How Tech-Driven Urban Design Is Helping Cities Reimagine Public Spaces

By Stephanie Walden, Contributor

Within the next three decades, the United Nations predicts that the world’s number of city dwellers will balloon to more than 6.5 billion people and encompass 68 percent of the global population. At the same time, urban environments—particularly those in coastal areas like New York City—are likely to undergo additional strain from increasingly extreme and frequent climate events.

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Behind the scenes, city planners and designers are working diligently to prepare urban landscapes for these impending stressors. The efforts require mass-scale collaboration, as well as an eye for artistry. In the context of designing for functionality, sustainability, and climate crisis preparedness, the aesthetic element may seem like an afterthought, but it’s actually a critical part of the equation. Studies show that beautification projects in urban areas not only help strengthen community bonds, but may also improve residents’ quality of life.

Public spaces—parks, plazas, and even simple street intersections—are canvases upon which future-minded designers collaborate with technologists to transform urban landscapes.

A number of entities spanning the engineering, architecture, technology, and design sectors are coming up with innovative ways to make cities more livable, as well as bolstering infrastructure to meet projected levels of urbanization.

“When you apply the term ‘landscape architecture’ the way we do holistically, taking on the social, cultural, economic, and environmental sustainability issues, it’s a very broad-reaching endeavor,” says Tom Balsley, founder and principal designer of Thomas Balsley Associates, which merged with SWA, the largest landscape architecture firm in the United States, three years ago. “Each individual discipline cannot do it [alone]. We have to come together.”

The Canvas From the Artist’s Perspective

While urban design encompasses a huge range of sub-disciplines and engineering considerations, Balsley notes that from his perspective, it’s also an art from. Public spaces—parks, plazas, and even simple street intersections—are canvases upon which future-minded designers collaborate with technologists to transform urban landscapes.

“Of course, landscape architecture and urban landscape architecture is an art form,” Balsley says. “And then, it crosses over into the architectural-technological [aspect], and oftentimes embraces certain elements of technology that we can employ to make people’s lives more intimate and more connected in the social spaces that they occupy.”

In some projects, for instance, heat-tracking technology and algorithms monitor the “performance” of a space. Sensors track occupancy metrics like the amount of time someone spends somewhere, turnover rates, if they’re alone or traveling with companions, and other measurements of how people move through public spaces. “That information comes back and tells us how a particular space is working or not working, and what we might be able to do as designers to make it better,” says Balsley.

One of the most important considerations his firm takes into account, explains Balsley, is human-centric design. “What people are most interested in is other people,” he says. “We designers really have to push our egos aside and consider that, honestly, the most exciting thing out here is someone walking down that sidewalk.”

“It’s a new paradigm for landscape, resiliency, and landscape engineering—and also a model for the collaborative planning and design approach that is needed to address these urgent issues of climate change.”

—Thomas Balsley, founder and principal designer of Thomas Balsley Associates, on the Hunter’s Point South project

Balsley’s firm has also had a hand in several high-profile projects aimed at making cities more resilient in the face of global warming. SWA/Balsley and another landscape, architecture, infrastructure, and design practice, Weiss/Manfredi, are behind a recent project making waves in New York City’s backyard: Hunter’s Point South, a 30-acre park adjacent to Long Island City. The recently completed project repurposes abandoned industrial land. It is specially designed to accommodate and deflect rising floodwaters associated with climate change.

The effort brought together designers, engineers, and landscape architects to construct a protective causeway and other design features that absorb and divert shifting tidal waters from the bordering East River. The park is also an aesthetic dream. It includes a playground, exercise terrace, outdoor dining, and more.

Balsley calls the park an “extraordinary project.” “It’s a new paradigm for landscape, resiliency, and landscape engineering—and also a model for the collaborative planning and design approach that is needed to address these urgent issues of climate change,” he says. Upcoming international projects for the firm include a new, green central park in the Netherlands that will be a part of Rotterdam’s greening and resiliency initiative.

A Technologist’s Playground

“Urban design isn’t just for design professions; it’s not just an architecture and engineering question. There are so many different ways for technologists to get involved,” says Alexander Shermansong, an urban innovation consultant and professor of public policy and technology at New York University (NYU).

“City governments have invested so much in the data systems they have and their ability to partner with so many different players that we couldn’t have imagined engaging more than 10 years ago.”

—Alexander Shermansong, urban innovation consultant and NYU professor

Shermansong liaises with mayors and city governments, bringing in startups and private sector partnerships to create collaborative blueprints for urban innovation projects. In the past decade or so, Shermansong says, society has come to view cities as the “global engines of economic growth,” attracting unprecedented levels of attention and investment in emerging technologies. Data is the backbone of many of these endeavors. “City governments have invested so much in the data systems they have and their ability to partner with so many different players that we couldn’t have imagined engaging more than 10 years ago,” he says.

Shermansong has also witnessed the field become exceptionally interdisciplinary from an academic perspective. At NYU, the city innovation focus is stretched across multiple schools, from engineering and public policy to the arts and entrepreneurial institutes. The programs attract students from around the world.

“Cities everywhere face a lot of the same issues in terms of dealing with the effects of climate change, inequality and inclusion, providing basic services like policing or filling potholes—but the way we do it varies tremendously based on the culture that we come from,” he says. Students from Europe bring a more social welfare approach to the table; those from the U.S. tend to be more rooted in a private-sector perspective.

Shermansong is enthusiastic about the monumental things happening in urban innovation today. He cites recent programs like the NYCx Climate Action Challenge, a joint effort among the mayor’s office, NYC’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services, and NYC’s Department of Transportation. Last year’s the “NYCx Moonshot” competition asked tech companies to submit solutions for scaling electric vehicle charging infrastructure in bustling urban environments. The 2018 winner of the challenge, a German electric mobility company called Ubitricity, devised a solution that encompasses both the technology element and the artistry of streetscape design: a smart cable that allows cities to retrofit existing lampposts and turn them into charging stations.

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“This team is a bunch of engineers, but their solution when it gets to scale is going to have a huge impact on [aesthetics] as you walk down the street,” notes Shermansong. “Instead of the bulky chargers that you see in long-term parking lots, you’re going to see a lamppost.”

Another organization called Movers and Shakers NYC has an equally impactful but more poignant vision for altering existing streetscapes. The nonprofit is developing an augmented reality experience that addresses diversity disparity in public monuments.

“Most public monuments are statues of white men,” says Shermansong. “Where women are depicted, they’re usually more like civic virtue or concepts—not actually specific women. And almost never people of color.” Movers and Shakers aims to tell the larger story of the events and individuals that public monuments commemorate—by including the perspective of communities that have long been marginalized. The company’s AR Monuments tours create a catalog of augmented monuments that tourists can view using a smartphone app—users may visit Columbus Circle, for instance, and see a projected image of a famous person of color or Native American instead of Columbus. “This way, you get to see the many other voices that are a part of American history,” says Shermansong.

Shermansong cites another organization he’s worked with called The International Nighttime Design Initiative, a team that aims to help innovators understand and adapt cities to life after dark. “When we think about urban design, we tend to default to daytime,” Shermansong says. But designing for night goes beyond smart LED lights. Nighttime Design, for instance, takes into account factors such as safety and security, and how designing cities around a 24-hour society could stimulate economic growth, improve public health, and promote social interactions. It’s a fitting metaphor for illuminating new perspectives while championing innovation.

It’s also an approach that reiterates Balsley’s focus on human-centric design—creating spaces to accommodate the ways in which people actually move through the world, rooted in data.

Balsley believes it’s not just high-profile parks like Hunter’s Point South that can have a major impact on cities’ livability—even small street corners matter. “We’re strong believers that those little spaces have a way of really touching people’s daily lives in ways that the larger destinations can’t,” he says.

Even seemingly insignificant public spaces serve as cross-sections of society—a stage for “street theatre” and a platform for the exchange of ideas. “We believe that shared spaces build social connections and tolerance,” Balsley says. “Our public spaces are really society’s truest form of democracy. It’s really hard to find any place in our society right now that levels the playing field to that extent.”