Digital Placemaking

Interview: Landscape architect and urban designer Sarah Jones-Morris

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It’s no secret that we believe in the transformative effect placemaking can have on a space. While we predominantly work with digital, we are fascinated by how technology can be fused with architecture and the built environment to create character in spaces.

As the director of Landsmith Associates, a landscape architect and urban design company based in Bristol, Sarah Jones-Morris is experienced and understands this process through the design and implementation of various master plans, strategies and public realm regeneration projects. We met with Sarah to discuss how placemaking feeds into her practice, the importance of collaboration in the creative process, and how technology influences the public realm.

Calvium: Sarah, what’s the first thing an architect considers to create a sense of place?

Sarah Jones-Morris:  Design can be intuitive, however you are influenced, consciously or subconsciously, by many factors. For example, when you start thinking about ‘place’ and design,  you might have to consider the questions of scale and context. When working on a very large regional scale master plan, for example, the sense of what that ‘place’ is can be quite different to a very small bespoke courtyard or other small area. That said, there are attributes that apply to all projects; people’s connections to places fundamentally come down to an inherent sense of wanting to belong, and their relationship to both their wider surroundings and any historical contexts.

Projects need to be driven by context and the community’s association with that context. Community can mean those who live in, work in and visit the area and / or the ‘community’ team collaboratively working on the project. The better the interaction and relationships between the space and these communities, the better the outcome.

Calvium: How do you use designed elements to turn spaces into places where people want to go?

S J-M: It’s the social interaction between people that makes successful urban places. There are many factors involved in encouraging people into an area: one of them is street furniture.   Street furniture can become a key element of the design of the public realm, well designed and located benches can increase positive social interaction. The impact of increasing social interaction equates to more people wanting to stay in a public space, which can lead to the social and economic uplift of an area. This links to research by William Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, and Projects for Public Spaces.

It will be interesting to see how digital technology – such as apps to discover ‘hidden’ elements and stories etc. – becomes a way of encouraging people into a space.

Calvium: What gives a place meaning?

S J-M: It comes back to what people enjoy and what they can relate to; a project that fails to relate to an area is unlikely to have meaning or be successful.

Recently, I spoke to a friend who works for Dubai airport. One of the biggest issues they face is the airport’s lack of identity; he felt you could be at any airport. What is the identity and sense of belonging to an area/city? Its genius loci? What is that sense of place that makes one space different from the next? What is the character of an area? How can that be developed and enhanced? Again, this also relates back to historical and wider surrounding contexts.

Calvium: How can digital technology be used to foster this sense of meaning?

S J-M: What I find fascinating about digital placemaking and design is that it creates an additional layer, a meaningful audio and visual experience of a public space. The design of the public realm is informed by a series of ‘layers’.

A recent survey in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, revealed that 92% of the public cannot read plans. Yet, probably 90% of a landscape architect’s or urban designer’s proposals available to the public are produced in plan form. Digital technology is increasingly enabling designers to create multi-dimensional outputs; in the future, the 2D plan may decrease in importance.

One other important developing use of digital tech is community engagement. It can help bring a sense of understanding to a community and foster links with the design team through the use of augmented reality, social media, digital engagement apps and more.

We recently worked with Calvium on a project which explored how to use diverse digital experiences that reflected different spaces combining, art, science, music and technology. For example, a very fast-paced narrow street or thoroughfare is unlikely to attract people to sit for long periods and create a contemplative place. In response, it’s important to adapt your digital experience for different types of spaces. In this type of space, it is unrealistic to expect users to sit and listen to an app for fifteen minutes in a space which they had usually only occupied for  30 seconds; behaviour and context-led output is key.

Calvium: How is digital technology changing the way architects design and make places?

S J-M: Building Information Modelling (BIM) and City Information Modelling (CIM) are the key current examples here. Essentially, these are ways of communicating data between different people/companies, in particular, through three-dimensional format. Using BIM, designers build a live three-dimensional model which can be interrogated for information, similar to GIS. This model is dynamic – like all design – it is always changing. It’s not a static document like a PDF or printed document which can be put on a shelf somewhere and forgotten. There is a big push within the design and construction industry towards a more digital way of communicating.

BIM or CIM is only one element. If we go through the cycle of a project in brief, you’ve got the early feasibility stages for which we can also extract open source data. For example, it can include the location of the National Cycle Network, protected areas, etc. All of this information is now online, with access to this type of data very likely to increase further.

The use of digital technology can assist in the regeneration of areas, perhaps as a temporary non-intrusive installation. For example, digital tech can add an extra layer to reveal elements of a city or space through a visual and auditory experience.

Calvium: What does this mean for the design process?

S J-M: Fundamentally, it should lead to improving communication and design development at all stages of a project. I previously worked on a large public realm development BIM Level 2 project. During construction, all the information regarding defects on site and detailing was available on site with an iPad. This meant you could click on various elements, log defects and sync it to a main system, which was very efficient.

It was only 10 years ago that the preference was to produce final designs and documents on paper. Since then, the majority prefer to finalise and issue them via PDF, which is the equivalent of a digital form of paper, static. However, 10 years ago working on a university project towards a public realm strategy, I was asking, “why can’t we create a more web-based output?”

Planning on paper: Moving planning from paper to PDF…to web?

In general, the reports and information are in PDF format – post-completion of the project they’re just ‘shelved’ and can not be examined or linked to raw data. Practices, in the future, will probably provide more web-based outputs so that they can be interrogated for integrity (linked back to raw data etc). For example, the ability to click online on a plan, to be able to find out why and what that line means; not just looking at how it’s been put together, but why it was designed in that particular way. This will aid communication of the proposals to others, and encourage more rigorous design.

This would also aid the maintenance and management of external spaces. The documents could be more easily be adapted by the design team and used by clients and their management and maintenance teams. Design is not linear; it’s circular. It is important to review your work; the use is always evolving. Our current outputs, as PDFs, do not allow this to happen. The digital world has the opportunity to make it so.

Calvium: How else are architects using digital technology for more active placemaking?

S J-M: Design as an experience. In other words, people are starting to create apps for cheap, light and effective ways to reuse or rethink public spaces to create experiences that don’t necessarily require a big physical change. This can alter the perceptions of an area, and enrich a visitor’s experience. An example of this is Calvium’s project for the City of London. There, they’ve used elements already in place and created a tutorial guide about historical artefacts in that space.

Calvium: What should organisations consider when designing their digital placemaking experiences?

S J-M: My apprehension about smart technology exists around issues of mental health and well-being, which may result in a lack of social interaction. We have record levels of obesity and mental health problems: health and wellbeing are high on our list of priorities within our designs.  Apps have the potential for visitors to experience places outside their own bubble or to increase social interaction. The principles of design still apply regardless of whether it is digital or not; aesthetics, function and durability – based on Vitruvius.

Calvium: Finally, which is your favourite example of a successful digital placemaking experience?

S J-M: It is in a village called Athelstaneford, in East Lothian, Scotland, where they built an amazing sound/light experience in a dovecote; an audio-visual experience. There, you opened a door to trigger a battle story about the history of St Andrew’s flag, the Saltire. It’s simple, enjoyable, charming and informative. Not so much digital, but you could see the potential for how it could be digital. It was significant in terms of offering an experience in a small space about the history of the area without having to read a plaque. Storytelling has been a part of human history for thousands of years. Digital placemaking is another form of storytelling.

Thanks go to Sarah for taking the time to speak to us. Enjoyed this? Why not read our posts on digital placemaking for the arts, or how the Internet of Things is reshaping the placemaking process.