Are smarter parks also more attractive?

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It would seem so, according to 96% of people we surveyed recently who said providing smart technology in a park would make them more likely to visit.

Text and image by Ieuan Hook, Graduate Urban Designer

People are more likely to visit parks, and for longer, in smart’ cities that incorporate innovative technology into their public spaces.

Parks are important elements of cities –the life between buildings and the cornerstones of any urban area. But as cities become smarter’ – based on ICT devices, the Internet of Things (IoT) and the creation of big data – it’s unclear how the city and urban design can exist together, and whether technology-enabled parks will continue to be social hubs.

These considerations formed the basis of a redesign approach for a dilapidated park in Perth, Western Australia. Taking the results of local and international case studies, Russell Square can be transformed from a place impacted by crime and antisocial behaviour into an attractive new community precinct.

Victoria Embankment Gardens Energy Generating Exercise Equipment, London, UK. Photo: Ieuan Hook

THE CASE STUDIES

London, UK, is considered the world’s smartest city, with more start-ups and programmers than almost any other city in the world. Its open data platform is used by more than 50,000 individuals, companies, researchers and developers every month. By comparison, Perth, Western Australia, is an embryonic smart city with plenty of parks, space and sunshine. 

We spent a year auditing parks, conducting a community survey, expert interviews and an online workshop and benchmarking the data for both London and Perth. London’s parks were found to incorporate a larger and a wider range of smart technology compared to Perth. From the 225-hectare Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (which hosted the 2012 Olympic Games), to small inner-city parks like Victoria Embankment Gardens, smart technology integrations included: 

  • Energy generating paving
  • Energy generating exercise equipment
  • Microclimate sensors
  • Electric vehicle charging stations 
  • Autonomous vehicles
  • Smart benches
  • Solar self-powering parking meters
  • Air quality and animal/​mammal sensors
  • Solar powered smart bins
  • Smart lighting (wind turbine and solar)
  • Online interactive park mapping
  • IoT bike stations 
  • Augmented reality (AR)
  • Wi-Fi and other networks

Perth, on the other hand, had a limited level of smart technology integration (primarily smart benches and Wi-Fi) but park users were keen on the idea of possible technology integrations. While privacy was a concern, people surveyed were more favourable about technology integration if the risks were mitigated through data encryption and the enforcement of strong policies about data usage and interpretation. 

The responses were overwhelmingly in favour of smart parks, with 96% of people stating that smart technology would mean they were more likely to visit a park. Furthermore, 91% of these people said they would spend more time in park areas, with 43% believing they would spend at least half an hour more than they usually would.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park Autonomous Vehicles, East London, UK. Photo: Ieuan Hook

HOW SMART SHOULDSMART PARK BE?

People in Perth believed that smart technology would enhance a park’s sustainability and stimulate economic activity. People also perceived that smart technology should be incorporated throughout the entirety of a park, instead of just smaller sections. This preferred approach is consistent with the development of other smart parks across the globe. 

Integrating technology into parks not only increases visitation, it can also impact rents and housing prices for the areas around the park. After Manhattan’s Bryant Park was completely overhauled in the 1980s, it became a major drawcard for both tourists and local residents with 20,000 visitors a day. Interestingly, rent prices for commercial/​office spaces rose between 115% and 225% and residential real estate prices in the vicinity increased by up to 150%. 

Massachusetts-based smart city research company, Soofa, estimates parks in the US generate $21.21 in revenue per capita with a total value of $132.7 billion. As innovative measures and advances in technology progress, they speculate that turning to technology and new uses for parks will be even more important, especially in terms of infrastructure needs and cost-saving measures. 

Russell Square visualisation. Credit: Ieuan Hook

BRINGING THE RESULTS TO RUSSELL SQUARE

For Russell Square, people favoured physically interactive technologies and those that increased the sustainability of a park, like energy generating paving and exercise equipment, smart lighting along smart bins, benches and water fountains. People believed that smart technology in parks would lead to better social connections and could even encourage spontaneous catch-ups. 

Technology could also open up the world of indigenous storytelling and add to the importance of place. Using augmented reality (AR) technology, users can raise their phone to a cultural place, artwork or object to hear stories from the traditional custodians of the land. 

Importantly for the people living near Russell Square, smart parks were seen to mitigate site based issues like crime and antisocial behaviour. By encouraging more community activity in the park, people were inclined to feel safer. 

Far from distracting park-goers from socialising or turning people inwards, technology can potentially bring more people to parks and increase how long they spend there. By applying the key findings into a conceptual redesign of Russell Square, including the smart technologies the community told us they preferred, we’ve created a new form of park space – one that is more interconnected, real-time responsive and allows for more dynamic social interaction.

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