The Risk of Privately Owned Public Digital Place

Urban Planning Principles Should Be Applied to the Digital Realm

Mariah Valerie Barber (MUP '19)


As a Master in Urban Planning student at the GSD I frequently wonder why our discipline pays so little attention to digital space. What occurs in digital space is rapidly changing the layout of cities, management capacity, how people organize, movement within it and how urban dwellers interact and socialize with one another. Users of applications, search engines, and social media platforms create digital data trails which have capacity, especially when spatialized to inform us in the decision-making process about how these people move around, what spaces are frequently visited - what is or is not working. In terms of infrastructure, should we as planners advocate that people have access to the same opportunities to exist in digital spaces? I argue that digital space should benefit from some planning, zoning, and place-based policy initiatives in both the physical and digital public realms.

Digital space could benefit from the guiding principles of planning as a discipline. Digital space and the UX design practices that create it use many of the same principles of navigability that have been essentially standardized within the field. Many planners utilize urban sociology methodologies and theories to justify their proposals. In fact, neuroimaging of the brain has shown that the same areas of the brain that are employed while an individual navigates physical space are active in navigating digital platform or general web browsing. Similarly, within digital space there are different cultures, norms, and manners of social conduct that can be visible.

Notions of Publicly Owned Public Space Vs. Privately-Owned Private Space in the Digital Realm

When thinking about the rules that govern digital space, I think of differences between publicly owned, publicly managed and a privately owned, pseudo public space, and how the rights of the urban dweller and the manager of these spaces differs. In the US it assumed that when someone is in a privately owned public space they are subject to the rules of conduct as determined by the individual owner or entity, whose end goal in providing the space in the first place is to generate profit or provide the space as a type of amelioration of the social costs that went into developing other elements of their property. They determine hours of operation, the physical design, and surveillance.

In turning back to digital space, users are subjected to the rules as determined by the platforms or applications that provide the “infrastructure” of digital spaces. Often, these spaces are privately owned by companies, the vast majority of which are providing the space in order to profit from it, which in the digital world equates to individual’s data. Wwhen it comes to digital space, the fact that the same standard’s regarding privately owned public physical space apply as a status quo is not only absurd, but extremely precarious.

Unlike physical “public spaces” the digital is not restricted by factors such as which neighborhood it is located within and the physical limits of hosting only a certain amount of people at a given time. While I think that many planning solutions could easily be applicable to the digital realm, assuming that because a digital space is privately managed the individual should be subjected to the rules of the private jurisdiction is problematic in terms of the high user populations and the fact that digital space combines, fuses, and mixes with commonly agreed upon notions of the public and private in ways that until recently we have never fully experienced.

In thinking of the digital public realm, theoretical models such of those of Hannah Ardent, Habermas, and Sennet can easily be applied. As Hannah Ardent distinguished in her political theory work, “The Public Realm and Public Self,” there lies a nexus between an individual when alone and in a public space, or the “space of appearance.” Additionally, the importance of public space for people to organize, gather, and protest has long been studied in western political urban sociology. Such spaces have been historically linked to many revolutions and political shifts. Such capacity is frequently associated with digital space. The term “social media justice worrier” or phenomena such as the social media organizing that led to the Arab Spring offer examples of such similarities between the digital and the physical public while also providing nuance.

Planning Digital Space

Digital space should be planned along standards that mix models of theory and practice while taking into account the interfusing of private and public that occur within it. I am eager to explore ideas of local governments playing more of an active role in governing digital space. Scalability is obviously an issue, with such platforms it can’t be ignored that digital space should be fit for local contexts.

For example, China’s political relationship with information, data, and censorship have, as a nation, essentially planned digital space to fit the rules and policies of their “real-life” counterparts. Rather than allow Facebook, Amazon, Uber to dominate the nation, they made sure to block them from entering and instead encouraged domestic versions of similar technology. The way in which that captured and localized wealth created by such platforms, tailored the platforms to the culture of China, and maintained many of the principles that are governing China today. Regardless of the controversy surrounding its control and monitoring, this can be viewed as an impressive endeavor.

For Now

In the short term, I believe there could be huge benefits for local governments to digitally plan space as it applies to capital capture. One example is requiring apps such as Uber, Lyft, and Via to pay city taxes when users access their digital services from within the physical boundaries of their jurisdictions.

In thinking about the dialogue regarding platforms and technology in the United States, it is seemingly almost always about “disruption”. How people move around or interact with others has often been in ways that are largely positive. However, the role of government has been significantly weakened in the process. Although only few cities have been able to do so, this may represent the beginning of digital planning practices.


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