Digital Book of Landscapes


The Digital Landscape - the future of our streets and public spaces

Ben Ferguson (CMLI MA BA)
Chartered Landscape Architect, Atkins

Throughout 2018 and 2019, all of the UK’s National Trust properties attracted a combined 27 million visitors1. Meanwhile, in just a single month of 2019, Fortnite recorded 250 million users2 and Minecraft 91 million3.

Many of us already use digital tools on a daily basis when interacting with our everyday cities and spaces; what time is the next bus? Which tube line do I need to get next? How much traffic is there on my commute? What’s the weather today? What time does Greggs shut?

These digital interactions are very much viewed through a digital interpretation of our world, presented back to us through maps and graphics rather than via a direct interaction with the physical world in which we live.

At the same time there are millions of us who, on a regular basis, interact with entirely digital worlds, through computer games in which we can interact with our surroundings in extraordinary ways, and forge identities and relationships with the digital spaces and the characters we create or find within them. Young people, in particular, are far more likely to be deeply familiar with the island from Fortnite, or a landscape of their own creation within Minecraft, than they are with their local park or nearest woodland. As testament to this; throughout 2018 and 2019, all of the UK’s National Trust properties attracted a combined 27 million visitors . Meanwhile, in just a single month of 2019, Fortnite recorded 250 million users and Minecraft 91 million . So if we are to engage young people more fully with the outside world, could that be encouraged via digital technology to merge the two worlds?

Many app developers, technology companies and designers are exploring ways in which we can bridge that gap between the digital world and the physical one in a variety of different ways and it seems to be ever more pressing for designers of the physical world to be engaged with the digital potentials.

There are two contrasting ways in which we in can explore this connection:

  • Responsive Streets that utilise digital technology to react to physical needs, and
  • Digital Engagement that helps us to reveal, reimagine and reengage with our physical world

Responsive Streets

Figure 1: Unhindered

‘Unhindered’, is a concept Atkins, Member of the SNC-Lavalin group created for Croydon’s i-Street competition, addresses this first approach and is about how we can use technology to create high streets fit for the future. It uses technology to not only create responsive designs, but to understand the specific human needs those designs are responding to. Using infrastructure that collects data on passenger movements, it imagines a high street that can predict when someone wants to sit on a bench, rising it up from pavement-level. It analyses bike movements, responding to their need for somewhere to park it when entering a shop. Pavements will automatically widen to accommodate more pedestrians, while LED crossings will appear during peak foot-traffic.

These may seem futuristic ideas still beyond our grasp but the focus here is very human around making high streets that respond to people’s needs by creating infrastructure with insight in mind, to see how we can build cities which are ready to respond to the needs of the future.

Others are also investigating this issue. In 2015, Ross Atkins partnered with Marshalls to create a range of prototype street furniture items, which utilised digital technology to help make streets more accessible for those with particular needs4. The design team worked alongside disabled individuals to develop street furniture items that would recognise people via a wireless ID provided by their smartphone or key fob and react accordingly. Products focused on helping those with either partial or no sight and included street lights which would become brighter as users walked down the street, street signs that would illuminate themselves to provide better levels of contrast, and smart bollards which would provide audio information such as which shops or local landmarks are nearby. Other prototypes included items aimed to help those who found it difficult to walk, such as pop out seats and pedestrian crossings that could provide users with more time to cross the road.

As with many aspects of landscape design it is vital that when designing responsive streets that we consider people and put their individual needs at the heart of what we do. Embedding digital technology into our streets and spaces is an exciting way that we can help us to address a variety of requirements whilst giving new possibilities for flexibility and adaptation.

Digital Engagement

Figure 2: Key to the City visual for Paternoster Square

‘Key to the City’ was Atkins’ winning entry for the Smart Green Spaces competition in 2017. The idea was a strategic vision that aimed to establish, analyse and utilise hidden, digital and physical layers throughout the network of green spaces that exist within the City of London. By unlocking new layers of the city; through Augmented Reality (AR) applications and the integration of smart objects, we aimed to improve levels of interaction, understanding, appreciation and physical participation within the City’s green spaces. In-turn, this would provide the City with opportunities to develop data driven interventions, expanding the influence of green infrastructure, integrated technology, community participation and sustainable development.

The element of augmented reality as a way of digital engagement with urban green spaces was something which particularly excited the judges and is proving to be a popular subject for other clients that we have worked with since then. The technology for this level of engagement is already possible.

The hugely successful uptake of Pokémon Go (launched 2016) was a pertinent milestone for integration of AR and the ‘gamification’ of the urban realm. Despite some negative press relating to trespassing or injuries relating to people being distracted by the app, research has shown some inspiring positives by encouraging (particularly young) people to walk more, exploring their outside environment, and helping to reduce levels of anxieties related to the outside world for some suffers of autism5.

Figure 3: Key to the City visual for St Dunstan in the East Church Gardens

It is easy to dismiss AR games such as this as frivolous, but they present an exciting new way for people to engage with the outside world, and as designers of these physical realms we should be putting ourselves at the forefront of this emerging technology. This was the philosophy in which we adopted when developing Key to the City – location specific content which enables users to explore new and old physical spaces and gives them a level of spatial experience which would be unachievable through other means.

Often within our landscape projects, we are asked to convey the history or unique qualities of an area. The danger is that this can too easily be converted into sterile info boards or some abstract planting design. However, augmented reality apps give us an opportunity to provide clients with a strategy which can engage the public in a whole new, direct and meaningful way – ensuring people are better informed about the spaces that they are in and increasing levels of appreciation for their environment.

Figure 4: Eric Morecambe comes to life

An AR app could be offered to future clients as part of a suite of deliverables for projects bids, or it could be a offered to clients to retro-fit AR experiences into existing landscapes, such as former Atkins projects. For example, our multi award-winning project; Morecambe Promenade, could be revisited through a customised app, giving people the opportunity to learn about the local history referenced within the flood wall design.

In summary:

Ever-increasing developments in technology are not only expanding the realms of what is possible within our streets and spaces, but they are also expanding the range of experiences that we can offer to both members of the public and our clients. The expectation of digital interaction with our physical world is increasing by the day, and by using our unique position as designers we can help to facilitate that desire by making places and spaces that are more engaging, more exciting, more inclusive and give people a better appreciation for their surroundings.