Living in a Digital World, Part 2: Using Technology to Engage with Nature

The Green Team discusses how can we merge our hyper-connected lives with nature?

Courtesy Andy von der Wurm

In a previous Green Team post, we examined digital technology in relation to infrastructure and the built, urban environment. This post, the second in our digital world series, flips perspective and focuses on how designed natural spaces have responded to the increased use of digital technology.

A recent Huffington Post article asked readers their opinions on the use of electronics on wilderness trips. The majority response: Such trips provide the opportunity to break away from the connected lifestyle to truly be “in the moment.” However, rather than turning off our digital devices (literally), why not embrace our shift in culture and use digital communication as a flexible, innovative tool to foster stewardship, engage with nature, and elevate the experiential qualities of a landscape?  The Mathews Nielsen-designed West Point Foundry Preserve, a nineteenth century iron foundry turned interpretive park, aims to do just this—to overlay the digital world onto the natural landscape.

Digital Technology Transforming Physical Space

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and now owned and maintained by the non-profit Scenic Hudson, the new park was opened to the public in Fall 2013. The design turns the Preserve into an outdoor museum featuring interpretive elements that showcase the site’s former industrial life, much of which is still buried below floodplain soils.

Signage placed along the trail at West Point Foundry Preserve give clues for wayfinding associated with a mobile application that provides an audiovisual tour of the site. The remaining foundation of the site’s machine shop is shown here.

Courtesy Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects

A unique component linked to each interpretive element is a foundry tour accessible by mobile phone that allows the visitor to explore the site’s ecological beauty in real-time, while also experiencing its rich cultural history through historic maps, photographs, and streaming oral histories in digital time. Denoted by numbered placards along the Preserve’s accessible trail system, visitors are encouraged to access the audiovisual “Foundry Tour App” (designed by  4274 Design Workshop) at fifteen locations on the site.

The home page of the “Foundry App” mobile application.

Courtesy 4274 Design Workshop and Scenic Hudson

Imagine having your own mobile tour guide as you move through a forest exploring the history of the Preserve’s former life—all right at your fingertips! From the Gun Testing Platform, where the mobile app shows you historic images of the Parrott Cannons produced and tested by the Foundry; to the interpretive Water Wheel, where the mobile app lets you hear the sound of the trickling stream used to power the Foundry; digital communication becomes another layer through which to experience the Preserve’s extensive cultural landscape.

One of the many interpretive elements found at West Point Foundry Preserve— an interpretation of the Boring Mill Water Wheel once used to power the former Iron Foundry.

Courtesy Elizabeth Felicella

The New Nature

It is apparent that technology has made its way into many facets of life…even into our natural landscapes. Designers have started to look beyond technology as infrastructure and more towards the integration of its “intangible” benefits into the physical world.

Using the physical environment as a framework, West Point Foundry Preserve has successfully built on the “there’s an app for that” mentality by using digital technology to heighten visitor experience within the natural environment with the real-time, participatory, locative capabilities of technology. In our next post, we will look at the urban void and how programmatic layering keeps large open spaces activated daily and seasonally.

There are many mobile applications related to landscape. The application above estimates the height of trees. Check out the list for your next visit to the wilderness.

Courtesy Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects

How have you been able to experience the digital landscape in nature? 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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