COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Digital Placemaking - Authentic Civic Engagement

Daniel Latorre
Sep 21, 2011
Oct 23, 2020

Engaging the community is nothing new at PPS. It's our founding ethic. Listening to what people have to say about the planning and design of the places where they live is what PPS has always been about.

Now that most people are online, or soon will be, we've got a whole new way of bringing people into the process, and we’ve embraced the potential of today’s 2.0 social media to enhance our existing Placemaking services.

We refer to this as Digital Placemaking. It’s the integration of social media into Placemaking practices, which are community-centered, encouraging public participation, collaboration, and transparency. In the last year, we’ve completed five pilot projects that have demonstrated how integrated, authentic digital engagement can extend and deepen Placemaking.

Some call this Open Source Placemaking, which connects with the values of the Open Government movement. What we’re really talking about here is getting out of the current oppositional vicious cycles and creating virtuous cycles… an effective way to reboot the relationship between bottom-up efforts and top-down institutions in place-based work.

The Environments of Our Lives

Winston Churchill once said, "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” and Marshall McLuhan famously said, “We shape our tools and they in turn shape us.” At PPS, we like to tweak that a little, saying, "We shape our public spaces; thereafter they shape us.”

Today, it's just as insightful to also say, “We shape our media; thereafter they shape us.”

Bricks, cement, asphalt, or electronic information in bits and pixels … all of these are media we use to shape our world, and have a responsibility to use well. Likewise buildings, public spaces, video, the web, mobile apps … all of these are environments.

How we make these environments, at all scales, has an impact on how we communicate with each other and on our quality of life. Starting the process by listening to the communities who will use these environments leads to authentic great places.

For our first Digital Placemaking effort, we started by adapting and evolving our time-honored Power of 10 approach, which asks community members to look around themselves and take inventory of the things that make their places great -- and the things that could be better. The Power of 10 proved to be a natural fit for the online space, and the results to date have proved that digital engagement enhances and amplifies authentic Placemaking at the citywide or district-wide scale.

The excitement and attention this exercise generates in these communities is just the beginning. There are many cities ready to embrace this holistic approach of Placemaking, and in our world today the urgency to change only grows louder each day.

Our recent work with UN-HABITAT frames the reality we face today quite clearly. Here’s what they have to say in one of their publications:

"There are four mega-trends that are marking our modern society. The first two are omnipresent. They visibly shape our societies and our daily lives -- globalization and information and communication technology. The latter is often referred to as one of the main driving forces of the new economy. Third is climate change and the growing number of disasters wrought by this scourge, and finally, the trend less spoken about but most profound in its impact on the way we live: urbanization and the growth of cities."

We are in an age of sweeping change. Communities engaged in Placemaking benefit from the acceleration that authentic community-centered digital methods can enable.

The Pilots: Digital Placemaking Services in Action

‍Screen shots of recent Digital Placemaking projects in Baltimore, NYC, Denver, and San Antonio

PPS has been busy putting these ideas into action in the field with several pilot digital Placemaking projects. These include an open-space plan for all of downtown Baltimore; a re-visioning pilot for the National Trust Main Streets program in Tupelo, Miss.; "By the City / For the City" an awareness and education campaign for the Institute for Urban Design in New York City; corridor visioning in Denver; and a downtown-wide master plan project (local video) for San Antonio, Texas. We're about to start our sixth project for Gothenburg, Sweden. Each of these projects gives us an opportunity to review and refine the way we weave digital services into the overall Placemaking effort, and also build on the Ushahidi Open Source platform we use. In upcoming posts we’ll talk further about these insights, our methods, and the technology.

In all our digital work, we always remain grounded in a human-centered approach. Some of my personal inspiration comes from Christopher Alexander, author of the seminal book A Pattern Language, who has profoundly influenced the practices in both public spaces and software. Alexander once said this:

"…What one would hope is that pieces of software make each person that encounters that software, more of a person. We're all of us more capable of doing harm to other people by simply treating them or our transactions as something machine-like. That danger is right there at the core of it, and yet this very computer phenomenon also has the capacity to go to a much much richer place, that actually makes a person, man, woman, child, more humane and caring."

This is the kind of authenticity we are striving for in our community-centered digital work.

Why? Placemaking is a sacred multi-faceted approach that capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential. Recently we’re seeing a pattern in which more cities are looking for game-changing ways to improve their places. These cities are choosing to work with new partnerships and coalitions for a broad process that is more inclusive, transparent, and collaborative. Digital Placemaking can be a critical success factor in these Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper approaches to re-making our public environments.

Authentic democratic participation depends on quality dialogue -- both discussion and debate. And in today's world we talk with each other across all forms of media, increasingly centered around our digital networks. Some traditions are worth leaving behind, and others must be cherished enough to renew again and carry forward. It is with this spirit that Digital Placemaking is being co-created here at PPS and with the communities we work with.

Contact Josh Kent or Daniel Latorre if you're interested in incorporating Digital Placemaking into your community's Placemaking practice.

Daniel Latorre
Daniel Latorre
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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space