Digital placemaking in support of stronger communities

Post by Mike Klassen in


A QR Code added to a historical marker can be a powerful tool – click for larger

I googled an expression that popped into my head, "digital placemaking," and came away dissatisfied by what I found. It felt as though when it came to "place" or public realm, the best digital technology would come up with was some abstraction of Second Life. I'm far more interested in the real world, the one inhabited by people in our various communities, and I'm always looking for ways to bring folks together.

You may have seen the "Vancouver Story" neighbourhood plaques bolted to various lamp standards around the city. What if, I wondered, instead of these signs being about a single historical moment, they could become almost 'living' documents of our communities?

Not long after I started this blog with Daniel, I saw that we had an opportunity to wax about city-making. One of the first posts I wrote in this vein back in January 2009 was titled "The Last Desktop." In it I described how the smart phone revolution would change our streets. Lamp standards embedded with wireless units would allow for realtime exchanges of news and experiences. These connections would happen within our many neighbourhoods.

Some weeks ago I was very proud that our neighbourhood group over here on Fraser Street was able to partner with a non-profit and a local developer to create street banners. It was a unique arrangement that to my knowledge has never been done before here. After asking the developer of a significant housing project just down the street three times to participate, I was starting to get discouraged. Thankfully they saw there was a 'win-win'.

This is just one of several outstanding projects organized by community volunteers in my neighbourhood over the last decade. Now we have a new idea that we think will be a powerful example to other communities around the city. We want to use digital tools at the street level to enhance our community.

It's a simple idea, really. Use these same "Vancouver Story" markers as a way to connect people using either mobile texting or QR code scans. In the same way we see real estate agents sharing information about properties for sale, our historical markers can connect to a Facebook thread, or automatically hash tag a Tweet. It can send readers to a page where they can leave their mark.

The messages can be either banal or profound, but what's important is that they'll come from the place, and anyone will be able to participate because the barrier to entry is so low.

Here's another application of this same principle of using street level digital innovation to advance community development.

Walking down the street I often see City of Vancouver development application signage telling me about a new building going up. How about if I could pull out my smart phone, click the QR code reader and get directed automatically to the City's dev apps page? Drawings of the project, specs on height, zoning and who's the developer are all included. And furthermore, you're able to leave a comment!

We can do all these things easily today if we want. In fact, our neighbourhood group has a grant application in today asking to create one of these first sets of 'digital placemaking' markers for right here in my Fraser Street community. There's more work to be done to outline the concept, but I think it might be something you'll quickly see popping up in other areas of town soon.

- post by Mike. Follow @MikeKlassen & @CityCaucus on Twitter.



interesting post...but it just shows the ever widening gap...

"How about if I could pull out my smart phone,"

Some of us can't own a cell phone let alone a smart one ... ;-)

Well George, sorry to say but you're a dying breed. This is a great idea, I should get the ball rolling on this in Kensington!

Very clever. I scanned the QR code in the photo above thinking I would get linked to the Vancouver story board telling me about the neighborhood.
Instead, it scanned directly to this page at
Geez, advertising everywhere, are you? :-{)

hey Boo... ouch!

do you mean dying breed because I'm poor and dying off in Vancouver, or was that a reference to my age.. and dying naturally...

Ah, one word a thousand interpretations..thanks for the laugh Boo..needed it... :-)

Great peice and great ideas.

We actually have a "Digital Placemaking" Initiative along related lines, where we are trying to crowd-source evaluation and visioning of public spaces. More coming soon...

Neither George, keep trying!

first- Mike, are those vinyl banners? If so, I am going to politely slap your hand and say 'shame on you'. They are going to live in the landfill forever. If they were nylon, at least you could make something out of them like shopping bags once they were looking a little tired.

As for the QR codes - Gastown BIA has rolled out a QR code program that is tied to stories about their historic buildings. South Granville is also in the home stretch of creating over 75 back stories about our neighbourhood which people will be able to access through our website, or through scanning QR codes that will be found on the street. hopefully by June 2011.

have a look -

people love it and it is an amazing way to make our history accessible to a growing segment of our population.


This board would be a very silent place if held to that!

Common Sharon,
"first- Mike, are those vinyl banners?"
Are you complaining about a few dozen banners? Check the Port of Vancouver. Thousands of containers full of junk and crap merchandise produced in...China. For local consumption. Sure and we send them all our trees! Smart of us. And BTW, how many magazines portraying the 'Marriage of the Millennium' have you bought in the past month? Trees baby, trees, right there. Kate and Will's wedding are good for the environment, same way that oil spill in the Golf of Mexico was good for the marine life. As for who benefits from this new 'invention'...cell phone industry, hello! Just wait.

Nicklaus, I respect Mike and I think he can handle my gentle scolding. What goes on at the port should not give us license to ignore making any efforts ourselves to do the right thing - especially when the cost difference is minimal and easily available. I think the Fraser Street banners are great and kudos to the neighbourhood for stepping up and caring about their hood.

As for Marriage of the Millennium - I have purchase exactly zero magazines - everything I want to consume is beautifully presented online @

QR codes have been used in Japan and other parts of the world such as Australia for a decade. Only recently has phone technology expanded their reach in NA. Code readers can be downloaded for free so the phone companies are hardly getting rich on the technology.

Sharon, gotcha!
Thanks for the update as after that I looked a tad more into the QR thing. Quite clever. Here's a link for that info for others as well...and thanks! :-)

Mike, the City is looking at using QR codes for on City signs as you have suggested.

There are lots of potential applications. Imagine having QR codes on city street infrastructure. See a streetlamp not working? You could use the 311 application on your smartphone to scan the QR code and submit the request to repair to 311. The City would know exactly which streetlamp needed repair.

@City staffer. Cheers for the update. We wrote about bringing 311 apps into Vancouver after getting an email from a developer in Seattle who had done the same.

@Sharon. Yes, the banners are made of vinyl. We only realized once they came back from the printers that the material was not the typical nylon (another petroleum-based product, btw). Don't mind the gentle slap, but we already got it from the City. They will probably last longer though, as the weather really takes their toll and we can't afford to replace them more than every four years. There is no BIA along this stretch of Fraser.

@George. Note that I included "texting" and not only QR codes. The funny thing about QR codes is there is still some debate on whether they'll become a widely adopted standard or not. I suspect that many mobile phones sold today will not only have cameras, but built-in scanner software. iPhone has a free app you can download.

But I agree we cannot make this a 'smart phone only' concept, which is why I recommend using text.

@Jeff Lee. Sssh! You're exposing our plans for world domination! Yes, the QR code in the image above points to If I was more clever I would have pointed it to Christy Clark's Facebook page or Adrian Dix's Twitter.

"But I agree we cannot make this a 'smart phone only' concept, which is why I recommend using text."

Too funny Mike, I was actually making a joke, but seriously, there are some of us that don't even own a cell phone, and certain demographics can't see those little keys to there is definitely a widening gap....sigh..with old age comes wisdom...eye sight...not so much..

I'm with you George, I have a cell phone that is just a cell phone, it doesn't play music or snap pics.

The company I work for want me to upgrade, but I am going down kicking and screaming.

I spend more than enough time on-line and on the phone and as I have been there and done that, I enjoy the stresslessness of not being plugged in 24/7.

by 2015, they expect half mobile phones to be smart phone. While that is not everybody, it certainly is a significant number. There is no one size fits all solution for what we are discussing. Information should be delivered in as many ways possible. QR codes is just one of them. I sure hope the city does not think it needs to spend endless dollars on a special reporting app when there are already several excellent options out there ready to use.

We had a QR code installed as a sidewalk decal in front of the Stanley Theatre to test out the product we hope to use for our history stories. No instructions - just a QR code. The code pointed to a great little video we had created about the history of the Stanley. In 2 months the video had more hits than it had all the previous year. Can't argue with that!

Mike... wondered if you got in doo-doo with the city about the vinyl. For your sake I hope they survive. I know about nylon but there is a challenge - recycled polyester looks inferior, its printed with toxic ink, and you can't really recycle it into anything after your done with them. The vinyl may last - but my experience has been the opposite - they get brittle. Crossing my fingers for you. I am still a firm advocate of dye printed nylon. They last the longest, they look the best for the longest time and when your done... they can be re-purposed into things like bags or packing material. It's all a matter of where you want to inject yourself into the life cycle of the material.

George & Max

Please allow me to join you in the technophobe gang.

My dream is to retire in a little lakeside village I found on holiday in Costa Rica which, according to the GPS system in my truck, does not exist. Amazingly its people seem happy and content, secure in their beliefs and culture without any gadgets and gizmos.

Naturally I will not divulge its name!

Marriage of the Millenium?

When will people get over their infantile fairy-tale fascination with kings, queens, princes and princesses. When it comes to the "aristocracy", for once the French had the right idea.

Personally I'm waiting for the royal divorce collectibles. They hold their value better.

Marriage of the Millennium...

I did a survey in my 4 generation family the other night - who was going to stay up and watch the wedding - all 4. We can't trust technology (LOL) to record things for a more rational time of day for viewing.

Why? It is not kings and queens as much as a simple desire for a good news story (even if short lived) that can relate to every human being - the desire to be wanted and loved. Add to that the curiosity about how someone would throw a wedding when money is not a consideration and you have a magic combination. Hollywood has no idea what to do with endless amounts of money - the English and royalty do it better than any one else. This is the Super Bowl of weddings!

So, for however long it lasts, jolly good show!

A smart phone costs about the same as a bicycle and is much cheaper than a car. And prices are likely to come down another 50-80% over the next decade. To the extent that the digital divide is a major social issue in Vancouver we need to address it (it will have important healthcare implications in the near future as well).

I am glad to see Mike promoting some new ideas for the city. This one works well with open data. The more we can shift the conversation from narrow personal attacks to contrasting vision for the future the better a city we are likely to have.

If Mike keeps these sorts of ideas coming, and if he decides to run (not sure where things are on this), I will consider voting for him!

I believe that net neutrality will be important to letting a host of new location-based applications bloom (and for the inevitable evolutionary algorithm to kick in and for many of them to die off), but what do others think (I know this is not a municipal issue, but I think it is relevant).

" To the extent that the digital divide is a major social issue in Vancouver we need to address it"

I agree Steven, we must remember that many can't afford a car, or bicycle...and another monthly fee such as cell phone bill is completely out of reach....
The medical applications coming to cell phone users alone, create a huge divide.
There are many that just don't understand the technology and have no one around to assist them..

Many issues that need to be addressed.The cost is just the beginning of the problem.As a senior, I can tell you it is impossible to find a young person with enough patience to try and teach us the technology...even the folks that are paid to do it have only so much patience... ;-(

I have been hearing about Bill Gates partnering on a project where they are placing simple cell phones in remote areas of Africa that will provide medical supports and other emergency information. All it needs is a small generator and that health care divide suddenly got smaller.

Look how this technology has changed the face of democracy in northern Africa!

Open Data an the empowerment of the individual citizen is going to turn our governments on their ear.

"All it needs is a small generator and that health care divide suddenly got smaller."

Sharon...Big difference between Africa and Vancouver...

Can't you see all the seniors "dodging traffic",pushing their walkers and IV bag poles,palliative care etc... to get to the community cell phone station in their PJ's,while ill..

We are an aging society...with different issues than Africa...

Community phone, would that be like the phone booths that had to be removed due to drug dealers..

Your word picture made me smile.

of course Vancouver is different than Africa - my point was to simply suggest that smartphones and technology are not just elitist devices that rudely impose on our daily life. Those annoying devices can sometimes be used for good. Yes, they have limitations depending on the actual user but let's not make it an all or nothing issue.

My latest 'good' use - Quakeaware which is going to send my family an email should we be hit with the big one and it will tell them exactly where to start looking for me. Free!

My latest 'good' use - Quakeaware which is going to send my family an email should we be hit with the big one and it will tell them exactly where to start looking for me. Free!

Now I love that, but I'm still confused how it works...anyone with an old smartphone ... send it to me!!!! but make sure it has big letters.. ;-)
and someone start a class for old folks..

George, I do not have visual impairment but my Dad did so I have come to appreciate the challenges of small print. Smart phones are even hard for me to read.

Consider indulging in an ipad. It does not even require lessons to operate. Same technology minus the phone stuff. The iphone apps can be installed and increased in size or they are already designed for a larger device. To be honest, it is a much nicer experience. Had I bought my ipad first, I would have not bothered with the smartphone until my old phone died.

under the section called REACT there is a heading called 'send your location'. It uses the GPS functions built in to your device and sends out an email to your contact list that you have set up giving a longitude and latitude of where you are. Another app is Echoecho.

Great idea, Mike.

And may I offer my sincere congratulations to all posters, some of whom go after each other, hammer and tong, on other issues on this blog.

Without being too sentimental, it warms my heart to see that there is room here for broad, lively discussion and even consensus, on some matters that could affect and even elevate life here in the city, and does it in a way that rises above political ideaolgies.

Well, done, all. There may be hope for us yet. :-)

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