In our pursuit for shaping the best open spaces, places and parks, the usual design elements are front of mind - comfort, safety, diversity of experiences, level of avtivity and engagement and more.
And as I continue to interrogate the role and opportunity of digital and data to support best practice urbanism (digital urbanism), I recently encountered two major open space and parkland masterplan's that led me to ask the question:
"if I was the project team's digital urbanist, what design criteria would I have brought to the table?"
Now, I am not going to re-invent best practice open space or playground design, except to add some design crtieria worthy of (strong) consideration.
I have (lightly) scanned the stock of design guidelines on the web (well, the first two pages of a google search only), curious about how digital and data are possibly supporting our open space and parkland experiences, and helping to manage and maintain them. There was not much.
So my thoughts here are not based on any extensive research, but rather review, observation and engagement with industry practitioners and vendors.
Oh, and as a father of two I have had my fair share of 6am Sunday morning playground visits to keep the kids occupied.
But on a more serious front...
...from playground safety standards (such as AS 4685 – 2014 (parts 1-6)) to local government-based park design guidelines (such as those for the City of Gold Coast) and State-based urban design public spaces principles (such as those in Victoria), it is well documented how we should plan, design and maintain open space and parkland areas to best practice standards.
For me, these are the minimum - comply with the appropriate (national/international) standards and relevent guidelines from the authorities.
However, there are also some pretty interesting, more modern parks and playgrounds I have seen over the past few years that I think are the exception and not the norm. And maybe these digital urbanism features should be the norm, just like safety and comfort and other by-design elements.
And before I share my thoughts, I wanted to highlight a resource I did stumble upon from the University of California Los Angeles - SMART Parks: A toolkit - published in 2018 (all 274 pages of it!). It contains a great catalogue of solutions and evaluates them for the effectiveness in promoting (or not promoting) health, wellbeing, resilience and more.
But for me, there are six open space, park and playground design criteria I would now consider as mandatory:
1. Laying down digital connectivity options
Just like core utilities to a place are laid down (think power and water), digital connectivity must now be included, offering place managers and users alike the choice of connecting 'things' to each other - people to people, people to things and things to things. See how the City of Gold Coast, South East Queensland has deployed an IoT network covering 1,300 km2 allowing it to connect sensors to help manage critical assets, such as its open spaces.
And of course publicly accessible WiFi is now a minimum design criteria for parks and open spaces - check out Brisbane's list of parks with this feature here. And yes, the idea of a park is to get our kids out to enjoy nature and the open space, however big kids (like me) love to work from the laptop in the outdoors from time to time.
2. Equipping parks with space use analytics
Space use analytics is emerging as a powerful place management and design tool to understand how our places are being used by measuring and sensing things such as movement and dwell times, which gates are opened (and not closed), which equipment is most popular, which markets at the fair were most popular, and others.
Here, Parkes Shire Council used pedestrian counting to understand the quantum of visitors using their public spaces during their signature festival. And Wyndham City Council in Victoria has advanced an initiative to invest in digital and data to not only create better park user experience, but using the layers of intelligence they glean from sensors to no longer guess what people want, or enjoy, but rather use data to confirm the best park design features, to be embedded in future projects.
This will give the council information on how the parks are being used and how future parks should be designed. Wyndham no longer has to guess what people want. Now they know for certain!
3. Plumbing the space with connected intelligent lighting
Allowing public space illumination to be dynamic to various uses of the space, enhancing both experience (eg. night time sport activities) and safety (eg. automatically illuminating darker areas when pedestrians walk past) is an essential part of shaping multi-use public spaces.
In this example, Moreton Bay Regional Council invested in smart lighting infrastructure that not only offers dynamic lighting of their various open space and precinct-wide street scape, but also using it as 'backbone urban infrastructure' to support a range of sensing services for public place and precinct and park conditions, future telecommunication upgrades and other amenities and services.
4. Ensure living infrastructure and physical asset monitoring
Providing insights about the health of our natural systems within a place, along with other physical assets such as park furniture and other amenities (play equipment, BBQ's etc), is now considered essential. Such insights allow our green, blue and grey assets to be maintained to the highest level of performance.
The innovation that has occurred in recent years around connected sensors - their size (shrinking), their ability to sense multiple conditions (one sensor, multiple insights), their battery life (going up) and their cost (going down) is making these solutions common place.
From automated real-time water quality monitoring, soil moisture testing, urban heat island calculation, rubbish bin levels, BBQ use and multiple other capabilities, asset monitoring has never been the same.
See how the Yellagonga wetlands project in the City's of Joondalup and Wanneroo, Western Australia senses the conditions of its living systems, and in another example the types of conditions the City of Greater Geelong are looking to gather greater insights on.
5. Provide interactive visitor information
Cities are now offering on-demand and real-time information to their citizens about places and their surrounds, retail offerings, tourism opportunities and other important like public transit timetabling. With data-driven infrastructure in the form of digital kiosks, the possibilities are endless in terms of information offered to users.
One of the best examples I have seen recently is the Oaklands Smart Precinct in the City of Marion, South Australia.
6. Provide a virtual representation/connection to and/or within the place
Whether it be a digital model representation of a place for virtual visitors (such as the 'metaverse' - see the 2022 Australian Open), or an augmented experience while in a place (See the Wharf St Basin project in the City of Canning, Western Australia), having the option to 'connect to and with' a place is emerging as an important offering.
Now, this seems like one of those things that could quickly become a money pit for public dollars, or a digital project that sits in cyberspace to die (or both). So good planning and alignment with clear purpose and outcome is essential.
I am yet to be convinced about the metaverse (as a mainstream tool to enhance prosperity, planetary health and/or social advancement), but the Wharf St Basin project clearly has an educational purpose. And this is certainly worthy of scaling.
And with the use of digital and data innovations in the public realm like those discussed above, good data governance and leadership is essential. This includes taking action around critical issues like privacy. And on this front, the work by the City of Darwin in creating the Switching on Darwin Privacy Framework is some of the best I have see.
And so the question for my fellow urbanists, those planning and designing open spaces and playgrounds for our communities, is - "why wouldn't you be embedding these six design criteria in your next project?"