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How Smart is Your Park?Megan Maffeo

Technology is a trend developing in parks and streetscapes across the nation both as a way to attract users and to enhance their experience in a time when we rarely go anywhere without our smart phones.  The same way apps are being used to check into the transit or bus schedule to gauge the next departure, we can begin to think about how to add the next layer of connectivity to our parks and outdoor public spaces. Research shows that in parks with available wi-fi, a 25% increase of new users are visiting that have not visited previously and users are visiting more often. Though parks are thought to be for leisure, the flexibility of connectivity is allowing for lines to be blurred and many users are spending time working on mobile devices in outdoor environments.

Smart infrastructure provides a unique opportunity to support the connectivity that we expect in our everyday environments and can be an attraction for park users. A few ways this is showing up in our public spaces:

  • Charging stations for mobile devices and wi-fi hot spots are being incorporated into the design of benches and in small compact elements that resemble bollards often placed near seating areas.
  • Digital communication kiosks have become a way to combine wayfinding, safety, and connectivity in a single element. LinkNYC in New York City, and IKE in Denver, Colorado, are digital kiosks that offer communication platforms for cities to connect with citizens and visitors about events and activities, transportation and maps, emergency call and safety information, device charging features, and wi-fi hotspots.

A growing wealth of research presenting the health benefits of spending time in nature challenges us to embrace new ways to attract users and make the most of our public outdoor spaces. Outdoor fitness equipment and playgrounds supported by companion technology are designed to connect users into digital resources to guide use of the equipment, encourage users to stay active, and promote exploration and learning.

  • Outdoor fitness equipment, by Kompan, includes QR codes on each piece of equipment providing guidance on the range of exercises appropriate for that piece of equipment. Their companion fitness training App can be activated to allow users to craft location specific personal training routines with video instruction and includes the ability to track progress, arrange training sessions, and interact with other users.
  • Playgrounds that incorporate ‘Intelligent Tiles’ are part of a research study conducted by the University of Southern Denmark which utilizes technology termed augmented cognition; games are initiated when pressure sensitive floor tiles are activated by movement, the speed of the games adjust to the responsiveness and abilities of different children.

Technology is also working to improve efficiency and function in the maintenance of our parks and streetscapes through smart systems and the internet of things.

  • Solar-powered waste compacting bins known as the ‘CleanCube’, by Ecube Labs, are planned for installation spring 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. Using Ecube Labs’ software platform CleanCityNetworks, city staff can monitor when bins are full and need to be emptied, generate analytical reports, receive notifications, and optimize waste collection routes.
  • Smart infrastructure can take shape in site furnishings, for example street lights are being designed to wirelessly transmit environmental data for monitoring noise levels, air quality, or number of park users.

As cities rethink and redevelop underperforming and underutilized spaces, a design approach that integrates technology is the next layer of function for ensuring high performing parks and streetscapes that engage users and improve social, environmental, and economic vitality.

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