Every few weeks, the Baltimore Center for Design– a fledgling coalition of planners, architects, and other urbanists — holds a public discussion of urban design in Baltimore and beyond.
Ben Stone, a planner from the Baltimore Development Corporation, hosted the fifth Design Conversation to a standing-room-only crowd at a local art-bar on February 4th. The stellar line-up of guest speakers included two particularly visionary presentations with bold implications for placemaking.

Part 1. What if a community could actually explore a proposed development before it was built? And make their own changes as they wandered through the space?

Sounds fantastical, but Eric Gordon, professor of new media at Boston’s Emerson College, founded Hub2 to do just that. He’d found that people had a hard time connecting with the standard architectural plans and renderings presented at planning meetings. And he wondered if Second Life, the online virtual world, might be the perfect tool to bridge that gap.

Because Second Life is interactive, it could be used to build a virtual model of a developer’s plan that the community could explore. It could even be used to build a model of the bare site itself, letting the community create their own 3-D development plan from within Second Life.

Harvard’s plan to expand its campus into neighboring Allston, MA, provided Mr. Gordon with the perfect laboratory to test out this idea. “The neighborhood was very hostile to Harvard for its history of buying up land in Allston,” Mr. Gordon said, “so we were brought in by the city to experiment with the community participation process.”

Actually, to be precise, Mr. Gordon didn’t say that – his avatar did. Though Mr. Gordon was in Boston, his Second Life avatar was projected onto a wall screen, showing us around the virtual Allston campus as we watched from the crowded Baltimore bar. It gave us some sense of what it must have been like at the Hub2 meetings, where they had up to 15 community members on laptops, exploring the virtual site in Second Life while sitting in the same room talking to each other about it.

The Second Life approach flipped the usual dynamic of community planning meetings on its head. Because the virtual site was a blank slate, the community started coming up with their own ideas for the development, rather than merely responding to the plans. And in the 3-D environment, people were able to get a better sense of what the various designs would feel like in reality. They could see, for instance, that the trees they’d wanted to plant around the park would actually block their view and make the park feel unsafe. Mr. Gordon’s team even had people role-play through their avatars, to see how the plans might be experienced by someone in a wheelchair, or walking a dog, or with a small child.

Hub2 has only tested its mettle on the Allston project so far. But its enthusiastic reception makes future projects seem likely – the Hub2 meetings drew six times as many attendees than the regular community meetings, and over half were under 25. This will definitely be a trend for placemakers to keep their eye on in the coming years: using virtual worlds to create places in the real one.