Digital Placemaking

9 of the world’s most creative placemaking projects

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Almost half of the global population – that’s about 3.5 billion of us – live in cities. These cityscapes have grown organically, over hundreds of years. with little consideration for the wellbeing of those living in them. They’ve been designed for the quantity of dwellers, rather than the quality of dwellings and their surroundings.

The last few decades, however, have seen local and national communities and organisations try to take back control of their surroundings. It’s done through the collaborative and inspiring concept of placemaking – an effort to strengthen the connection between people and the places they share, through the reimagination and reinvention of their communal spaces.

We’ve talked about digital placemaking before, which adds technology to the people and the places, but as placemaking is a concept that both predates and transcends digital technology, we thought we’d take a look at some of our favourite placemaking projects from around the globe – some include digital aspects and some don’t. Indeed, some are so simple they require nothing more than a little inspiration and a lot of paint…

‘Yes!’ – DUMBO, New York City

Despite the name, our first example has nothing to do with flying elephants. Instead, it pays homage to the power of positivity in regeneration. DUMBO (short for Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) is a neighbourhood in Brooklyn, which was once a manufacturing district (and birthplace of the cardboard box), but is now a mecca for NYC artists and tech start-ups.

Like many urban environments, DUMBO was home to some unedifying concrete underpasses and empty buildings – places which can become negative, unsafe spaces. Enter two eighty-foot-long murals featuring a fierce-looking octopus with tentacles that spell out the word ‘Yes!’ in fifteen-foot-high letters.

'Yes!' - DUMBO, New York City

Yes! mural at Jay Street in DUMBO, Brooklyn| Art in DUMBO via Facebook

‘Yes!’ was created by design firm Sagmeister & Walsh in collaboration with Japanese illustrator Yuko Shimizu. The vibrancy, simplicity and positivity of the mural have transformed the underpass from a sketchy area best avoided into an iconic statement reflecting the positive vibe of the DUMBO residents. It has also become a symbol of love, attracting New Yorkers looking for the perfect backdrop for their wedding or engagement photo shoots.

‘Home & Away’ – Hastings, Vancouver

Like ‘Yes!’, our next example aims to create an iconic landmark through a piece of public art. It will form part of a much larger piece of placemaking in Vancouver’s second largest park, transforming it into “a greener, year-round destination for park use, culture, sport, recreation, and fun.”

Fun is clearly the aim of the ‘Home & Away’ art installation. Designed by Lead Pencil Studio, ‘Home & Away’ offers a slice of the sports stadium experience, overlooking the Hastings playing fields.

‘Home & Away’ – Hastings, Vancouver

The colourful installation will be 14 metres high and 29 metres long, offering seating for 200 people – and will also feature a tube slide, for those who want to make a quick exit. The design echoes the Empire Stadium (location of the 1954 Commonwealth Games) which used to stand in Hastings Park, while offering great views of the redeveloped space.

Although costly (over C$400,000), the hope is that the installation will bring more visitors to the park and will lead to greater use of the playing fields, as well as encouraging local people to connect with community sports teams that play at the facilities.

Sidewalk Labs – Toronto

From public parks to city streets and this project from Sidewalk Labs – part of Google/Alphabet. With the mission statement to ‘reimagine cities to improve quality of life’, Sidewalk Labs is designing a district in Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront to tackle the challenges of urban growth.

Sidewalk Labs has teamed up with Waterfront Toronto and the local community – key to any successful placemaking project – to use bleeding edge technology to improve mobility, housing, the public realm and the community as a whole. The project has sustainability and affordability at its heart and takes a 360 degree look at what is possible in new urban redevelopments.

What does this mean in practice? It means a self-driving transportation system that complements pedestrians and public transport. It means new construction methods and flexible building design to make the most of the neighbourhoods and enhance public spaces. Data-driven management tools are planned to make parks and public plazas more comfortable, lively and safe. And the same smart data will be combined with local services to make them more efficient and accessible.

This experiment has exciting and fascinating implications for the future of city building as a whole. By bringing together planning, process, community and technology at the start of the project, it could be a force in placemaking in the urban realm for years to come. One to watch, closely.

Innovation Districts – The Bass Initiative

Sidewalk Labs is predominantly focused on quality of life for cities, spaces and citizens, innovation districts are designed with innovation in mind. The principle was formulated by the Bass Initiative – a collaboration between the Brookings Institution and Project for Public Spaces which, much like Sidewalk, aims to catalyse a new cross-disciplinary approach to city building.

The programme’s initial research paper, The Rise of Innovation Districts, highlighted cultural and demographic shifts in the “spatial geography of innovation.” What they found was that innovative spaces have been dominated by suburban corridors like Silicon Valley which were isolated and put very little thought into or emphasis on quality of life, housing and recreation.

While more of a research project than a placemaking project, the thinking around innovation districts is a perfect demonstration of how spaces and places are being reimagined in intelligent ways. Placemaking can not only impact people’s lives, the studies show, but also accelerate innovation, productivity and value in cities as a whole.

Renew Newcastle – Newcastle, New South Wales

While Sidewalk Labs has technology baked into its thinking, placemaking projects can have a remarkable impact on spaces without the need for smart data and autonomous vehicles. Take the Renew Newcastle project in the Australian city of Newcastle, New South Wales, for example.

In common with many large cities, parts of Newcastle, particularly in the Central Business District (CBD), had fallen into a spiral of urban degradation. Unkempt empty retail and business properties became a blight on the streets, which put off visitors to the area, which in turn drove away more businesses.

The Renew Newcastle project is billed as a DIY urban renewal scheme. Backed by funding from local government and business partners, the project pays landlords of empty buildings (be they between tenants or awaiting redevelopment) a nominal amount of rent to manage the short-term use of the buildings.

Renew Newcastle then brings in local volunteers to carry out basic maintenance on the properties (a good clean, a lick of paint and fixing broken windows), before handing them over to people and groups looking for cultural, creative and community spaces.

In this way, Renew Newcastle has brought colour, interest, and most importantly people back to these areas. Short-term tenants have ranged from galleries and book binding bars to photographic studios and digital art projects. The area also provides rehearsal space for the Newcastle Youth Orchestra, and has housed both the Newcastle Writers Festival and the 2009 Newcastle International Animation Festival.

The Renew Newcastle project has been so successful that it has led to the creation of Renew Australia, looking to expand the model to other urban areas across the continent.

City of Asylum – Pittsburgh

Placemaking and the arts have long made healthy and effective bedfellows, and projects like the City of Asylum prove how community engagement, art and placemaking can benefit places and the people that live there.

Sampsonia Way, a street in the low-income neighbourhood of Central Northside, Pittsburgh, is full of vacant residential properties that, much like pre-development DUMBO, can be a precursor to social issues, crime and other anti-social behaviour.

City of Asylum turns these vacant spaces into sanctuaries for writers exiled under threat or persecution from their home countries. By creating a thriving community for writers, readers and neighbours, the scheme encourages and energises neighborhood economic development.

The writers themselves get rent-free living and working space, medical benefits and help in securing publishers and long-term employment. In return, they get involved in community activities – teaching creative writing to local school-age children or holding public readings. The beauty is in its simplicity, and it demonstrates how good can beget good in placemaking projects.

Pā Rongorongo – Auckland, New Zealand

Travelling to a new city can involve a lot of pre-planning if you want to see it all. In early 2018, however, Auckland Council, built an interactive citizen’s information hub called Pā Rongorongo. The hub allows visitors to customise their own experience of the city, with suggested walking and cycling tours based on people’s interests – be that arts and culture, cycleways, walking routes, heritage spaces, urban forests or Māori sites of significance.


The map can be sent to your phone or can be printed off to take with you as you go. But it’s not simply logistical, the hub features a high resolution digital wall on the outside to showcase work by local artists in residence. This combination of form and function shows smart thinking from Auckland Council and demonstrates digital placemaking’s role in combining people, place and technology – helping new visitors and celebrating the community in one go.

Pā Rongorongo has been shortlisted in two categories of The Designers Institute of New Zealand’s Best Design Awards – an annual showcase of excellence in graphic, spatial, product, interactive and motion design.

St Pauls’ Carnival/Seven Saints of St Paul’s – Bristol

For our final two placemaking projects, we’re picking examples close to our hearts – and our doorsteps, here in Bristol. The first is the iconic St Paul’s Carnival which returned for its 50th anniversary in 2018 after a three-year hiatus. This celebration of Caribbean culture and diversity in one of Bristol’s most colourful areas was first held in 1968.

Part of the 50th anniversary was The Seven Saints of St Paul’s. The brainchild of local artist Michele Curtis, the Seven Saints project painted murals honouring seven key people who shaped Bristol’s black community, including those who helped create the St Paul’s Carnival and others who campaigned for equality in 1960s Bristol.


The first of the murals, which lined the route of the Carnival in 2018, was completed in December 2016. At the launch of the project, prominent Bristol civil rights campaigner Dr Paul Stephenson OBE said the Seven Saints “will serve as a reminder to the next generation of the contribution the past generation has made.” We can think of no better example of the power of placemaking to build a sense of shared community heritage.

Playable City – Bristol

While most of our examples are hyper-local, our last embraces a city (or rather, many cities). A term coined by Bristol media and arts venue Watershed, ‘Playable City’ has come to encapsulate a wide range of initiatives across the globe. They all share a vision of finding new ways of connecting city-dwellers – both with each other and with the urban environments in which they live – through the medium of play.


Here in Bristol, the intersection of environment and technology has given us Urbanimals, cute origami creatures projected onto surfaces across Bristol which reacted to the motion of passers-by. As Bristolians searched for each of the cute, interactive Urbanimals, they found themselves visiting areas of the city they had never been to before, gaining a new appreciation for their urban cityscape.

As well as the cute origami animals, Bristolians were also able to interact with street furniture. The Hello Lamppost project allowed passers-by to strike up conversations with post boxes, parking meters, or even bridges, with an SMS text message. Each of the items would have a personality of its own and would draw you in by asking you about your day, telling you a secret, or even recounting a conversation with a previous passer-by, giving insights into the minds of the people around you.

As demonstrated by this range of projects, placemaking can take many forms. It can be small-scale or citywide, high-tech or lo-fi, but the one thing it always needs is a creative spark of inspiration.

 

Whatever the project, it’s the sense of connection, wonder and excitement which drives placemakers; bringing to life the potential of a place in a new and engaging way. That same creative spark can inspire digital placemaking, where the physical landscape does not have to limit what can be achieved.