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Portals to Place: Supporting Public Space with Digital Space

Ethan Kent
May 5, 2000
Jan 10, 2018

Digital technology and local communities can undermine each other, or make each other thrive. While the growth of digital technology has been quick to fulfill its potential to transcend the limitations of geography, it has yet to fully draw on and support the resources of local communities. In fact, online it has been rare that we connect with that which is around us, let alone explore how we can contribute to its sustainability and improvement. But opportunities for placemaking in both the digital space, and in local communities, are emerging and evolving quickly, and have the potential to help bring each other to new levels of engagement.

Online one can find almost any item, any interest group or any virtual experience of our world, but it is still difficult to learn about and participate in the shaping of the public realm around us. The public realm around us also is increasingly less engaging with fewer opportunities to participate. Just as the commonly used portals of the Internet are defined by a limited set of cultural and ideological experiences, where we tend to stay in areas that reflect our self-image and our comfort zones, our experience of communities remain isolated and culturally limited. At the same time, and to some extent as a result, our communities themselves are also actually offering less in terms of choice and experience of place or of cultural richness. But just as the Internet and globalized local economies have created and perpetuated a monoculture of passive consumption, these same tools and networks can be harnessed for creating and sustaining place.

With the digital age and the increasing role of the Internet, our public realm, economic exchange and access to information are all expanding. It is not understood how this expansion is affecting our local communities and is still relatively unconsidered how these technologies and interfaces could be structured to support them. There is significant focus on how economic, cultural and information exchange on the Internet is affecting the global commons while concern appears limited for the inevitable impacts on our local communities.

The pattern of use and focus of investment seems to suggest a focus limited to the commercial applications for global corporations with a trend toward increasing centralization of resources and information. In fact, the culture of the web has shaped itself to be one where surfers are funneled through conglomerate, one-stop, portals to purchase consumer goods from sites with the best branding and the most successful financing. Is the autonomy of our local communities being threatened and their cultural,economic, civic as well as environmental structures weakened? In merely posing this question, the impetus emerges and the opportunity becomes clear for harnessing these new technologies to support our communities and environment and foster the connections and participation on which they thrive.

Like any other new industry attracting large amounts of capital, the Internet has been shaped primarily by its anticipated (or imposed) demands and propelled by the available supply – much less by its potential impacts on our public and physical realms or by existing demands in our communities. The environmental and community context in which all exchange inevitably takes place has been only loosely considered. Seemingly unattached to any physical location, it is easy to see the Internet as unrelated toissues of environment and community.

The volatility of Internet stocks is further testament to the uncertain impacts on society and the economy of this technology and its planned uses as decided by a small group of investors, CEO’s and technology experts. The low level of predictability and accountability of these decision makers and of their large internet portals and commercial sites has been disregarded as necessary market fluctuations while marketing and monopolistic positioning determine the boom or bust of each company. Consumer desires, market efficiency and the uncovering of the democratic potential of the Internet and its associated technologies do not seem to be determining the flow of investment. This is making for a culture that values image over content and global over local, compatible with only large scale international companies and dependent on high volume exchange.

Our “What Makes A Successful Public Space?” diagram adapted to the web.

Like the public spaces PPS has traditionally worked in, such spaces on the Internet have the potential to build community but also, when designed poorly, to degrade communities. As William H. Whyte said, “it is hard to design a place that does not attract people; what is incredible is how many times this has been done.” If a great place is the nexus of community life, a poorly designed and managed place can be the nemesis of community. This may also ring true for the community spaces of the Internet. Poor places on the Internet or in our communities make us avoid, feel uncomfortable in, and sometimes even fear our public realm. But worse, they are missed opportunities for building economic, social and cultural vitality and exchange in a community or downtown.

Although often developed with no shortage of funds and plenty of professional input, a failed public space can be identified by any passerby. The same may be true for a user of a community web site. In both instances, it is the tendency to ignore the needs, behavior and input of the user that most likely has led to the failure of many well-conceived public spaces and virtual spaces. Our Place Performance Evaluation Game can be used for the web as a tool for observing how a page is used, how it falls short and where one might begin to initiate improvements with perhaps the same effectiveness the game has found when applied in the physical world.

As the future unfolds, communities and their residents need both physical and virtual gathering places to connect and develop themselves. If the role of the Internet and community portals are thought through carefully, they can help build the qualities of place in much the same way as the great public spaces we seek in our physical communities.

Ethan Kent
Ethan Kent
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