DIGITAL MASTERPLANNING: A NEW DISCIPLINE?
In cities, technology platforms like Airbnb, Uber and JustEat are changing land use and mobility systems and making new services possible, even while they reshape labour markets and industries. City governments are using digital technology and data to address congestion, upgrade lighting, save energy and empower communities. Citizens rely on their smartphones to navigate, pay for transport, access entertainment, shop and generally reduce friction in their urban lives.
This presents an opportunity for architects and urban designers to incorporate digital services into our urban places. But how should they consider digital technology when masterplanning city projects? Unlike other city systems (e.g. transport) the land take or space required for telecommunications equipment is small and therefore has been overlooked in masterplanning.
But yet at a city scale, the use of technology has had very real impacts on how space is organised, configured and used. For example, the impacts of online shopping include changes of use on the high street, increased need for logistics parks, as well as increased traffic from deliveries. In the UK, the retail stalwart Marks & Spencer has closed one hundred shops across the country, in response to their decreasing need for physical space-- 33% of their clothing is now sold online. As Marks & Spencer is typically an anchor for local high streets, this is leading to further challenges for town centres. How can planners and urban designers facilitate citizens’ desire for convenience into new models of retail, with supporting infrastructure (logistics) as well as new models for town centres?
Another example is the growing trend for more food delivery. Some restaurant chains are now making decisions on where to locate based on how easy it is for the delivery vehicles to reach them. Pedestrianised town centres are no longer attractive. Like retail, restaurants will need to raise their game to offer better experiences and better surroundings—otherwise they’re competing with people’s homes (although this will have different impacts in different places— interesting links to housing stock!). The chain restaurants will probably be most affected in terms of different spatial layouts. The logical extension of this for chain restaurants in particular is that they open standalone kitchens in places with lower rental costs and good access to logistics.
As online and physical spaces converge, the impacts on cities will continue. On a more granular level, there will be more technology in the public realm as more IoT and smart cities solutions get rolled out in our cities. Our city plans will need to accommodate these spatially, but also at a technology systems, data and policy level (privacy and security frameworks).
The use of digital technology has altered our experience of places, from finding our way around to accessing food. There is more technology in the public realm. New expertise is needed. We need experience design which takes account of people, how they move and live in space, and technology to better deliver experiences to people. We should be taking new considerations into account in designing city spaces—technical, project governance, spatial, ethical.
We believe that there is a need for a new role of the digital masterplanner within the masterplanning team, working with planners, architects and urban designers to work through the possibilities for space from good use of technology, working for and with people.