The city laneway is often viewed as narrow, dark, lined with rubbish bins and vehicles parked on the verge, tagged with graffiti, and used only for transitionary foot traffic. They are characterised as potentially unsafe areas, especially at night and if the laneway has inefficient lighting. These factors encourage people to stay away from laneways, resulting in laneways, from an urban planning perspective, being underutilised and often forgotten public spaces despite taking up valuable urban real estate. This is a critical concern in cities experiencing increased population density and the subsequent need to support equitable access to public transport, amenities, and services.
There is potential in reactivating existing laneway infrastructure to create vibrant, active spaces that promote increased foot traffic to the buildings that back or open onto the laneway, as well as facilities and services on the streets at either end of the laneway. Cities such as Melbourne and Adelaide have been successfully reclaiming laneways as extensions of shop and café fronts with outdoor seating and dining opportunities with good lighting, street art, and live music.¹ As a result, pedestrians are purposively visiting laneways for their inviting atmosphere, social opportunities, and sense of place rather than passing through to get from point A to point B.
Researchers Emil Jonescu, Eric Choh, Ahmed Hammad, and Khoa Do have conducted an evidence-based study that highlights an alternative concept for reactivating laneways beyond the current methods applied in the City of Perth and elsewhere in Australia. This study published by Taylor and Francis in the Journal of Urban Design is titled “Design of Virtual Infrastructure for Community Activation: Augmented Laneways Sustaining Underutilised Spaces in Cities Pressured to Densify”. Perth was chosen as the study location due to the convenience of the location for the Western Australian-based researchers and the opportune time for Perth to capitalise on the potential of reactivating laneways. Perth is experiencing an increased urban sprawl and density and an exodus of people from the city after work hours.
In Perth, laneways provide critical links throughout the city but are primarily used for drainage, sewerage, and service alleys. Reactivating laneways in Perth is not a new strategy² - however, the application of Augmented Reality as a design method is a novel approach. This study views laneways as an underutilised spatial typology as a case study in which to implement virtual technology as an activation design instrument. The findings position virtual technology as one tool which can be utilised by designers to promote positive social activity in laneways (and other urban areas) to reactivate otherwise ‘forgotten’ urban real-estate.
The researchers demonstrate how embracing virtual technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) can revitalise existing disused laneways as Augmented Space (AS). AS is defined as a physical space that is overlaid with constantly evolving information using virtual technology. This novel approach to rethinking laneway infrastructure is a cost-effective, adaptable, and agile method of activating ‘lost’ urban spaces into desirable place-making public areas without permanently altering existing structures - while retaining the original utility of the area.
The researchers conducted a multi-method iterative study to identify one laneway in the Perth CBD as a suitable location to develop an AR architectural placemaking ‘projection’ to demonstrate the potential for community activation of laneways.³ The application of AR and VR infrastructure can provide place-making and physical interfaces to promote social interaction in an Augmented Environment (AE). AEs offers architecture and urban design professionals and government and city planning policymakers the ability to question and redefine how cities need to be – and can be – designed.
The study undertook literature reviews, site and precinct analyses, and observations of 34 laneways in the City of Perth. A field measurement assessment was performed on each laneway to identify the laneway most suitable to develop an AR ‘projection’ proposition to create an AS. The factors included: ownership, proximity to residential buildings and mass transit public transport, critical node linkages, length, width, surface ‘canvas’ area upon which to project a designed augmented overlay of Dynamic Graphical Information, social interaction opportunities, and development restrictions. Moreover, alignment with municipal policy, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design principles, and Australian Standards AS1428.1 were considered critical factors in designing an activated, accessible, and safe space. Based on the laneway measurements and analyses, Prince Lane was identified as the most suitable location in which to implement an AS leading to increased community interaction and activation.
The researchers then created a theoretical AR design proposition to create an AS framework for Prince Lane with the aim to achieve positive place-making outcomes to revitalise the laneway. The AE design for Prince Lane considers ‘place affect’ to persuade visitors to visit and stay in the laneway through opportunities for information and social interaction, activities, and engagement which will engender an emotional attachment to the space by its inhabitants. By positioning augmented gaming activities at the entry points to Prince Lane, passers-by will be enticed to enter the laneway and have an experience that is exciting, memorable, and adaptable for all. Positive social experiences within Prince Lane will foster a sense of community, ownership, and territorialisation to form a collective sense of place and purpose, leading to a positive effect on the perception and reality of safety in the immediate area as it becomes an inhabited space that is well-lit and engages legitimate social activities.
Technology is increasingly applied in the Built Environment disciplines. Virtual technology is no longer a thing of the future but a viable method of architectural design, tool, and method today. Emil Jonescu, Eric Choh, Ahmed Hammad, and Khoa Do’s study proposes a novel application of AR technology to plan, place-make, and activate laneway spaces through design to connect people to place. Their Prince Lane case study, in Perth, Western Australia, highlights AR as a powerful context-specific location activation tool that can attract increased patronage via activation modalities, access to significant transport hubs, and connection to vital nodes. By proposing AR as a theoretical instrument and method to develop forgotten, underutilised spaces into engaging and inclusive urban areas, their research aligns with the City of Perth’s Community Safety and Crime Prevention Implementation Plan strategy and responds to the City of Perth’s sustainability, place activation, planning, and inclusivity policies. In a broader sense, the study aims to encourage architects and designers to consider the wider application of technology- both modern and futuristic - in Built Environment disciplines to activate space, construct ‘place identity’ and create a collective sense of place.
To read the full article, see Emil Jonescu, Eric Choh, Ahmed Hammad, Khoa Do. 2022. “Design of Virtual Infrastructure for Community Activation: Augmented Laneways Sustaining Underutilised Spaces in Cities Pressured to Densify” Journal of Urban Design CJUD, Australia, https://doi.org/10.1080/13574809.2022.2123788
¹ Australian cities such as Melbourne and Adelaide actively promote their laneways as tourist attractions. See “City Laneways” at Visit Victoria website: https://www.visitvictoria.com/regions/melbourne/destinations/laneways and “City of Music Laneways” at City of Adelaide website: https://www.cityofadelaide.com.au/city-of-music-laneways/
² The City of Perth conducted a laneway analysis in 2007 to assess each laneway’s suitability for change. This was inspired by the success of laneway revitalisation in other Australian cities. See “Forgotten Spaces: Revitilising Perth’s Laneways Episode 1.” Edited by Laneways Project Team: Strategy & Urban Development Units, at https://engage.perth.wa.gov.au/18304/documents/34471
³ This study was carried out under social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. The proposal considered mandated government requirements in response to COVID-19 which were fluid and likely to fluctuate.