out the story of their site, tying it to the way their visitors explore and the things they see and do. It’s a matter of placemaking: the act of giving life to a location.

Placemaking and heritage

A key part of modern urban design and landscaping practices, placemaking builds different media and technologies into a space – including art, music and smartphone tech – to give those places ‘soul’.

The process starts with paying attention to what people think about a place; how they use and move around it, and how it came to be the way it is. Armed with that information, placemakers create spaces where people actually want to spend time. The best placemakers listen to and observe the people using a place, but they also apply insight. They’re looking for something which underlies the place as it currently exists, which needs to be teased out and cultivated so that it adds to what’s already there.

What they’re trying to do is create magic moments – the same thing heritage organisations are doing, all the time. As such, the eleven core principles of placemaking are woven into curating a successful heritage site. The same principles apply to digital placemakingwhere organisations make their site more accessible by offering things like apps for visitors.

What makes for a successful heritage app, according to the principles of placemaking?

The eleven principles of digital placemaking

The community is the expert. Curators, guides and regular visitors all have valuable insights into how a site works, how it’s changed over time, and what’s meaningful to people when they visit. Tower Bridge built an app after recognising that modern visitors are always going to use their phones to do something, and that something should add to their experience of the site – not distract them from it.

Create a place, not a design. People have to feel welcome and comfortable in a place. An app is an innately personal and personable guide. Users can navigate the site at their pace and investigate features on their terms.

Look for partners. Apps often benefit from co-creation. The Parkhive app was developed as part of the Bristol Green Capital project and was made all the richer by the amalgamation of expertise involved. Taking their ‘green’ direction from the Green Capital project, UWE staff & students ran the project and created the content with the help of Bristol Parks Forum – and we took care of the tech.

Learn by observing. By looking closely at how people are using spaces, developers can see what is and isn’t working. From this, they can determine what changes are needed to make a space ‘work’. The same is true when creating heritage app experiences; rigorous on-site testing often results in tweaks to the content, design and experience.

Have a vision. What kind of activities should be happening in the space? How do you want people to feel? What do you want them to learn? Parkhive had a simple goal: encouraging users to explore Bristol’s green spaces. It did this by offering guidance on how to get there, and comparisons of features, amenities and all-seasons imagery.

Start with what’s light, quick and cheap – and build up from there. A simple app can be tested, refined, redeveloped and perfected over the course of a season. The ‘Escape from the Tower’ app for the Tower of London only took its final form when Historic Royal Palaces knew the exact story they wanted to tell, based on the footfall they’d observed during the prototype test.


Telling a story: The ‘Escape from the Tower’ app was refined over time.

Triangulate. Arrange your app experience so that it connects to other aspects of your placemaking plans. Isolated elements are less attractive than joined-up experiences. The Jewish Museum of London’s tour app has layers of features: a mobile-based guidebook, a browser for reading books that form part of the exhibit, and an audio tour of the surrounding streets.

Someone will say “it can’t be done”. Placemaking is often threatened by a lack of consolidated thinking. Most people involved in a site will be used to doing their job only, and will be concentrating on their own responsibilities. Asking everyone to contribute their input to an app can start the cross-pollination of ideas and perspectives needed to make a place out of what could otherwise be just a site.

Form supports function. App design is important, but don’t get lost inside a big idea. Remember, placemaking is built up from observations of actual people and the ways in which they use a space. The Bridge Tales app is built to address a limitation in the user experience at Clifton Suspension Bridge: users can’t access the visitor centre 24/7, but they can download the app to access the same set of information.

Money should not be the issue. A bespoke app won’t be cheap, but it will be tailored toward your site and your visitors. If it’s done right, it will enhance their whole experience: creating some magic, encouraging repeat visitors and good reviews, proving its value through its knock-on effects.

But remember, you’re never finished. Although a total revamp-from-square-one is seldom called for, you’ll be making small alterations all the time to your heritage site. Spaces change and so do the people who visit them. If there’s a restoration project afoot on your site, your app should change to reflect its progress and relate to the site as visitors experience it. Apps can be built with the future in mind – the London Jewish Museum app was designed with the view that there’d be more content added as their exhibitions changed. With this foresight, the team there have saved themselves the cost of developing something completely new down the line.

For more examples of how apps can be used to give life to locations, take a look at our case studies.


Featured image from Flickr, under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence.

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