Digital placemaking for urban development: measuring value and success


9 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Cranes against a bright blue sky during construction of Battersea Power Station. Multi-coloured signage is shown in the foreground.

Last week there was an outcry when it was revealed that a facial recognition system was in operation in the public spaces of Kings Cross, London. The developers behind the deployment, Argent, were clearly out of step with pretty much everyone else – including the Mayor of London, Saddiq Khan, and the Information Commissioner’s Office, which has launched an investiagtion. Without knowing the reasons for Argent’s use of surveillance technology, it would seem that on this issue their values may not align with that of the public. 

This article explores how we might measure the value and success of projects that augment physical places with location-based digital services or experiences – other than a financial ROI.

Originally published in July 2018

“The value imperative lies at the heart of urban design, and in London, when it was ignored, led directly to the creation of unloved, exclusionary, unsustainable and ultimately unlivable space.”

Matthew Carmona, University College London, 2014

The internet and mobile technology are perhaps the greatest inventions of the last century. Certainly, no other ideas have had such a powerful and ubiquitous impact on our lives. From work to leisure to relationships, both technologies have driven unparalleled social change.

Some of the changes are more subtle than others. For instance, the internet and mobile technology have changed how we experience, interact with, and understand public spaces. From small function things like smartphone payments to full-scale smart cities, never before have people, place and technology been so intertwined.

For those planning, designing, constructing and managing these spaces, too, these inventions provide an ever-expanding creative toolbox – a seemingly boundless wealth of innovative digital placemaking practice in towns and cities worldwide.

But are these schemes of value or are they experimentation for the sake of it? And what constitutes value in the first place? For local authorities, governments or urban redevelopers with eyes on their bottom line, return on investment (ROI) inherently means monetary reward. But many built environment professionals and organisations, such as The American Planning Association (APA), have highlighted the imperative to look beyond quantitative cost-benefit analysis to inform ROI when assessing the value of large-scale urban development.

So what alternative or additional metrics are available when financial metrics fail to capture the true value, effectiveness or success of a project?

One size doesn’t fit all

Across the urban development and regeneration landscape, there are prime examples of ambitious practice: digital placemaking at Battersea Power Station, sensor technologies deployed across the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to measure the health of wildlife, Bird Street in London’s West End – a ‘smart street’ funded by TfL’s Future Streets incubator – and the Amsterdam Smart City programme that engages citizens to help shape the evolving city.

Each digital placemaking project is created specifically for a particular environment, which means the way that value and success are measured will also be tailored to each project’s context.

Characterising and measuring the value of digital placemaking may be done using its social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts. Placemaking practitioners have suggested numerous sets of indicators for measuring success. For instance: indicators that measure the effects of creative placemaking efforts on livability; indicators that measure an area’s vibrancy; indicators that measure the effect on the monetary value of the urban realm (for which measurement toolkits have been developed). The Project for Public Spaces, meanwhile, has used four key qualities as indicators: accessibility, engagement, comfort and sociability.

The only consensus on ROI is that different projects demand different measurements of success. Not only that; the different stages of a digital placemaking project demand different metrics to measure their efficacy, too.

Below, we’ve provided examples of digital placemaking projects at each stage of a development’s life cycle and suggested ways in which their success could be evaluated.

Planning and design

Digital placemaking is useful in the earliest stages of planning and design as a means to build meaningful engagement. In the UK, the National Planning Policy Framework requires developers to foster ‘early and meaningful engagement and collaboration with neighbourhoods, local organisations and businesses’ when planning new schemes.

The benefits aren’t solely about getting communities’ views on developments in their local area, this kind of engagement provides valuable contextual data to developers. Digital placemaking projects can be used to present development plans to stakeholders and gather their responses – in turn providing data to inform the design and development process.

As part of our Ideascape research in Porth Teigr, Cardiff Bay, for example, we developed a series of ten interventions to provoke conversation between residents, businesses, councils and more. These interventions were designed through exactly the kind of early engagement and collaboration laid out in the Planning Policy Framework.

One such intervention was a pair of AR (Augmented Reality) binoculars that revealed how the built environment would change over the coming years as part of the redevelopment, as well as showing aspects of the area’s socio-economic heritage.

The AR binoculars (‘Past and Future Views’ above) saw people of all ages queuing to look through them. Responses from the participants included: “Extremely worthwhile – captures the scale of future developments to see the impact on the landscape both good and bad,” and a few local residents were concerned by the apparent impact of buildings planned for the site.

Placemaking in the pre-development stage is an exciting and engaging way to spark essential conversations with local stakeholders before a cornerstone has been laid. In this instance, our metric for success was the quality of the responses by locals, visitors and workers in the region. Placemaking projects – whether digital, physical or both – hinge on their value to the communities that use them. The more detail gathered from stakeholders in the initial stages, the better-informed projects will be.

Throughout, our goal at Ideascape – and the insight that determined the digital interventions on offer – was to “support people to think creatively and critically about digital placemaking.” In this way, digital placemaking projects can prove invaluable for gathering ideas and insight from communities to inform and shape development projects, thus leading to a smoother development process

Construction and delivery

Engagement must continue throughout the construction process – at which point development becomes ‘real’ for most stakeholders – tenants, residents, local business owners, councils, visitors – by changing and challenging the way they use their environment.

Digital placemaking proves useful as a source of information for people living and working in an environment under development. Our newly launched app for Battersea Power Station, for example, provides visitors with a geolocational tour and interactive AR content about the redeveloped site, which is still a work in progress.

Hosted on a smartphone, the metric for success in this case would be download numbers, alongside data that reveals the range of users, how they engaged with the content and how their understanding of the area was affected by their experience.

Participants at the Practitioner’s Tour of the Battersea Power Station Heritage Trail app launch, 2018. Image by Johnny Stephens Photography.

Projects like this one fulfil a second important role for developers. They contribute to the development of the identity of redeveloped environments, by connecting stakeholder communities with the history and cultural heritage of specific sites both before, during and after redevelopment.

Management and maintenance

Engagement in the form of delivering information and ongoing interaction is a key concern for those maintaining a site once the build process is complete, important as it is for the benefit of those living and working at the development.

A space is there to be used and, again, great digital placemaking projects should be designed to encourage the ongoing connection between people and the places they live. Another of our interventions at Ideascape was ‘Book this Space,’ a concept designed to make it easier for local residents to use public spaces for projects or events. Public spaces are just that, public, but often areas aren’t utilised to their full potential by the people that live there.

In this specific example, the measurements of success could be the number of spaces booked and the range of ways in which the spaces are used vs. unused spaces, or the number of active sign-ups to the service.

Revitalising existing areas

Finally, urban development projects can have a social impact on places that have fallen into disrepair or to inspire change in local communities with social problems. Our app, Jeg er Norrebro is one such success story. In 2010, there was $2M worth of vandalism committed in the main yard of the neighbourhood of Norrebro, Copenhagen. Parents were afraid to send their children outside and crimes were not reported to authorities through fear.

The AAB Housing Association in Norrebro decided that a mobile app – an ‘audiowalk’ packed with local stories presented by the residents of the neighbourhood – was an accessible way of reaching young people in this increasingly segregated community. The goal here wasn’t app engagement or downloads, the main goal was to curb anti-social behaviour.

In this instance, crime statistics between the feuding housing estates was the main metric of success, and the subsequent drop in crime showed the app had played its role. The app itself may not have been the sole reason for that impact, but the process of creating it made the community work together creatively in a way they never had before.

For example, a group of teenage girls from Norrebro decided to write and perform a song to feature on the app and continued to perform long after the app was released. Across the board, the production of content encouraged residents to build new skills and find new talents.

The app itself was one source of pride, but the development established, strengthened, and encouraged relationships locally. The statistical, measurable result was lower crime, the value to the local area went far beyond that.


It’s important to note that the success metrics for two digital placemaking projects will rarely be the same. That’s because useful measures of success must be derived from the goals of the digital placemaking project in question, which must themselves be carefully considered at the start of a project.

This heterogeneity links back to the key benefit of digital placemaking for developers: the fact that the process is so flexible and adaptable to regeneration projects of all types and scale – capable of adding economic, environmental, cultural and social value to every placemaking project.

However the value of digital placemaking is measured, it should be considered as an integral part of a successful development and assessed accordingly.

Find out more about digital placemaking for development, heritage and local government programmes with our comprehensive introductory guide, here.

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