XXIX.3 May - June 2022
Page: 14
Digital Citation

Platform urbanism, urban HCI, and digital civics: An open landscape for opportunity

Elizabeth Churchill

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In the 19th century, naked commercial greed became the principal force that shaped the heart of the city….
    — Lewis Mumford

In a documentary accompanying his 1961 book, The City in History, Lewis Mumford bemoans the lack of balance between technology and humanity in urban planning. Given Mumford's background as a historian, sociologist, and commentator on technology and human living, the ideological stance articulated here is no surprise. For example, in the much earlier 1939 film produced for the New York World's Fair's "City of Tomorrow" exhibit, Mumford and his collaborators argue for the creation of designed communities where a balance between urbanism and open space is intentionally created and maintained. These recommendations were driven by data, but not data as we understand it today.

If you live in an urban center now, there is a palpable sense of the ways in which the landscape is changing, driven by the intentional placement of sensors of all kinds, something we have known for decades as "the smart city." Whether owned and maintained by governments or private companies, sensors in the urban landscape increasingly track our movements. And more and more, as individuals, we participate in shaping the urban landscape through our personal devices, which offer "data fumes" that reflect our movements. We also intentionally annotate and commentate on places and spaces around us. The aggregation of data from multiple sources changes our behaviors in the moment, as well as the behaviors of others, which, in turn, affects how we all inhabit the shared urban environment. This participatory (re)design of the urban landscape has been studied by scholars, who have coined the term platform urbanism. A relatively recent area of investigation, platform urbanism raises an important distinction between top-down smart city initiatives and architected interactive buildings [1] and the more bottom-up reshapings that derive from personal/social digital platforms such as mapping applications, social media sharing sites, ride-sharing applications, and so on.

I am sure we are all seeing this in our own lives. Some concrete examples for me include:

  • In my city, San Francisco, applications have clearly changed the way we navigate in urban settings. Mapping applications have rerouted traffic through very "desirable" neighborhoods in an attempt to avoid congested thoroughfares [2]. Naturally, not everyone is pleased about this. In the neighborhoods where people have the resources to complain to city authorities, No Through Road signs have been erected to deter drivers. These have had limited success. Near where I live, a No Through Road sign is routinely ignored as people simply navigate around it, often causing a hazard for pedestrians. Regular fiery debates ensue on Nextdoor (, with neighbors vehemently disagreeing as to what an ideal outcome would be.
  • A seemingly innocent "mistake" can make a big difference. An article from Reuters outlines the problem of renaming. In the U.K., Quarry Hill, a historical industrial Leeds district, was renamed Medical Centre to reflect a new development, a medical facility [3]. This not only erased the history of the location but also implied the expansion of the medical facility project, with the implication that housing areas could in the future be earmarked for absorption into expansion. Homeowners in this area are understandably concerned about the possible changes. Clearly, a location name change can be indicative of appropriation and erasure, signaling urban changes that privilege some values and cultures over others. What is interesting about the current trend in platform urbanism is that it's so hard to tell whether this comes from a clueless engineering team thousands of miles away, a confused algorithm, or a commercial or governmental intention… or all of those intertwined.
  • Blogging sites and review sites like Yelp have also played a key part in changing the urban landscape. "Instagrammable" places drive tourism and location popularity, with urban installations being specifically designed to be photographed. Airbnb has shifted where we stay and has also changed purchases in desirable areas. Neighborhood gentrification moves with the digital glitterati, resulting in an intentional or unintentional rebranding of places. Ride-sharing has changed our mobility. Photos of food, and restaurant and neighborhood recommendations, showcase where the privileged should be seen. A once lower-income neighborhood becomes a desirable, photographed space to frequent and be "cool" in, raising prices. And that means driving out those who are not Internet connected. Critical geographer Gillian Rose calls this the production of "lifestyle enclaves" [4]. A case study of a neighborhood in Amsterdam offers examples of shops that rebrand specifically to be appealing to the everyday documentarians, promoters, and popular critics on social media platforms [5]. Those less plugged into these platforms or who cannot afford such rebranding are left wondering what happened to their neighborhoods.

Why does this matter for us as HCI researchers and practitioners?

For many of us working in UX and HCI, a large part of our day is concerned with designing the interactions on the screen: pixels, widgets, animation and motion, interaction flows, within-app and between-app interaction flows, critical user journeys, and more. We are focused on teaching and learning and learning how to use the local, tactical skills of the devices and applications that are within our immediate grasp. We seldom get the chance to see how what we build in the interface changes the environment in which we live more broadly. This focus on "the user" rather than on the "use in context" means we don't see the implications of our design decisions in people's everyday lives. Much of what unfolds is what sociologist Robert Merton dubbed unanticipated consequences. In the mid-20th century, Merton stated that there are positive consequences of purposive actions, for example, serendipitous scientific discoveries. He also discussed "perverse" consequences that can come about through many means, especially when there are multilayered and entangled forces at play. He identifies ignorance; error; immediate interest that neglects the consideration of longer-term consequences; basic values that drive toward certain conclusions and that may be at odds among different constituencies; and, finally, self-defeating prophecies where people feel powerless to change the course of innovation and change.


The call of this issue of Interactions is to look at the entangled infrastructures and the social context of living. With the emergence of Urban HCI [6], we are seeing a discipline that helps us move the focus away from pixels and screens, away from how the screen and interfaces work for our immediate and local convenience, to how people roam and shed data and thus change the landscapes within which we live. More concretely, we are looking at the ways in which personal devices, sensors, and digital actors in emerging smart cities and digital platforms are shaping lives. The tricky thing with these platforms is the distributed accountability and the lack of collective intentionality, the playing out of immediate and focused interests.

One way forward is to continue the trend for us as HCI and UX scholars and practitioners to keep taking the bigger view and to take up the ethical approach of asking what-if questions and deepening our knowledge of who has access and how and to what end.

Lewis Mumford had a point of view that looked from governance to policy to brick and mortar. How can we ensure we thread the needle from governance to policy to interaction to design method… to pixel?

What will be your lens and your perspective?

back to top  References

1. Alavi, H.S. et al. Introduction to human-building interaction (HBI): Interfacing HCI with architecture and urban design. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 26, 2 (Apr. 2019), Article 6;

2. Foderaro, L.W. Navigation apps are turning quiet neighborhoods into traffic nightmares. New York Times. Dec. 24, 2017;

3. Bacchi, U. 'Took away our identity': Google Maps puzzles residents with new neighborhood names. Reuters. Jul. 4, 2019;

4. Rose, G. Seeing the city digitally: From picturing urban spaces to animating urban life. YouTube;

5. Bronsvoort, I. and Uitermark, J.L. Seeing the street through Instagram. Digital platforms and the amplification of gentrification. Urban Studies (2021);;

6. Fischer, P. and Hornecker, E. Urban HCI: Spatial aspects in the design of shared encounters for media façades. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2012, 307–316;

back to top  Author

Originally from the U.K., Elizabeth Churchill has been leading corporate research at top U.S. companies for over 20 years. Her research interests include designer and developer experiences, distributed collaboration, and ubiquitous/embedded computing applications. [email protected]

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2022 ACM, Inc.

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