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A growing number of urban practitioners and scholars are interested in using digital storytelling to strengthen neighborhood connections to shared culture and build a coherent sense of place. This article contributes to this discussion by investigating how ‘urban furniture’ can sustain social capacity for digital placemaking. While traditional ‘urban furniture’ in public space is purely physical, digital-physical hybrids are emerging, from benches that tell stories to bus stops that play videos. This extended case follows the travels of an Afrofuturist piece of urban furniture: a community-hacked payphone called Sankofa Red. Our analysis triangulates findings across three installations to show how placemaking can be sustained as a social process: as part of a successful makeover of a community plaza, featured in a neighborhood history game, and in an art exhibition on race and ethnicity. We identify promising practices to adapt urban furniture and retain design collectives beyond a single placemaking installation. As a way for cities to build capacity, we propose that rotating one kind urban furniture (e.g., payphones) across neighborhoods can build the social capacity for placemaking around a shared technical foundation, while still prioritizing local needs and culture.
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Special Issue: Digital Placemaking
Urban furniture in digital
placemaking: Adapting
a storytelling pay phone
across Los Angeles[AQ1]
Benjamin Stokes
American University, USA
Franc¸ois Bar
University of Southern California, USA
Karl Baumann
Greenfield Labs/Ford Smart Mobility, USA
Ben Caldwell
KAOS Network, USA
Andrew Schrock
Aloi Research & Consulting, USA
Abstract
A growing number of urban practitioners and scholars are interested in using digital storytelling to
strengthen neighborhood connections to shared culture and build a coherent sense of place.
This article contributes to this discussion by investigating how ‘urban furniture’ can sustain social
capacity for digital placemaking. While traditional ‘urban furniture’ in public space is purely physical,
digital-physical hybrids are emerging, from benches that tell stories to bus stops that play videos.
This extended case follows the travels of an Afrofuturist piece of urban furniture: a community-
hacked pay phone called Sankofa Red. Our analysis triangulates findings across three installations
to show how placemaking can be sustained as a social process: as part of a successful makeover of a
community plaza, featured in a neighborhood history game, and in an art exhibition on race and
ethnicity. We identify promising practices to adapt urban furniture and retain design collectives
beyond a single placemaking installation. As a way for cities to build capacity, we propose that
rotating one kind urban furniture (e.g., pay phones) across neighborhoods can build the social
Corresponding author:
Benjamin Stokes, School of Communication, American University, 4400 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington,
DC 20016, USA.
Email: bstokes@american.edu
Convergence: The International
Journal of Research into
New Media Technologies
1–15
ªThe Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/1354856521999181
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capacity for placemaking around a shared technical foundation, while still prioritizing local needs
and culture.
Keywords
Appropriation, collective, community-based, games,local,mobile,participation,participatory
design, placemaking, play, social capacity, urban design, urban furniture
Sustaining placemaking in a part-digital world
Placemaking has emerged as a growing movement to amplify the shared connection of residents and
organizations to a sense of place, and the many benefits that follow. Placemaking has been defined
(ideally in this special issue, [AQ3]TKTK) as ‘a collaborative process by which we can shape our
public realm in order to maximize shared value’ (Project for Public Spaces, n.d.). Increasingly, the
experience of place has become a hybrid of physical presence and digital flows mediated through
mobile and social media (Castells, 2010; Gordon and de Souza e Silva, 2011). Our collective
understandings of space and place have thus become dependent on digital media and communication
technologies (Adams, 2009). Digital placemaking can feel temporary, yet the goal is to create ‘a
sense of permanence, pause, or investment in fixity within the forces and scapes that shape spatiality’
(Halegoua, 2020: 5). Forms of digital placemaking include large screens embedded in public space
(Tomitsch et al., 2015), scavenger hunts with cellphones, and place-based storytelling.
However, without care, predominantly digital interventions may disrupt and fragment our
shared sense of place. Isolated digital stories risk displacing shared experiences and meanings with
individualized experiences that reverberate in siloed media platforms. In neighborhoods facing
gentrification, cultural displacement remains a real threat (Hyra, 2015), often made worse by
digital divides that reinforce cultural separation and generational divides. Compared to traditional
visual arts (e.g., painting a mural), bottom-up approaches with digital media may require skill
training for broad participation. The results of such efforts may also be harder for everyone to
experience and appreciate in public space. Installations that require technical skill are especially
vulnerable to being one-off projects for privileged neighborhoods that may undermine trust in the
equity of placemaking.
In this article, we push back on the idea that digital placemaking efforts are inherently one-off
creations for consumer devices. We argue there is considerable value in ‘urban furniture’ to
anchor digital placemaking in public space and build a shared sense of place. Places are
meaningful in this sense precisely because they are invested with persistent social meaning,
including through digital means (Dourish, 2006). To make digital placemaking more enduring
and equitable, we argue that it is necessary to prioritize the design process. In particular, we
argue that equity is not only a function of the design object – equity depends on the capacity of
local groups to persist in design, stakeholder accountability, and the ability to repeatedly adapt
technologies to neighborhood needs.
Urban furniture
Urban furniture is one of the most promising frontiers for digital placemaking, with growing
opportunities for digital design. Urban furniture is partly sculptural, reflecting its historical
2Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies XX(X)
contribution to physical space. Yet, furniture like park benches and water fountains can also feature
digital elements to balance basic purpose and durability with more expansive communicative
possibilities (e.g., Rubegni et al., 2008). For example, neighborhood bus stops with digital displays
are becoming ordinary. Digital affordances may invite experimentation but they also carry new
risks. Mobile phones, for example, are celebrated in digital placemaking for how they locate users
in space and mediate stories of place. However, the presence of personal screens often undermines
eye contact with neighbors and contributes to the perception that the digital layer fragments public
space (Crawford, 2008). Worse, locative experiences in isolation can suppress real-world contexts
that residents might otherwise experience (Flanagan, 2009) and lead to unethical interactions with
nonparticipants (Farman, 2012: 75–78).
Urban furniture presents an alternative entry point for digital placemaking that begins in the
shared domain of public space and is at least partly visible to those without the latest smart phone.
In this article, we analyze how one piece of urban furniture sustained creativity as a group process
across sites, while renewing community ties to each place.
This case study follows ‘Sankofa Red’ – a community-rebuilt pay phone and adaptable piece
of urban furniture (see Figure 1). Powered by a Raspberry Pi computer, tablet, and speaker,
Sankofa Red anchored design and placemaking for several groups of residents, community
artists, and university students in South Los Angeles for over 2 years. The authors of this article
include members from several of these groups, reflecting the participatory design process.
Sankofa Red’s bold colors and lighting evoked the Afrofuturist art movement (Womack, 2013)
as a form of local innovation. Yet, the object only became a part of placemaking campaigns
through the efforts of the design collective to iterate on the object and adapt it for each site.
This adaptive approach, we argue, is a model for more sustainable digital placemaking involving
urban furniture.
Figure 1. The pay phone design at three sites: music activation by a neighborhood DJ in the Leimert Park
‘People Plaza’ (left), oral history playing and recording at the SKIN art exhibit (center), and at an outdoor game
festival with the Mayor of Culver City (right).
Stokes et al. 3
The adaptive challenge: Sustained placemaking
As placemaking becomes more digital, new frameworks are needed to ensure that urban furniture
can be adapted to different places. Localization depends on fitting to local culture, community
identity, and the needs of each place. Close alignment with local assets and problems is particularly
important to address the complex trade-offs of the so-called wicked problems (Buchanan, 1992)
like entrenched neighborhood poverty (Sampson, 2012), spatialized racism, and historic neglect.
Localization can also cost time and money. It would be unreasonable to ask all neighborhoods to
create entirely new urban furniture with distinct software to perfectly express local culture and tap
into local assets. Many communities lack access to engineering talent for programming, and
physical objects are difficult to sculpt and wire for digital placemaking. A more sustainable and
equitable approach might be to repurpose and adapt successful objects. This study investigates how
urban furniture can be sustainably adapted by asking:
RQ1: Adaptable objects: To what extent can urban furniture be reconfigured and adapted to
different placemaking projects?
Adaptation as a local process may require the participation of local stakeholders. Especially for
community empowerment, participatory approaches writ large continue to gain traction in both
urban planning and technology design (Gurstein, 2007; Horelli, 2013; Simonsen and Robertson,
2012). Local stakeholders also bring local definitions of the problem and priorities for moving
forward (DiSalvo et al., 2014; Le Dantec and DiSalvo, 2013). Yet, it is often hard to sustain local
participation in design, especially when facing technical barriers. A promising line of research
investigates how umbrella groups, sometimes called design publics (Le Dantec and DiSalvo,
2013), can retain sociotechnical expertise around a shared sense of the problem. Similarly, research
on sociotechnical ‘innovation networks’ (e.g. Jarrahi and Sawyer, 2019) has shown that innovation
depends not only on the technological artifact but also on persistent visions and organized net-
works. This leads us to ask:
RQ2: Adaptive groups: How might design groups and collectives be crafted to persist
beyond a single placemaking installation?
Case approach: Travels of a storytelling pay phone
To investigate adaptability, this study traces the travels of Sankofa Red across several neighbor-
hood placemaking installations. In its first incarnation, Sankofa Red helped a predominantly Black
neighborhood convert a car-centered street into a pedestrian plaza. A second time, Sankofa Red
was installed in an art gallery to record personal stories about race from across a large city. In a
third version, Sankofa Red anchored an urban history game in a predominantly White neighbor-
hood. Across its travels, our two research questions on adaptation guided our search for gen-
eralizable lessons for placemaking with urban furniture.
The authors of this article were involved throughout the participatory design process, from the
initial inspiration to the framing of a collaborative practice and the successive re-envisioning
of deployment. As a method, participatory design seeks greater insights through mutual learning
and co-realization (Bratteteig et al., 2013), with deliberate effort to embed reflection to counter-
balance the diminished independence of observations. Separate observations and interviews were
4Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies XX(X)
conducted for each installation. Perhaps most importantly for sharing power and balancing per-
spectives, this article was co-authored with community members, project artists, graduate students,
and university academics.
A neighborhood facing change
Leimert Park is a small Los Angeles neighborhood (1.2 mi
2
/3.1 km
2
) with one of the largest
concentrations of Black residents (80%) in the city, from many diasporas.
1
The neighborhood
stands out as a cultural beacon for Black culture and arts. Black people initially settled there
through housing covenants that forced them south of the city’s historic core. It has since been home
to Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, and former Mayor Tom Bradley (Exum and Guiza-Leimert, 2012:
9). Youth are a constant presence, attracted to emerging and inexpensive art, music, and open
space. However, the cultural core of the neighborhood is threatened over the next decade by
projected growth and gentrification (Kaplan, 2013), including the imminent arrival of its first
subway stop. Many residents fear redevelopment by outsiders and seek to chart a course forward
with local and community benefits.
An aging phone
The initial design formed in Leimert Park around an aging, broken, and vandalized pay phone.
The appropriation of old technologies by underserved communities (Eglash, 2004) is a promising
strategy for empowerment. In this case, the resurrection of the pay phone was increasingly ima-
gined as a ‘cultural sentinel,’ visibly positioned in public space, able to play neighborhood audio
stories, and reinforce local identity. Broader movements like tactical urbanism (Lydon et al., 2015)
and the ‘right to the city’ (Foth et al., 2015) increasingly embrace local designs through their own
(often confrontational) stances toward top-down power centers of urban planning. In some cases,
single design ‘Things’ have been the center of these movements – such as the parklet-from-parking
spot takeovers that spread across cities through ‘Parking Day’ events (including as part of open-
source urbanism by Bradley, 2015). Could a pay phone in Leimert Park spur similar change and
placemaking in the neighborhood?
Umbrella group: The Leimert phone company
Through a half-dozen workshops, a persistent group began to emerge, testing out various designs
on more than 10 discarded pay phones they had purchased at auction. This group started calling
themselves the Leimert Phone Company (LPC), with a deliberately broad mission to ‘rethink the
pay phone.’ The group functioned as an umbrella design collective, organizing successive
implementations and providing an overarching identity to sustain the associational and networked
basis for design across multiple sites. (Most of the LPC founders are included as co-authors of this
article; see ‘triangulating’ below.)
The LPC mascot and logo depicts the Sankofa, a mythical Ghanaian bird that flies to the future
while looking toward the past (Figure 2). The Sankofa helped to anchor the group’s concern with
local Black cultural practices and ideals, respecting history while innovating. The symbolism of
the Sankofa also helped the group to design in the tradition of Afrofuturism, a culture-centered
approach to speculative futures and new technologies that decolonizes dominant technological
narratives and stakes out space for more Afrocentric social dynamics and cosmologies. Black
Stokes et al. 5
cultural logics also enriched our practice and amplified our design collaborative’s concern with
values-driven placemaking. Co-design workshops to adapt the pay phone involved a blend of
community members and university students and faculty. Multiple artists from Leimert Park were
involved, from muralists to videographers, as well as technologists and welders. The primary
artifact to emerge from the 6-month development process was Sankofa Red.
Triangulating across sites
By analyzing how Sankofa Red moved across three different neighborhoods, in this article, we
trace how mobility in the design process built social capacity (i.e. RQ2). The iterative design and
travel can be understood as research ‘in the street’ (March and Raijmakers, 2008) to better
understand how placemaking might be improved through adaptation.
Adaptation 1: Converting a street into a pedestrian plaza
Sankofa Red anchored a 1-day demonstration of a proposed community square, with ripple effects
that included substantial government funding. As a placemaking demonstration, a short block in
Leimert Park was closed to cars for a weekend, turning a street into a pedestrian plaza with
multiple cultural installations. The block already included iconic architectural elements of Leimert
Park, a historic theater, and a large water fountain.
The pretext for this first installation was a citywide competition: the ‘People Street’ program
that invited community groups to ‘transform underused areas of L.A.’s largest public asset – our
7,500 miles of city streets – into active, vibrant, and accessible public space’ (City of Los Angeles,
California, n.d.). Sankofa Red was featured as the product of community-based design and framed
as a new community asset. It served as an evocative object, providing a glimpse of possible
Afrofuturist designs for the neighborhood.
For the LPC, the outdoor demonstration was also a chance to encourage parallel experi-
mentation with other forms of urban furniture. Along with Sankofa Red, the collective invited a
university class to reinvent a bench, a newspaper box, an advertising display, and a planter, turning
them into platforms for community interaction (Baumann et al., 2016). Inspired by tactical
urbanism (Lydon et al., 2015) in particular, the group received a permit to close the street to cars
Figure 2. The logo for the Leimert Phone Company, courtesy of the authors.
6Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies XX(X)
and invite pedestrians – from local politicians to community members and city officials – to a street
party to imagine a different future for this street.
For longer term placemaking, the goal was to secure a more permanent pedestrian plaza for
Leimert Park, creating a safe space to connect the central park to local shops and the community art
center. The park already served as the site of art festivals, drum circles, food vendors, and
important political gatherings – such as protests during the 1980s South African Apartheid and the
1992 LA Rebellion (Exum and Guiza-Leimert, 2012). Yet this central area was also surrounded by
fast-moving boulevards on either side of the park, where drivers often make sharp turns to shortcut
through the neighborhood. With a more permanent closure, the pilot streetscape sought to address
traffic concerns while maintaining a cultural sense of place.
During the event, Sankofa Red’s internal computer provided listeners with stories of its origins.
It also served as a music box and public address system for performances and announcements
about the ‘People Street’ proposal. Signatures were collected in support of the more permanent
pedestrian plaza. During one day, 93 signatures were collected; soon after, 124 more residents
signed online, continuing the dual attention to digital and in-person channels. As part of the
subsequent application to the city, the authors participated in an effort to gather letters of support
from local businesses (arts/crafts shops, galleries, a martial arts school, and a food co-op) and
institutions (Business Improvement District, Stakeholders Organizations, and LA City Council).
The letter collecting served to deepen the LPC’s presence in the community and further connect
stakeholders in their placemaking.
Ultimately, the signatures and community event helped convince the City of LA[AQ4] to select
the plaza proposal for implementation. (Three proposals were selected across the city from a pool
of several dozen.) That street section is now permanently closed to car traffic and has become a
vibrant community space hosting dozens of activities every week – from outdoor theater and live
concerts to weekly markets and dance classes. Community artists were enlisted to decorate its
pavement with Ghanaian Adinkra symbols, among which the Sankofa features prominently
(Kuwornu-Adjaottor et al., 2016). By positioning Sankofa Red in the larger neighborhood cam-
paign, the LCP helped secure funding to boost local capacity and achieve much-needed infra-
structural changes in the neighborhood.
Adaptation 2: Art exhibit
As a second installation, Sankofa Red was invited to be one of the 36 art pieces featured in a
prominent Los Angeles art show on race and identity several miles away from Leimert Park (SKIN
exhibition, Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, 2016
2
). The opening night was an important
moment of visibility for the LPC design collective. In this adaptation, Sankofa Red collected oral
histories on race and the wider city by asking visitors: ‘When was the first time you realized that
your skin had color?’ Participants called in to record salient experiences in their own life that made
them aware of the social dynamics of racism. Beyond the physical object, the design provoked a
dialogue on race and retained participants’ voices. Dozens of intensely personal stories were
gathered (e.g., ‘back then, it was Jim Crow law ...and my parents sat me down to tell me about the
do’s and the don’ts ...’). The messages were archived, with selected stories republished to
Sankofa Red and made accessible for future gallery visitors.
Travel raises questions for ethical placemaking, especially when design objects like urban
furniture are seen as ‘representing’ the neighborhood’s identity and telling a story about the
participants. Yet the opportunity to share a neighborhood identity can also be a positive way to
Stokes et al. 7
justify travel, especially when marginalized neighborhoods like Leimert Park seek to host a larger
conversation across the city.
The art show was broadly structured around issues of race and was intended to spark con-
versation – in the words of the organizers, to ‘inspire[e] dialogue about race and identity, while
challenging the very definitions.’ Since the 1990s, there has been an increasing ‘social turn’ in the
arts to create collaborative, contextual, and noncommodity-based art (Bishop, 2012). Mirroring the
participatory process that produced Sankofa Red, the installation gathered public input and
avoided positioning the designers and artists as sole experts. The audio approach retained the
intimacy of listening to others’ voices, while simultaneously asserting a polyvocal network.
Moving Sankofa Red from a community space to a traditional gallery also provoked interesting
conversations on the value of digital participation.
Despite the increasing trend toward ‘dialogical art’ (Kester, 2004[AQ5]), the institutional frame
of art galleries remains largely built around fixed art objects. The gallery’s accompanying wall
plaque listed the invited artist (just one of our co-founders) and the two collaborators who initially
fabricated the physical elements of Sankofa Red, describing the object as ‘mixed media; 8 33
feet.’ The plaque did not list the collaborators who programmed and recorded the content, nor the
larger collective that initially developed the design, nor did it give any indication that gallery
visitors were expected to interact with it.
For our design collective, the Gallery’s preference for single-artist works stood as a threat to
recognizing Sankofa Red’s social capacity and interactive potential. The plaque in particular
sparked debate within the collective, eventually resulting in a demand to reflect the group as a
collective. The organizers agreed to replace the plaque with a new one, prominently listing
‘The LPC’ as the piece’s author, above several artist names that the collective chose to highlight,
though without changing the description. The back-and-forth revealed some important lessons for
maintaining our umbrella collective. In particular, we needed to permit and even encourage
diverging views about each design installation – a multiplicity that design scholars have embraced
as ‘agonistic pluralism’ (DiSalvo, 2010). As DiSalvo noted, agonistic design embraces many
conflicts as potentially productive for revealing power relationships and sustaining participation,
rather than smoothing over problematics for the sake of consensus. Digital approaches to place-
making can support such pluralism better than traditional fixed objects by supporting multiple
experiences. The process of travel can also build self-awareness of the group’s own network
structure and make it easier to sustain the collective across sites.
Adaptation 3: Launching a street game
Several neighborhoods away from Leimert Park, the yearly IndieCade – one of the most prominent
festivals for independent games – was taking place in Culver City, California. We adapted Sankofa
Red to serve as the starting point for a street game about the history and neighborhood culture of
Culver City, called Sankofa Says. The design team wanted to test the game with the festival’s
substantial number of visitors. The game was also seen as a way to help city officials a place-
making problem: because visitors rarely explored beyond the bounds of the festival site, they failed
to engage with neighborhood culture and history. The desire to make history salient appealed to the
values of the LPC. At the same time, new collaborators were needed and uncovered, such as the
Culver City Historical Society.
The game rewarded crowds of players for taking ‘group challenges’ at major landmarks, public
art installations, and a series of existing local pay phones. The larger the crowd, the more points
8Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies XX(X)
each person received. Each challenge had an individual and group component involving phones.
First, participants dialed a hotline, learned about the site they were visiting, and responded to trivia
questions about that place’s history. Second, participants huddled for a group photo, typically
referencing some history from that site by reenacting a historic event or film scene that took place
there. As an interactive sculpture, Sankofa Red was important for recruiting players to join.
Its loudspeaker blared as staff took the mic, rapped, and asked festival attendees to sign up.
The oversized presence of Sankofa Red – both physically and auditorily – attracted curious
onlookers. When they picked up the handset, they heard an audio recording inviting them to learn
more about the design team.
The pay phone theme continued throughout the game. Two of the landmarks featured working
pay phones in Culver City that required quarters to play. One served as the gathering spot for what
local news outlets insist is the ‘World’s Smallest Main Street’ (Newton, 2012) next to an antique
store. Use of the pay phone was built into the game, since the hotline only gave the audio
instructions for that landmark if the caller ID was from that pay phone. Mixing old pay phones with
the history of Culver City embodied the idea of living history and extended the symbolic presence
of Sankofa Red to its sister-pay phones in the wild.
Interactive games stretch the limits of what urban furniture might do. The young field of game
studies may add distinct perspectives to placemaking with urban furniture. Game designs for urban
space are proliferating, from games as mobile and pervasive technology (Montola et al., 2009) to
games that contribute to the quality of life for increasingly ‘gameful’ cities (Alfrink, 2015).
For neighborhood placemaking, play offers a distinct way to lower social barriers while circulating
stories of local culture (Stokes, 2020: 6). For the LPC, the insights from adapting Sankofa Red as a
game added new capacity to imagine and design around the social fabric; with games, such
thinking has been called ‘game design thinking’ (Stokes, 2012). Beyond the formal rules of
Sankofa Says, much of the storytelling happened at the edges of the gameplay and across tech-
nologies. More than 30 players directly engaged with the game, and several hundred observers and
peers were circulated the Culver City stories from the game. The game created a hybrid form of
placemaking by combining the accessibility of shared physical public space and the openness of
digital social media.
Physically, the game functioned as semi-open theater. Guest speakers could be staged to meet
the crowd. At one landmark, a member of the local Historical Society gave a short speech of her
own devising. Visitors from the original Leimert Park design team also jumped in, using Sankofa
Red for a spontaneous rap performance, featuring the built-in speakers and microphone to excite
the Culver City crowd about the game. More radically, the crowd itself invented antics to gather
attention. A strange chant emerged at a historic hotel – ‘Two to a bed!’ – reflecting curious local
movie history. One player had learned from the game’s trivia hotline that The Wizard of Oz had
been filmed nearby, and the ‘munchkins’ had been housed in deplorable conditions inside the
hotel. Some were forced to sleep three to a bed (National Public Radio, 2007). Bemused and
slightly shocked, players embraced the spirit of a protest march and chanted a mock protest to
demand only two to a bed. This form of play helped spread stories of place in Culver City and could
potentially spill over into coverage by journalists and amplification by traditional placemaking
groups.
Digital photos of the gameplay circulated in Facebook and Instagram. In addition, the game
automatically posted group photographs of game activity to a public blog, organized by Culver
City landmarks. These group photos ranged in tone from celebratory to questioning and even ironic
and thus provided the group some narrative autonomy even within the automated system.
Stokes et al. 9
Sharing stories has a practical effect, empowering communities by actively strengthening social
networks, enhancing the sense of belonging and collective efficacy (Kim and Ball-Rokeach, 2006).
True to (hierarchical) form, the Mayor of Culver City posted about the game on social media too,
sharing a photo and reflection. ‘History comes out to play,’ she wrote, tagging the Historical
Society of Culver City’s account and encouraging further circulation. By using ordinary text
messaging (SMS) and the player’s choice of social media, the game allowed players to pick the
platform that best matched their personal networking goals and audience. While the game allowed
visitors to better understand the history of Culver City, the playful nature of the experience
simultaneously offered local politicians and residents alike the opportunity to reimagine their city
through a kind of collaborative performance in city streets. Sankofa Red in this adaptation was
playful, theatrical, and a conduit for social interaction around the hidden history of place.
Findings as design principles to sustain placemaking with urban
furniture
Reflecting on the travels of Sankofa Red, urban furniture was a provocative frontier to think
through digital and hybrid placemaking. Rather than asking neighborhoods to create entirely new
objects, this study investigated how urban furniture might be adapted for various places and
placemaking goals. The findings below are organized using our two research questions.
The first research question explored how urban furniture could be adapted to different place-
making projects. The travels of Sankofa Red demonstrate considerable variation. In particular, the
‘digital’ side of urban furniture was adapted to place by embracing local content and campaigns,
amplifying neighborhood identity and history. With digital placemaking, urban furniture was used
to gather local voices for digitized listening, as seen in the art show. It also served as host to playful
activities that spurred new experiences of place, as with the Sankofa Says game. Urban furniture
anchored larger fundraising and policy campaigns, as when Sankofa Red served as a symbolic
anchor to muster community support and raise funds for a new pedestrian plaza in Leimert Park;
such symbolism is often central to placemaking campaigns. For placemaking as a field, the travels
of Sankofa Red show how adding a digital layer to urban furniture can widen tactical horizons and
adapt urban furniture to diverse placemaking goals. Urban furniture may help digital placemaking
to go beyond stories about a place to insist on stories that are embedded in place. Pairing tech-
nology with objects that are already legible to public audiences also provides a canvas for the
traditional paint and sculptural work of analog placemaking.
The second research question asked how design groups and collectives might persist beyond a
single placemaking installation. In this question, we built on established research that showed how
persistent design and innovation is supported through networks of group and associational
structures. In this study, the collective LPC formed before the travels of Sankofa Red fully began.
In particular, the associational branding of the group as a phone company helped to retain an
umbrella design problem around the longer term goal of ‘rethinking the pay phone.’ The subse-
quent travels of Sankofa Red contributed in each instance to immediate placemaking needs and the
persistent problem of how to rethink the pay phone. Sankofa Red was resituated with each
installation, reflecting the social dimensions of design objects in relationship to their contexts
(echoing ‘situated design’ and the concept of social material assemblages, Haraway, 1988;
Simonsen et al., 2014).
As a social practice, travel was a core tactic for deepening reflection around a coherent (but not
static) hybrid object – a specific piece of urban furniture. Travel also helped the group gain
10 Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies XX(X)
technical expertise around the core technologies, from the Raspberry Pi to cloud-based telephony
system used in the Sankofa Says game. The LPC was able to foster longer term participation in
placemaking by sustaining the production of site-specific ‘provocations’ without losing sight of
what Hansson et al. (2018) describe as the problems that bring publics together. Travel demands
coherence across space, both for the object and fellow travelers. As such, it offered a promising
strategy to sustain consistent design values across installations and sustain placemaking as an
adaptive process across sites.
Design principles (sometimes called heuristics) provide a useful format to convey practical
findings, including for placemaking. The idea behind such principles is to articulate simple rules-
of-thumb to guide future design (Sas et al., 2014), including for games (e.g., Schaffer, 2008),
digital interfaces (e.g., Apple, n.d.), and more formally as design patterns (e.g., Alexander, 1977;
Borchers, 2008). Below we express our findings in terms of several design principles that help to
generalize the model used in this case study, to better sustain the adaptation of urban furniture:
Support digital placemaking as a deliberately ongoing process.Traditional urban furniture can be
physically adapted for each site while retaining its structural form. Digital adaptation goes further
by supporting varied placemaking without changing the physical object. Persistent placemaking
can evolve while continuing at the same site, much as civic renewal is an ongoing process in any
democracy. Placemaking’s gains can be amplified by linking projects over time, such as when
Sankofa Red was used to gather stories of place, and later to play back those same voices for a
different neighborhood. Such linking encourages media adaptation with cultural recognition
beyond the cookie-cutter reuse of code. Across sites, the digital can support the accumulation of
stories about the history of a design, connection of placemaking efforts, and relationships between
neighborhoods.
Invest in collectives to build placemaking capacity. The approach modeled by this case study involved
an umbrella ‘design collaborative’ to bundle attribution with a flat list of members, with the
freedom to articulate who contributed to the latest incarnation. Naming it a ‘phone company’
(Figure 2) provided a strategically vague umbrella, echoing Eisenberg (1984). Forming the col-
lective around longer term design problems demanded extra work, such as the ‘meta-articulations’
of a design purpose that went beyond immediate neighborhood needs. However, we suggest that
this effort will often be rewarded; with Sankofa Red, the semi-fluid leadership strategy of the LPC
stewarded a more ambitious and longer term vision for the project.
Invest in ‘travel’ across placemaking sites. Travel is a sequential process that involves rotating per-
spectives across sites, as opposed to parallel placemaking with an urban furniture template.
Rotating a provocative object between neighborhoods offered distinct benefits to building digital
capacity for placemaking. At the group level, leadership must adapt with each installation. The
participants and publics involved in designing Sankofa Red shifted in transit, and the approach had
to be flexible enough to support those shifts. In the case of the SKIN art exhibition, community
artists led the project, while a game designer directed Sankofa Says. Rich reflections can emerge as
adaptation forces renegotiations and new conversations about group power relations. For digital
placemaking in particular, travel can also resist the tendency to centralize content into a flat
location-based database; travel separates installations in time and thus leaves more room to
encourage placemaking that can adapt in form (and database fields) to better articulate distinctly
local assets and relationships.
Stokes et al. 11
Reflections and conclusion
This article traced how one piece of ‘urban furniture’ traveled to three placemaking sites. For each
site, Sankofa Red was adapted to a very different placemaking initiative by a persistent design
group. For digital placemaking, urban furniture offers a useful provocation to balance the design of
the built environment with digital possibilities for shared storytelling and playful participation.
In this study, a pay phone created neutral ground for neighborhood artists, activists, technologists,
and academics to collaborate under the banner of the LPC. This collaboration supported ongoing
adaptation of the pay phone to multiple neighborhoods and placemaking campaigns.
Adaptation has its own limitations and brings additional responsibility. Especially when designs
are asked to represent varying neighborhood identities, adaptive designs can struggle to reconcile
their responsibility to earlier groups and uses. Digital placemaking efforts must consider persistent
design values even as they simultaneously open the door for new insights and neighborhood
priorities. Yet the ethics of adaptation are clearly more capable of supporting neighborhood-level
customization and local power structures than citywide implementations with a fixed template (e.g.
New York City’s pay phone replacement initiative, per Halegoua and Lingel, 2018). A clear
limitation is the cost and time required to customize and localize for each place or to selectively
adapt only the digital or the physical elements in isolation, rather than a more integrated and
holistic approach.
For placemaking as a field, the spread of hybrids like Sankofa Red that combine the physical
and digital may come as much through social movements as technology breakthroughs. More
research is needed to understand how broader social movements like the aforementioned ‘right to
the city’ and ‘tactical urbanism’ might play a greater role in similarly sustaining hybrid place-
making. Collectives like the LPC provide a testing ground for gathering publics around objects that
strengthen the sense of place and tell local stories, with wider adoption possible at the movement
level.
As neighborhoods consider digital features for public space and urban furniture, questions of
equity and sustainability become increasingly complex. Adaptation can serve as a design practice
to sustain multiple visions, renegotiate the publics involved, and bridge contexts. Moreover, being
strategic with travel can help to deepen reflection and placemaking practices across installations.
In the words of Mark Twain (1911), ‘travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness’
(p. 407). We found travel with one piece of urban furniture to be similarly valuable for place-
making, not only to broaden perspectives but to build the social capacity for collective action tied
to place.
ORCID iD
Benjamin Stokes https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3751-4828
Notes
1. See the Los Angeles Times neighborhood profile of Leimert Park at http://maps.latimes.com/neighbor
hoods/neighborhood/leimert-park/.
2. https://www.lamag.org/portfolio_page/skin/.
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Author biographies
[AQ2]
Stokes et al. 15
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