How Miami’s new linear park is using ‘community-centric technology’ to bridge the digital divide


Just a few years ago, no one would have called the vacant lot below miami elevated subway rail particularly attractive, let alone transformative. But today, the city is reinventing this 10-mile corridor as a dynamic linear park: the underline. The park will feature walking trails, biking infrastructure, and local art, while providing approximately 250,000 residents and 9 million transit users with free, contiguous high-speed Internet.

While people often associate parks and other public outdoor spaces with slipping away technology, Underline is part of a growing movement to harness “community-centric technology” transform public spaces into more accessible, inclusive and responsive community assets, as well as bring the vital public service of free high-speed Internet and technical innovations to more residents. In a city like Miami, where more than 30% of households lack internet accessthe potential of using public space to bridge the digital divide is especially ripe.

the underline recent opening of Phase 1 in the half-mile stretch known as the “Brickell Backyard” offers important lessons about the role technology can play in transforming public spaces and encouraging more residents to participate in civic life.

Miami Florida.  The Underline Oolite Room and SW 13th crosswalk

Why incorporate technology in public spaces?

Public spaces have always served as centers to meet, bond with neighbors, and forge bonds with the place. At first, these critical functions do not seem to align with the role of technology in today’s digitized society, which is often seen as a driving force of social division Y loneliness. However, philanthropic and government institutions increasingly recognize the potential of incorporating technology into public spaces, not only to increase residents’ access to technology, but also to attract more residents to public spaces and therefore therefore, to the civic life of their neighborhoods and cities. .

Philanthropic organizations like the Knight Foundation have been champions of using technology to connect people and places and testing new innovations around civic engagement, weather, art and more in public spaces. In 2019, the foundation provided Underline with a $925,000 investment to create a technology master plan and hire a chief innovation officer and chief operating officer. The public sector has also been a critical partner, with Miami-Dade County, the City of Miami, the State of Florida, the US Department of Transportation, and others. provide funds to Underline for construction, park amenities, and features such as drinking fountains, bike repair stations, signage columns, and Wi-Fi facilities.

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Public and private sector actors cite the benefits of incorporating technology into public space as a way to:

  • Bridging the digital divide for nearby residents. The first benefit of incorporating technology into public spaces is the most obvious: By installing free high-speed Wi-Fi in public community spaces, cities can increase access to the digital tools needed to succeed in school, work and life. That is fundamentally a question of fairness because in cities across the country (including Miami), the digital divide disproportionately affects Black, Latino, or Hispanic households, as well as those with lower income and education levels. As long as broadband Internet subscriptions remain out of reach for large segments of the population, public spaces, including parks, libraries, and community centers, can act as a resource for residents to access the connectivity needed in today’s digitized world. today. Wi-Fi was not originally planned for the Underline, but Friends of the Underline’s community outreach efforts revealed that to create multi-modal corridors that truly connect people and places, they needed to look beyond the built environment. In a city with some of the highest digital access issues in the state, residents pushed us to transform the space into a new kind of civic commons that centers equitable access to technology as part of its core mission.
  • Measure who is using the space to meet inclusion goals. Investments in public spaces oftenhave explicit objectives of social cohesion to bring diverse groups of residents together, provide community spaces for social gathering, and increase residents’ attachment to the place. But these goals can only be achieved if all residents feel welcome and can physically access space and too many public places. failing to achieve cohesion and inclusion goals. For this reason, Nationwide Places Management Organizations have begun to use web-based tools to collect and store park utilization data (often drawn from observation and intercept surveys) and compare demographics and ZIP codes of park users to the city as a whole. The Underline is also using technology to measure the representativeness of its space, with particular attention to ZIP code data, to ensure that residents of under-invested and under-resourced neighborhoods access the park.
  • Expand who can participate and provide feedback on the space. Robust and representative community participation is a cornerstone of creating places, but too often, when planning or designing public spaces, community members are involved from the beginning of the project, but have little follow-through or repeated involvement throughout. Technology can be a powerful tool for engaging a broader swath of residents more regularly; for example, through free applications that allow them to give their opinion or through interactive data collection and mapping exercises. As such, Underline is in the process of creating a digital forum for park users to provide feedback about the space in real time.
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From physical to digital connectivity in the Underline

Achieving the city’s mission to transform the Underline into a new kind of civic commons equipped with community-focused technology was not easy. The Wi-Fi infrastructure has to withstand the harsh weather conditions in independent outer space, and our fiber optic technology partner, Hotwire Communications, had to install multiple different access points on the 10-mile linear terrain. After two years of construction, we were able to configure the first phase of the park with 11 Wi-Fi access points designed to cover up to 200 people per point.

The first phase of the park, a half-mile segment called the “Brickell Backyard,” opened in February 2021 and has since welcomed more than 1 million visitors and more than 120 free community programs. Friends of the Underline has also identified additional ways to incorporate technology within the park, including a new educational mobile app, Dig & Learn (developed by Miami Dade College’s Miami Animation and Gaming International Complex), which invites visitors to learn about the rich culture of the area. diversity, history and natural assets. We also hired a director of innovation for the park to provide additional capacity to advance our technology master planthat outlines future goals for the use of technology for climate resilience, artistic engagement, and other critical functions.

Miami’s journey to create a new virtual public civic commons is just beginning. We anticipate adding more than 75 access points throughout the 10-mile open space to provide high-speed Internet access everywhere and reach many more residents and transit users. Despite initial hurdles, Underline is proof that great ideas can be mobilized, funded, and implemented in a way that evokes positive transformation for both underutilized urban spaces and surrounding community members.

Photo Credit: Sam Orberter 2022

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