Urban Technology at University of Michigan week 64
A Technology To-Do List for 21st-Century Parks
This fall will see groundbreaking of the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park, a 20-acre “green oasis” that will become a highlight of Detroit’s Riverwalk. The park is intended to be a place for the city to meet the waterfront in a more direct way than is possible along much of Detroit’s riverfront currently, which is generally without beaches or places to actually get down to the same level as the water, other than on Belle Isle.
What’s the most important thing for a big project like this? That it be accessible, welcoming, and safe for all Detroiters, not just on day one when it opens, but for many decades to come. Full stop. So then, why is the subject of parks showing up in a newsletter about urban technology?
Because parks are a place of incredible innovation and experimentation for urban life. From the Boston Common being voted into existence in 1640 as America’s first park, to the construction of London’s Crystal Palace and its eponymous glass construction in 1851, to Pokémon GO swarming people back into green spaces in cities around the world, parks are a critical site for the evolution of how we be together in public. If 21st century life is digital and physical simultaneously, as evidenced by your actual body reading this digital message in a real space, then shouldn’t we think about how the continued convergence of digital and physical might affect human experiences in parks and public spaces, like the forthcoming park along the Detroit river?
Hello! This is the newsletter of the Urban Technology program at University of Michigan, exploring the ways in which technology can be harnessed to nurture and improve urban life. If you’re new here, try this 90 second video introduction.
ALSO, DEAR READER, A SELFISH INTERRUPTION…
What’s the point of having a newsletter if you can’t promote your own projects? Hello, world! We’ve launched a Prototype Grant program offering funding and intellectual collaboration on projects at the intersection of cities and technology. This is for late-night hackers, early career academic hustlers, urban hobbyists, and you, we hope! More info here: http://protogrant.io
🌳 How to Spend the Savings of Automation?
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of public spaces in cities: with restrictions on indoor gatherings, public space has provided an important opportunity for socializing with one another, and those spaces have been reimagined in numerous ways, ranging from newly pedestrian-friendly streets, to expanded outdoor seating for restaurants, to libraries embracing the turn from inside to out.
The new Centennial Park will almost certainly be judged first on the quality of its play structures and greenery, but digital and technological expectations of visitors are not far behind. Will there be wifi to help people stream music during family celebrations? Do the edges of the park have charging stations for electric vehicles and ebikes? And if you’ve already arrived, did you find your way to Centennial Park with the help of digital maps that tell you where you can find a bike share, for instance? Inside the park, digital screens can display maps and other important information such as providing safety updates.
Currently, most parks with swimming beaches use a system of flags to indicate how safe it is to enter the water, but those rely on someone to raise (and eventually lower) the flag in a timely manner. New digital warning systems can provide updates and warnings more quickly, and also share those updates digitally to people who are considering a visit to the park and want to know the status. Below is a snapshot of an installation in Frankfort, MI that is very simple, and in its simplicity hints at how automation is creeping into public spaces like vines slowly growing across a wall.
One of the important decisions for public spaces to make is how to spend the money that is saved by efficiencies such as this automated warning system. Ideally, so far as we’re concerned, a penny saved here is not merely a penny struck from the budget, but funds available to be reallocated to more meaningful labor of care and maintenance. Automation of dull work frees up humans to do more meaningful work, like helping visitors and keeping the greenery healthy and inviting.
🔮 How to Create Space for the Unknown
Remember the Pokémon GO craze five years ago, when the augmented reality game encouraged people to find and “capture” virtual creatures by exploring different physical locations… and maybe learn a thing or two about national parks (if you ever looked up from phone)? Urban Conga, a design studio, goes a step farther and explores the incorporation of playfulness into urban settings. Here’s their installation called “Oscillation” from Grand Rapids, Michigan:
As visitors move closer to each block, a sound begins to resonate, and the pitch is adjusted as the person moves around, creating a dynamic, interactive experience. The goal? To create “not only something great to look at and take selfies in front of, but also a hub for community activity that begins to spark spontaneous conversation between strangers.”
The funny thing is that the second half of that quotation sounds like a plausible description of the Belle Isle Conservatory from 1902, when it was first built. As the oldest continually operating conservatory in the US, this plant haven is a pleasant escape from the hustle of daily life, but at the time of its inception the conservatory was a place with unusual things, attracting a cross section of people to converge on a shared, public space and inspire the occasional spontaneous conversation. Though very different in their means and methods, projects like Urban Conga’s Oscillation and the Belle Isle Conservatory are both examples of how public spaces should be sites of experimentation where we learn—collectively—what resonates culturally and socially, and what does not. Will Pokémon have the lasting appeal of exotic palm trees and cacti? Too soon to tell, though there is at least one statue of Pikachu already.
📷 How Do We See Public Life?
In many corners of America there’s a chicken and egg problem: do you invest in public spaces first and trust that the investment will generate benefits to the community, or do you invest only once community has actively utilized public spaces? This dilemma is often unfairly stacked against public spaces when they’re anti-social to begin with, often because of historic underinvestment, poor design, or some cocktail of both. The difficulty of this advocacy question is being addressed by groups like Trust for Public Land, Project for Public Spaces, Reimagining the Civic Commons, and countless conservancies and advocacy groups. How might technology help amplify their message?
For parks, computer vision can be used to report when trash cans need to be emptied, monitor which benches or playground equipment are used most frequently, and count visitors. At a high level, these are all useful metrics for city planners, parks conservatories, and community members advocating for funding and other resources to be continually allocated to public spaces. But how would you feel if your every move in a park was being watched by an electronic eye, even with the best intentions?
Around Detroit’s streets and public spaces you may notice bright “Project Green Light” signs announcing the presence of cameras. Programs like this are intended to keep residents safe—but the project’s facial recognition software also has well-established biases that disproportionately affect people of color. So, here’s another dilemma: the technology that can be used to gauge the usage of public spaces and build a case for more investment into the improvement of those spaces is also capable of identifying individuals, but imperfectly. Do the downsides to such computer vision technology make it an inherently a bad idea? Though there are no easy answers to this question, any answers to be found will be in the details of who owns the data, under what conditions the data is stored and used, what rights members of the public have to opt out, and how these commitments are overseen.
One compelling aspect of computer vision-based sensing is that it’s software based, which means the software (and what it looks for or detects) can be changed. While the tidal sensor from Franklin will only ever be a tidal sensor (sorry, buddy!) a camera can track pedestrian counts one day and then help understand the public health risk factors the next. Here are two examples.
Voxel51, a startup spun out of the University of Michigan in 2019, uses computer vision to track social distancing at tourist sites around the world, resulting in a Physical Distancing Index for each place. Ultimately they’d like to test if this realtime information can be used to predict infection spikes. The camera feeds utilized for this project were not installed for monitoring of social distancing, but because computer vision is code, Voxel51 could write new analysis functions to generate their PDI without so much as visiting the sites they’re monitoring.
Back here in Detroit, U-M engineers Jerry Lynch, Gabriel Draughon, and Peng Sun have worked with the Detroit Riverfront to measure mask-wearing utilizing computer vision in those parks and green spaces, again by changing the code utilized to process camera feeds already in place. That information—along with a plethora of other data, including the numbers of visitors running, walking, and cycling—is then compiled and made available to the employees who maintain the riverfront, helping inform their decision-making. The result is a dashboard pictured above.
😁 Joyful Metrics
To grapple with the dilemmas emerging in this brief exploration of technology in parks and public spaces, we turned to Anthony Vanky, a professor here at Taubman College who researches sensing technologies in urban environments.
The following is a lightly-edited transcript of our conversation.
CHARLIE KEENAN: In your work on sensors and computer vision in public spaces, what are the most exciting developments you are seeing?
ANTHONY VANKY: Definitely research like Jerry Lynch’s lab, because they are focused on a real space—the Detroit Riverfront—where people are living their everyday lives, versus, for instance, a mall setting for commercial purposes, where the technology is just counting people coming through the door. On the imagination side, Disney has been using tech like active RFID and wifi tracking to enhance the story they are telling—not just to see if you’re going to buy another t-shirt, but to enhance your experience. Can Mickey say hi to you personally? Can that ride be slightly different for you? In the Star Wars universe, can someone call you by name? What if they tease you a little bit? It’s a very unique case, but those kinds of metrics are exciting.
KEENAN: On the flip side, what are the most worrisome developments?
VANKY: A lot of these technologies were developed for two things. The first is for public safety and surveillance, and we’ve seen a lot of the issues with that in places like Detroit and Chicago, where you cannot opt out, you’re always being tracked. The second is all about retail spaces and selling things, because if they know how many people walk in front of your store, they can charge you more for real estate. Or, businesses can monitor how you move about inside their store. Euclid does this with wifi and bluetooth tracking, and security cameras can be networked to do this. So we can use technology to improve our public spaces, but we cannot opt out, which begs the question: is there a right to privacy?
KEENAN: To that point, I wanted to ask who you think is benefiting most from these new technologies—is it private companies? Local governments? Someone else?
VANKY: Right now it’s private companies because they control their own space, and they just have to put a sign on the window announcing what they are doing. Some cities require that if they are doing tracking, they have to let you know, but in public spaces we don’t have the option to opt out because you have to be on the sidewalk to get from point A to point B. So the private sector has been leading. We are starting to see a second generation of tech that is more privacy-forward, though, like using infrared cameras that only see heat signatures, so you can still count people in a space without identifying the person or capturing their individual features.
KEENAN: What are some unique challenges or opportunities here in Detroit and southeastern Michigan? Given there are many opportunities for the redevelopment of public spaces, I’m wondering how it differs from, say, Boston.
VANKY: I think the biggest thing is that in Boston, the conversation is led by technologists and urbanists like the office of New Urban Mechanics or MIT. For us in Michigan, the problem is that the most notable cases have involved DPD and the troubles associated with facial recognition and false arrests. It’s important to highlight the limitations of that technology, and to ask how we approach this in a human-centric, equity-focused way.
KEENAN: Sounds like there are some opportunities for the next generation of students then… What are the challenges they will face while working on these topics?
VANKY: How do we balance the public benefit and the private good? In the next 5 to 10 years, we will see a swing away from the private sector where a lot of this is happening currently. We are going through the growing pains of talking about these technologies in an urban context: we understand it inside a mall, but that’s different than a public sidewalk. Students can help define what those protocols are and shape those negotiations between public and private interests.
KEENAN: If you had a magic wand to solve some of these issues related to technology and computer vision in public spaces, what would you use it for? Is there a policy solution, a technical solution, …?
VANKY: For me, the question is: can we move away from defining cities as an optimization problem for technology to solve? Rather than maximizing value, can we promote human-centric measures of joy and happiness? Can you create places where people slow down and notice something they’ve never noticed before, or see something that makes them smile, or try a restaurant that makes them feel joy? These are all social things we love about cities, but we aren’t measuring for that when we’re counting how many cars are on the street or how many pedestrians pass in front of a store. Tech is able to support these things, and when we focus on those types of metrics, we can find the magic in cities.
🏙 The Squamish Nation have decided to build at Hong-Kong levels of density on waterfront land in Vancouver: “People who support new housing are often marginalized out of decision-making, and this is a marginalized community saying, ‘This is how we’re creating value for our nation, and the public at large.’”
💻 Please check out the U-M Taubman College Prototype Grant if you’re interested in experimenting at the intersection of cities and technology. And if that’s not you, please share with your networks.
These weeks: Admissions ramping up once again. So great to meet bright and curious high school students from around the world. Hello to those of you who signed up recently. 🏃