Cell phones offer us a seemingly irresistible portal into a digital realm where every whim and desire can ostensibly be exercised. With the advent of “selfies,” they also turn the memorable places we visit into spectacles of self-gratification. Whether or not we delight in this much-debated reality, it appears destined, for now, anyway, that human and machine forge a more intimate bond which reflects advancements in genetic engineering, the hybridization of biological and artificial parts, and the reliance on digital networks for business and play. This unrelenting drive toward a bionic existence promises ideals of customization in appearance, maximization of pleasure, and self-gratification.
The issue for landscape architects is how we can design parks that meet the requirements of people in the digital era. What would the bionic man want in a municipal park? That the park becomes bionic too. Technological innovations across the spectrum are coming to parks and public spaces as well, resulting in a more personalized experience of varying site micro-climates created from dynamic artificial apparatus, interactive relationships between art installations and park goers, and the integration of digital networks into park function and maintenance.
Urban parks are already offering free Wi-Fi and docking stations to support digital tethering. Some even have apps that promote events and activities, act as tour guides offering navigation and information, and allow people to connect to one another. Beyond the introduction of digital art pieces such as the Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park, the real change will be the prominence of semi-autonomous intelligent systems that respond to stimuli from the user and form a kinetic signature for the park.
One of the best examples of this is the art installation “Pulse,” located in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, which employs a field of lights flashing to mimic the actual pulse of a park patron. The most intriguing aspect is that it forms an iterative relationship between the user and the kinetic element. When someone sees their heartbeats represented visually, their pulse will often increase in reaction to the revelation. This direct engagement of park with people creates a new kind of emotional connection to place and satisfies our desire to impact our surroundings.
The bionic park will be in a permanent state of flux to meet the near infinite versions of human desire. Its agenda is therefore one of maximizing utility by rapidly responding to the real-time aggregation of user and weather data so that the park offers custom experiences to a range of users. The key in this instance is balancing the needs of the individual with group concerns for community building and environmental and social justice. With this in mind, the discussion inevitably circles back to the fundamental question of whether current-day digital technology is a source of unity or a source of separation, and which is more appropriate.
Image by Chris Smith via Flickr Creative Commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cjsmithphotography/7030440181