Green Team Part 20: Outdoors in the Digital World

How technology as infrastructure is changing the urban realm

Looking to the future when designing public spaces, we’re constantly thinking about our growing engagement with the digital. Yet in these times of great changes, we also look at how previous generations responded to their own challenges. Thirty-plus years ago, urbanist William H. Whyte’s seminal book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, proved that successful public spaces rely on trees, water, art, seating, light—the more of these, the better. He came to these conclusions simply by watching what people do in public spaces, seeing how they interact with their surroundings. Today, we are doing the same thing, but now, we’re thinking about technology and its influence all around us, including our work as landscape designers. In a time of social networking, 4G connections, and Wi-Fi networks, we ask ourselves: How can we keep public spaces relevant?

This is the first in a series of posts that will explore technology as it relates to the evolution of landscape within the built (and unbuilt) environment. Here, we examine our subject in relation to infrastructure and built components in our urban spaces. Subsequent posts will take a look at the various tracks in which technology has influenced our profession–as a design tool to convey ideas realistically and efficiently; and as a medium for enhanced experience through information access in natural spaces.

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Are we driven to distraction with our mobile devices?

Courtesy EV Grieve

The interface of landscape and digital technology

When we hear the words, “digital technology” in the context of landscapes, we immediately think of the physical infrastructure related to our mobile devices—“plug-hub” charging stations, outlets in seat walls, and free Wi-Fi. In fact, we already see these physical alterations to the urban landscape, a visible nod to this shift in our culture; this makes us ask: Are we driven to distraction with our iPhones, iPads, and iPods? Or can the capabilities of these devices be used to create a more flexible, adaptive, and experiential use of public spaces?

With constant connection to people and information, digital culture integrated into public spaces has become second nature. So much so that if Whyte were making his urban space study today, he might even include digital technology infrastructure in his recommendations. We think that he would admit, observing today’s street life, that mobile devices have improved communication by and large, as well as the way people communicate with each other.


Mobile charging stations and seats with convenience outlets dotted throughout New York’s Madison Square Park.

Courtesy Signe Nielsen

Infrastructure in action

One of the places where design for the digital world can be observed today is at Newport Green, a 4.25-acre urban park we designed in Jersey City, New Jersey. Taking inspiration from other successful public spaces, we observed what people were doing within the space and what encouraged extended stays. Here’s what our own Whyte-inspired study told us: flexible spaces with adequate amounts of shade, generously proportioned seats, tables for resting equipment, and—a new design element—Wi-Fi hotspots. We embedded these provisions into the park’s design in an effort to bring the indoors out, creating a public space in which visitors can work or play, connecting with nature while also connecting to the Cloud. Since it opened, the park has been so well used that solar convenience outlets have been retroactively placed throughout, encouraging users to linger just a bit longer.

Public spaces, such as Newport Green, have become more flexible, allowing a range of experiences from connecting to nature to connecting to the internet.

Courtesy Signe Nielsen 

Physical (and digital) placemaking

In our next post, we will flip our perspective and focus on how our natural spaces have responded to the increased use of digital technology. In the process, we’re asking, are we losing touch with human connections as mobile technology permeates our landscape and natural spaces? Or can digital technology be a tool for enhanced experience through access to information?


If landscape architects truly “design for the people,” how can we build public spaces that create a more meaningful experience for all generations and physical abilities through the use of digital technology?

What do you think? We invite you to join in on this discussion. Please share your ideas here or connect with me on Twitter @LisaDuRussel.



Lisa DuRussel, RLA, ASLA, LEED AP is a Midwestern transplant, avid coffee drinker, soils enthusiast, and practicing landscape architect in New York City. Since receiving her BS and MLA from the University of Michigan, she has worked on numerous urban revitalization and cultural landscape projects in the New York and Chicago areas, including the Governors Island Park and Public Space project. Connect with her on Twitter @LisaDuRussel.

This is one in a series of Metropolis blogs written by members of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects’ Green Team that focus on research as the groundswell of effective landscape design and implementation. Addressing the design challenges the Green Team encounters and how it resolves them, the series shares the team’s research in response to project constraints and questions that emerge, revealing their solutions. Along the way, the team will also share its knowledge about plants, geography, stormwater, sustainability, materials, and more.

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