Graduate Thesis

Brief

As urban areas have become populated with residents’ digital devices and smart infrastructure, the way urban residents experience or connect to their neighborhood has changed. By exploring new designs in the urban interaction space, I will examine opportunities in the way residents perceive, participate, and/or critique their neighborhood in this new physical/digital environment.


Scope

Research

Institution

University of Washington,

Digital Placemaking in the Urban Environment:
Creating a Mourning Process for Lost Spaces

As part of my graduate studies, a thesis consisting of three quarters is required at the University of Washington. This page documents my process of finding the perfect problem space, investigating how I might design an intervention in that space, and finally producing that intervention and documenting the reactions.

For the fall quarter, I focused on finding a problem space. I didn't think this would be as challenging as it was because I love making things and I solve problems all the time as a designer. So often designers work with prompts handed down to us by clients or professors that crafting the perfect problem space—when we are free to do whatever we wish—can be daunting. At the end of this quarter I came up with the following design statement:

As urban areas have become populated with residents’ digital devices and smart infrastructure, the way urban residents experience or connect to their neighborhood has changed. By exploring new designs in the urban interaction space, I will examine opportunities in the way residents perceive, participate, and/or critique their neighborhood in this new physical/digital environment.

The winter quarter saw me pushing myself further to find how a design intervention might solve a problem (in this case, in my neighborhood.) With public prototypes that are situated next to construction signs/sites, I sought to find how people felt about the destruction of older homes and the construction of efficiency apartment buildings.

Fall Quarter

How I Arrived Here

I was originally drawn to urban interaction design through the Playable Cities movement. Their vision is that cities use or appropriate the digital infrastructure for creative installations or interactions that unlocks social dialogue in order to bring a city’s residents into the city’s development conversation. According to Anton Niijholt, “A playable city is a city where people, hospitality and openness are key, enabling its residents and visitors to reconfigure and rewrite its services, places and stories.” I was intrigued by the participatory nature that Niijholt described as playable and kept that in mind as I continued to explore the urban interaction design space.
Playable City projects also tended to focus on designing for discovery. Many of their projects were commonplace objects or city scenarios that only revealed their playfulness once you started to interact with them. These methods allowed for placemaking in a more engaging way — they were invitations to re-make what a physical space meant to residents by using digital means. The next phase of my research explored placemaking and the affects the digital world had on the practice.

Placemaking

Placemaking is an approach to designing spaces that focuses on a local community’s assets in order to create public spaces that promote the happiness, economic boost, or well-being of residents who use the space. Digital placemaking uses smart city infrastructure and the growing number of personal cellular devices to optimize placemaking efforts. The nature of digital placemaking is more participatory — residents can give their opinion over the internet or research can be done via forums or comment sections to gain information about the beliefs and feelings of residents of a neighborhood.

The Ways I Explored Placemaking

To see how others were tackling placemaking, I attended Contested Spaces, a mini-conference put on by the American Institute of Architects. One of the goals was how placemaking and other methods in urban planning could help the contested spaces of the city — neighborhoods where changes were happening rapidly and what it meant for the values Seattle held as a city. Community organizers brought their concerns to six groups of architects, students, urban planners, and concerned residents using the human-centered design process. My group developed the persona of Sandi — a grandmother in the Central District raising her two grandchildren. Her worries reflected many of the people in her community and centered around her rapidly changing neighborhood and keeping her home.
Our team’s design board from Contested Spaces.

We eventually settled on the design goal of how to create (or help the public to perceive) value in Sandi as a long-time resident of the Central District. The solution my group decided on was somewhat disappointing to me: Sandi would sell part of her yard to a land-use organization that would build affordable housing onto it. While this could technically work, I now feel it lacked some imagination in the way that value could be created. (In my team’s defense, it had been a long day.) Placemaking is about making space that is valued and that method might also have worked for people inhabiting a valued area. After thinking about this design goal of value creation, it reminded me of the ways individuals might placemake and share their own values.

Guerilla placemaking is a common way that residents might physically alter a site to provoke thought or opinions on current use of a space. These might be unofficial gardens or even pop-up dinner spaces. They are a temporary claim of a space, often for the good of or with the help of the surrounding community.

Diner en Blanc, started in Paris, is a flash-mob dinner experience where people dress in white and bring their own food, tables, seating, and tablecloths. It has since become a worldwide phenomenon.
PARK(ing) Day in Seattle, where residents reimagine what to do with parking spaces.
Another way to think about this was through something I found in Lyn Lofland’s “Public Realms.” In it, she describes that the three social realms (public, parochial, and private) are not based on the spaces we inhabit but rather the relationships we have to people in those spaces. With mobile phones, people are able to appropriate public space to create any social realm they wish. People no longer rely on what their relationship is to the other people in the space to determine how they will use it. While this can be extremely annoying to those of us who prefer not to hear breakups via Facetime while we are out, it does present an interesting way to possibly manipulate the use of space.

There are ways that we already placemake through digital means. One of these ways is by building up, submitting, or participating in digital representations of our physical world. For example, residents of Capitol Hill let their opinions about projects be known on the Capitol Hill blog and post pictures to the blog’s Flickr account, building on residents’ knowledge of the ways their neighborhood exists. Another way we do this is through review sites like Yelp. This can lead to an impact on the physical world (such as a business shuttering) if the place does not live up to community values.

After participating in this conference and thinking about the ways individuals might placemake, I knew I was interested in the non-formal ways people manipulate their space or how the non-formal manipulations became accepted formally. I was still interested in how this digital layer came into play, but I also knew I wanted to focus on the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle and was curious to see what people gravitated towards in the physical space within that neighborhood.


Walk and Talks

Walk and Talks are a method developed by Stals, et. al that required researchers go on walks led by participants. They would be recorded and were given an emotional wheel to help describe how a space made them feel. I attempted to use a similar emotional wheel but abandoned it when it proved unhelpful. I instead asked participants to sketch a cognitive map of the route they took me on and the places we talked about. These walks lasted from fifteen minutes to over an hour long and were either wandering walks or routes that participants chose to take on their way to work.
Cognitive Maps

One trend in the walks was that people paid attention to the ways that others were manipulating public space. This was in the form of decorating lamp posts, yarn bombing, or more interestingly stickering. The stickers were often in places that flyers were not seen and had messages that connected to bigger ideas or movements that could be found on the internet. I found that this was a form of public authoring, or the alteration of the physical environment to call attention to a greater movement or idea that exist in the digital space (Angus, et. al, 2018). This is particularly interesting in the case of yarn bombing, which is a movement that is well documented online that focuses on re-appropriating traditional masculine urban spaces as more feminine (Mann, 2015).
Stickerland
Yarn Bombing
Another was that the knowledge you bring to your neighborhood helps you recognize and appreciate obscure things about it. Sharing this with others grows that appreciation and creates a richer neighborhood space. For instance, one participant has knowledge of many plant species and pointed out the California Buckeye plant out to me. He told me how native people would use the neurotoxic qualities of the Buckeye nut to stun fish. This is an important part of the way this participant chooses what route to take (he likes to walk by a street with an abundance of plants) but it is now part of the way I think of that particular street. This sharing of knowledge reminded me of the Capitol Hill Blog’s Flickr account where people post photos of the things they notice or value in this neighborhood. This sharing builds up a collective knowledge of what the neighborhood looks and feels like.
Capitol Hill Blog Flickr page and main page

Finally, choosing a route based on a desire to check up on a favorite spot was mentioned frequently. This could be a favorite courtyard, a construction site, or even a street with lots of overgrowth. These sites rarely change, but there is a motivation to see if the places are still as they remember them. Analyzing these actions made me think of the augmented reality game Pokemon Go, where there was similar motivation to walk around favorite spots to see what new Pokemon could be found. In that case, there was more of a chance that the spot saw change in the digital world than not which created depth to the space and the experience of visiting.

Insights and Design Opportunities

One insight was that digital placemaking through individuals can create a feedback loop that has an effect on the physical world. One of the ways that the loop regenerates itself is with public authoring. The feedback loop is only the first step — participation is the next. One of the questions I am researching is if design can have a role in helping residents take the digital placemaking they already take part in and become active participants in their neighborhood.
Vanishing Seattle graffiti and the @vanishingseattle instagram page, where changing neighborhoods are documented.

One design opportunity is that the digital layer that corresponds to much of our physical world can create more intricacy in how spaces are used over time. I saw this with Pokemon Go in the summer of 2016 — parks exploded in use, especially as the sun went down. Public spaces must be used by many different types of people through many time periods throughout the day in order to be successful. Adding intricacy with the digital layer could prove effective.

A second design opportunity is harnessing that intricacy to spur participation. One project I came across in the Capitol Hill neighborhood was invigorating the Neighbour’s Alley (located between Pike and Pine streets.) As part of the project, residents were asked to take part in meetings or online surveys to give their opinion on how the revitalized alley should look. What if this kind of city-making took a page out of the Playable Cities handbook and made this process more playful or discovery-oriented?

Neighbour's Alley in Capitol Hill
Finally, there could be an opportunity in creating a platform for discourse or location-based information about neighborhood changes. What if the construction notice signs that called for public comments were gateways to the actual public commentary? Currently, the comments are not easily accessible or the only way to display them publicly is through graffitiing the sign.

I look forward to investigating these design opportunities more as I move into the next phase of my thesis work and continue to explore the impacts of urban interaction design.

Sources.

Nijholt, Anton. (2015). Designing Humor for Playable Cities. Procedia Manufacturing. 3. 10.1016/j.promfg.2015.07.358.

Lofland, Lyn. (1998). “The Public Realm: Exploring the City’s Quintessential Social Territory.” Aldine de Gruyter, New York, p. 10–22.

Stals, Shenando & Smyth, Michael & Ijsselsteijn, Wijnand. (2014). Walking & Talking: Probing the Urban Lived Experience Mobile. Proceedings of the NordiCHI 2014: The 8th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction: Fun, Fast, Foundational. 10.1145/2639189.2641215.

Angus, Alice & Martin, Karen & Papadogkonas, Dikaios & Papamarkos, George & Roussos, George & Thelwall, Sarah & Sujon, Zoetanya & West, Nick. (2018). Urban Tapestries: Exploring Public Authoring in the City.

Mann, Joanna. (2015). Towards a politics of whimsy: Yarn bombing the city. Area. 47. 10.1111/area.12164.

Winter Quarter

How I Arrived Here

I have always vaguely known my how: I wanted to create a playful digital interaction for the urban environment that allowed residents to perceive, participate, and/or critique their neighborhood with the digital devices available to them. In the previous quarter, I explored how placemaking is an important approach to designing public spaces that focus on a local community’s assets that promote happiness, economic boost, or the well-being of residents who use the space. Digital placemaking uses these same principles, but allows the digital space to affect the physical space. Here is one example that has continued to inspire me:
Shadowing by Chomko and Rosier, 2014.
The methods used in here allow for placemaking in a more engaging way — they are invitations to re-make what a physical space mean to residents by using digital means. I knew that I wanted to focus on my own neighborhood of Capitol Hill in Seattle, but I wasn’t sure who my audience was or what their motivations were. I borrowed a framework from my experience at a mini-conference called Contested Spaces that I used to figure this out.

Placemaking

Placemaking is an approach to designing spaces that focuses on a local community’s assets in order to create public spaces that promote the happiness, economic boost, or well-being of residents who use the space. Digital placemaking uses smart city infrastructure and the growing number of personal cellular devices to optimize placemaking efforts. The nature of digital placemaking is more participatory — residents can give their opinion over the internet or research can be done via forums or comment sections to gain information about the beliefs and feelings of residents of a neighborhood.
Sticky notes filled with crazy ideas.
This gave me the feeling of moving forward, but the truth was that this was yet another dance around the issue: I still had no “why” in my thesis.

Observations

I went back to the sketches from the Autumn that I had made when I first started to observe my neighborhood. They feature spaces that are touch points where people interact with each other, but I noticed one in particular that I had made from my apartment balcony. It was an interesting building that was going to be torn down for a hotel space and I had decided to document it before it was gone.
From top left, clockwise: Thomas Street Mini Park, Summit Slope Park, Summit Ave Bar, and Feathered Friends Building in South Lake Union

Looking at my more of my research from the Autumn quarter, I saw that a lot of the public authoring I had documented featured writing or graffiti on construction notices next to older buildings. I started to walk around my neighborhood and sketch these buildings that had construction notices as a way to document them before they were destroyed. The longer I drew them, the more sad I became. I realized that there was nothing I could really do to help these buildings — their comment period had long since passed. I continued my documentation and shared my drawings and thoughts with others.

Buildings that have construction notices in front of them in the lower (and north) Capitol Hill neighborhood.

While I knew I had zeroed in on what my why in this these project was, people were continuing to ask me why. Why do I care? What makes these changes happening now more special? Perhaps it was because in my native Texas, if a building had made it a hundred years you kept it around to honor it for its sheer tenacity to stand up to the unpredictable elements. I realize that other places are not so precious with their older buildings. It wasn’t until a friend sent me an article called “Death to Minimalism” that let me articulate this to others. The article describes why the pattern language that new urban builds have taken up is so off-putting. It lacks “soul” or an indescribable quality that makes it feel right. The author introduces this “quality without a name” as a concept from Christopher Alexander’s “Timeless Way of Building.”

As do many of our modern buildings, these new cubes in the neighborhood lack ornamentation and in some cases, a sense of craft. Craft is subjective and can apply to lots of qualities in the built environment: it can call on ornamentation, building materials, design that pays attention to its specific environment, or even a monumental shape that tells a greater story of what goes on inside the building (this type of design has been praised heavily in the last few decades (think Frank Gehry) but it doesn’t work so well when applied to residential housing). Ornamentation can be anything from a brick pattern to gargoyles that inhabit the corners of taller pre-war buildings. There are a lot of reasons why ornament was declared a crime but the primary sentiment was that the ornamentation of the built environment was part of another era. (And in some cities who were re-building themselves after WWII, a reminder of what had been and what they didn’t want to emulate.) Smooth, streamlined, a machine for living, etc. (although that last one was rooted in ideas post WWI and really gained steam after WWII) were all descriptors for how this new society saw itself and how they wanted their built environment to look. They got really carried away, which is why things like the original Penn Station were destroyed to make way for other pattern-languages…
Penn Station in New York City, before and after 1963—one is light filled and full of ornament, one is...not.


But as many studies show, we crave complexity. It’s one reason why we love nature so much: the complexity in nature can be seen from far away or as you zoom in. Our brains love it. For our brains, the opposite of complexity is death. The author of Death to Minimalism then quotes a manifesto that was opposed to the way Adolf Loos and his colleagues saw the world (their rallying cry was “Brevity is a Crime.”)

"Wilderness, ornament — they cannot justify themselves economically, therefore they are to die. To resist, we must praise the useless, the inefficient, the unnecessary, the magically elaborate, the circuitous route and the impractical solution. Let there be mazes, overgrowth, prolixity. Life is a fractal, not a line."

Which is why when boxes are replacing complexity, the whole neighborhood — or anyone who likes to take a walk and get a refresh from their day — suffers. By saying this is the accepted norm, we promote a pattern language that does nothing for humans, but everything for the developers who want to make a profit by putting up ugly shit and asking people to pay over $1,000 a month to live in a 150–300 square foot box. I wanted to know if others felt the same, so I set out my first prototype.

Postcards

Walk and Talks are a method developed by Stals, et. al that required researchers go on walks led by participants. They would be recorded and were given an emotional wheel to help describe how a space made them feel. I attempted to use a similar emotional wheel but abandoned it when it proved unhelpful. I instead asked participants to sketch a cognitive map of the route they took me on and the places we talked about. These walks lasted from fifteen minutes to over an hour long and were either wandering walks or routes that participants chose to take on their way to work.
Postcards and the method with which I posted them to the sign.

I took the sketches I had made and put them on postcards. I made a colorful sign complimenting whatever graffiti was currently most visible on the construction sign and stapled them there with some pencils. I got a few responses back (there was a record snow that week, so I can imagine a lot of people weren’t out and about). I am hoping to expand upon this first idea and make another way to capture this. I’m in the process of making a prototype that overlays a funeral notice on top of a camera stream. People would have the opportunity to document details and upload them to a google drive file.

More of the Mourning Process

I soon realized that I was only addressing one part of the mourning process of these older buildings: the intervention needed to span to the remembrance and reflection portion of the the whole process. I came to this conclusion after seeing a construction site in my neighborhood. I couldn’t remember what had been there before, so I had to use Google Streets in order to create a sketch of the former house.
Past, Present, and Future
Again, I wondered if other people felt the same, so I created a webpage that allowed people to “time travel” between what was on the site and what will be on the site. I put up a poster to lead people to the site and invited them to fill out a form after.

Moving Forward

As I presented this to students and faculty, there were several issues that came to light. The first was including people that would eventually live in these boxy buildings as stakeholders. It’s not their fault that these older buildings are destroyed, so I want to explore walking the line between the dark humor my animations create and remembering what was there before in a respectful way to these residents. Out of that issue came another: I still haven’t fully defined my audience. Over the break I plan on defining this better, completing my final prototype, and drawing up plans for what my final project will look like.