A New Urban Digital Experience
In Yonkers, New York
Over the last several years, I’ve written about the value of blending digital and physical spaces for cities so that they can create new exciting, delightful destinations that will inspire and attract people. This was one part of the work I did for the US Conference of Mayors on a strategy to ensure the viability of American cities — especially mid-sized and smaller cities — in a post-industrial, digital age.
Mayor Mike Spano, an innovative public leader and dedicated son of Yonkers, New York, saw one of my presentations at an annual meeting of the mayors and thought it would fit well with the revitalization program he had initiated in his city.
That’s how I got started helping the City bring the “Yonkers Digital Experience” to life. (The picture to the left is from the press conference launching the project.)
There’s a lot to this project so this will be a series of posts — an overview in this post and then later more detail about the content and future direction of the project.
Yonkers is a city of about 200,000 people, on the northern border of New York City along the Hudson River. It was founded in 1646 during the Dutch colonial period, but grew dramatically during the industrialization of the late 19th and early 20th century. For example, it was the birthplace of the Otis Elevator Company. But like many other similar cities in the US and elsewhere, it suffered during the long decline and out-migration of industrial jobs.
With that background, there are two main goals of this project in Yonkers:
- To enhance the street life of the city by offering a new, interesting experience, a new kind of urban design
- To entertain, engage, educate and reinforce the image of Yonkers as an historical center of innovation and to inspire the creativity of its current residents
As befits a smaller city — and one that didn’t want to have this supported by commercial advertising which would detract from quality of life — the project was very built on a very economical budget. Instead of huge LED displays, like Times Square, it uses high quality projections and outdoor speakers. When it’s dark, the video is seen and engaged. During the day, there is only audio. The projectors are attached to existing street lights and are relatively unobtrusive.
While the cost of all this technology has come down dramatically over the last few year, it is still not a trivial technology project to implement. The complete system that takes the contributed digital content and ultimately displays it consists of several independent components of technology that are not always simple to integrate.
For the initial roll-out, two different kinds of sites were selected and handled quite differently.
The first site is the large concrete wall of the big Riverfront Library, which is across the street from the main train station and a big city park (with the Saw Mill River running through it). It is also very near the more upscale apartments that face the Hudson River and the Palisades. This is already an attractive area with lots of pedestrian traffic. It is ideal for the presentation of past and current performances, history, and the like in a fairly conventional way.
The second location is Getty Square, which was the center of the city a hundred years ago, but is now not quite as important. In this location, there are two projectors with speakers that are aimed at the ground in the center of the “square”. This is an edgier location and one that is expected to be the center for more non-traditional experiments in art and interaction.
While there have been projections on walls in various cities around the world, especially in Europe, these have usually been limited to the few days of a festival and have mostly been opportunities for graphic artists to use a building wall as a canvass — rather than to create a new permanent urban experience.
From what I’ve seen and read, the closest project to what Yonkers is doing has taken place in Montreal. But in Montreal, the program has been fairly static and solely visual, without sound, the impact on passers-by is limited. Nor does it seem they have any longer-term plans to enable interaction with residents on the street.
So, the Yonkers Digital Experience is an early experiment in urban design, technology and engagement.
The next post will be a review of the kinds of content that is currently part of this project. The final post will highlight where this kind of project can go, as it uses some fun digital technologies.
If you’re interested in the previous blog posts on this general subject, they can be found here:
- Blending Physical And Virtual Spaces 10/18/2011
- More Blending Of Physical And Virtual Spaces 5/29/2012
- 21st Century Spaces and Experiences In The New American City 6/19/2012
- Art In The City Or The City As Art? Part 1, 5/1/13 and Part 2, 5/8/2013
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