The park as a design space
My case study site is Wilson’s Promontory, a national park situated in the rural south east of Victoria, Australia. Whilst my thesis will broadly discuss the roll of environmental understanding (from a cultural geography perspective) in the design of technology for use in these types of settings, the “practical problem” I’m faced with is to make something for the park and it’s rangers. As an exercise it’s worth thinking about the space of the park as a context for design, exploring the implications this may have and distilling what aspects of this environment might be meaningful for design.
The park is a (semi) natural place
Most technology is designed for urban contexts, by designers with urban perspectives. As Bidwell & Browning (2010) explain, this monocultural approach to technology can lead to significant amounts of dissonance when it comes to use in rural settings. Screen glare is a common example of technology going fundamentally wrong in a natural setting – but other examples, such as the unsuitability of social networks for rural lifestyles, have also been explored. It’s important to challenge assumptions about traditional (i.e. urban) design approaches when moving away from cities and into natural and rural settings.
So, as a starting point it’s important to define what a “natural place” is. Bidwell & Browning give an definition based on two criteria: population density, and access to infrastructure. A natural environment, according to them, is sparse in human population and has limited built infrastructure. The park is an interesting landscape in this regard, because it has a combination of “urban” settings along with completely unpopulated, infrastructure sparse locations.
- The park has a small set of staff who live on-site in Tidal River (described as a “small town”).
- Most staff commute to the park from surrounding rural centres, and a significant portion of the park management and planning happens in administration hubs in nearby Foster, and further away in the CBD of Melbourne.
- Tourist populations fluctuate wildly, depending on the season, and (primarily) school holiday schedules.
- The flow of people to the park is therefore predictable, but consists of extremes that make it difficult to categorise the park as a “natural place”, consisting of sparse populations.
- The camping grounds of Tidal River have been referred to as a “small town”, with all the comforts and amenities expected of a highly frequented tourist site. It even has an outdoor cinema to cater for large, restless school groups.
- Highway quality roads provide easy access to Tidal River. Most of the frequented tourist destinations in the park are easily accessible by walking trails off the main road. Similarly, ecological research areas, and other general “areas of interest” for rangers are close to the main road between Yanakie (at the park’s entrance) and Tidal River.
- Walking trails provide access to a large portion of the park not accessible by vehicle.
- Mobile phone reception is generally mapped to the tourist population hubs, but it’s possible to get a signal is most areas of the park that are human accessible.
So, on the one hand we have a tightly “cultivated” area of the park – those most frequented by tourists, and heavy on built infrastructure. On the other, we have a largely preserved or “uncultivated” areas – where built infrastructure is extremely limited. It is at once a “natural place” – as defined by Bidwell & Browning – but also a tourist space, where populations fluctuate and infrastructure is at least as developed as in surrounding town centres. All the while, the digital infrastructure is not discriminating – cellular towers provide adequate coverage to most human-accessible areas.
Given this dichotomy of populations and infrastructure, it’s difficult to classify the park as either a “natural place” or an “urban environment”. It has elements of both, but it is truly neither. Is it right to call somewhere a “natural place” if you’ve got full reception on your iPhone? If it’s a particularly busy day, with many thousands of people in the park, do we suddenly call it “urban”, despite being surrounded by native flora and fauna?
Emerging geographies as a design space
Given the difficulty in classifying the park as either “natural” or “urban”, it’s worth examining the park as a set of different geographies that are not in competition with one another, but are complimentary perspectives that emerge through interactions between and by people (particularly, rangers) in the park. The previous two posts have begun to address varieties of these perspectives – how the movement and flows of rangers construct a particular perspective of the park space, and how the geography of infrastructure might act as an index to the knowable areas of the park.
Some further “geographies” that seem to be coming out of interviews and diary entries speak to the follow categories:
- A geography of emotions – How emotive connections are formed to the landscape, and the particular form of knowing this invokes. This is salient in the time surrounding natural disasters (such as fires and floods).
- A geography of administration – This was hinted at above, with mention of the differing geographical locations of the management of the park. There are those situated in the park itself, but also those in nearby rural centres, and the metropolitan central office. The flow of information, decisions, and people from and to these locations is worth exploring.
- A geography of indigenous knowledge – Parks Victoria is working on co-management strategies that incorporate the traditional land-owners in the management of the park, and are working towards ways of including the knowledge of the landscape with current practice.
- Bidwell, J. & Browning, D. (2010). Pursuing genius loci. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing.
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